Posts Tagged ‘Phil Collins’

Clichés Don’t Make the World Go Round, but They Can Make Songs Better

September 4, 2017

Ira Gershwin

The Word Mavens Are Wrong

Style guides and writing teachers say we should avoid clichés like the plague. They’re bad, hackneyed, and trite. They say clichés are crutches, used by writers who are too lazy and stupid to think up new ways to say things.

But the experts wrong. Clichés have all sorts of wonderful uses.

Assisting Thought by Evoking a Visual Image

Many clichés are metaphors. According to George Orwell, an effective metaphor “assists thought by evoking a visual image.”

The anti-cliché crowd argues that no matter how strong or evocative a clichéd metaphor might be, its power dwindles with repeated use. But that ain’t necessarily so.

If you say, “Mary is burning the candle at both ends,”  a vivid picture comes to my mind which highlights the possible pitfalls of Mary’s behavior. This is an example of an outstanding metaphor that doesn’t diminish in fortitude no matter how many times you hear it.

The phrase “you’re just putting a band-aid on that problem” is another clichéd metaphor which remains evocative and effective despite repeated use.

These two clichéd metaphors are still effective because, even if we no longer light our houses with candles, candles and bandages are still part of our shared consciousness.

Metaphors—Dead, Alive, and Otherwise

But metaphorical clichés will lose vigor as words go out of fashion.  For example, the expression “hoisted by his own petard” packed a much greater rhetorical punch in an age when people commonly referred to bombs as petards.

Sometimes linguists employ the term “dead metaphor” to describe phrases like “hoisted by his own petard.” They reason that metaphors only remain “alive” as long as we can picture them in our mind’s eye.

But what if I tell you that Larry, who’s a very casual sports fan, just jumped on the Dodgers’ bandwagon? Even if you don’t know that there was a time when politicians actually hired wagons full of musicians to attract voters, it’s still easy to see what this expression means. So, is the bandwagon metaphor, alive, dead or somewhere in between?

Not All Clichés Are Created Equal

Not all clichés are created equal. And the better ones deserve respect.

Of course, many clichéd metaphors are duds. And a bad cliché is about as effective as a screen door on a submarine.

I tell students that the best way to judge the potency of a metaphor is to visualize it. For example, try to visualize yourself “throwing some shade on someone.”

The cliché “throwing shade on someone” means to deprecate a person. It’s a lousy metaphor and it sets my blood to boiling every time I hear it.

On the other hand, when Victor says, “Yo, man. I’d loved to hang out with you guys all day, but I gotta bounce,” he’s employing a marvelously robust metaphor. It tells me that Victor is so active he’s downright kinetic.

Ira Gershwin Hearts Clichés

As Ira Gershwin explains in his book Lyrics on Several Occasions, “The literary cliché is an integral part of lyric-writing.”

Sometimes lyricists cleverly rework a familiar cliché into a song. Like when Smokey Robinson says “I’m a choosy beggar, and you’re my choice.” Or when the Temptations sing “Papa was a rolling stone/Wherever he laid his hat was his home.” Or when Paul McCartney asks: “Would you walk away from a fool and his money?” Or when the Who’s Rodger Daltry laments, “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.” Or when Ian Hunter complains that love has left him feeling “Once Bitten, Twice shy.”

Gershwin notes that clichés are an essential part of the songwriter’s toolkit because:

The phrase that is trite and worn-out when appearing in print usually becomes, when heard fitted to the appropriate musical turn, revitalized, and seems somehow to revert to its original provocativeness.

Putting Clichés to Good Use

Here are some examples of songwriters putting clichés to good use:

Irving BerlinI’m Putting all my Eggs in One Basket

Phil CollinsAgainst All Odd

Gene AutryBack in the Saddle

Los Hermanos GershwinBidin’ my Time

Arthur HamiltonCry Me a River

Waldo HolmesDon’t Rock the Boat

Cole PorterI Get a Kick Out of You

Sammy CahnHigh Hopes

Norman Whitfield and Barrett StrongHeard it Through the Grapevine

Neil DiamondLove On the Rocks— (Nice pun, Neil)

Robbie RobertsonThe Weight (Take a Load off, Annie)

Stevie WonderSigned, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours

Al Hoffman and Dick ManningIt Takes Two to Tango

Larry Blackmon and Tomi JenkinsWord Up

Aaron Schroeder and Wally GoldIt’s Now or Never (Music by Eduardo di Capua)

by Richard W. Bray