What (bad) songs can teach about writing

Today has been a hectic blog day. Somehow between last night and this morning the plugins folder disappeared from my blog and all my plugins, understandably, stopped working. That meant that until I realized what was going on and was able to log on and disable comments, I was getting all sorts of crazy spam. Things should be fixed now and I’ve added a few new plugins that I’m testing out.

Today’s post is something that’s been brewing in my mind for the past month or so and I figured since I blogged about music yesterday, today would be a good day to tackle yet another music post. My apologies if you were hoping for some variety. I’m just happy to have three posts in four days.

Owl City has a song out right now called Fireflies. Other than the strange Death Cab for Cutie sound (for shame impersonating one of my favorite bands!) I have to admit that I kind of like the song. I say kind of because while I find it catchy and usually will listen to it if it comes on the radio, I also think it’s kind of, well, bad. And the badness is in the lyrics.

In the spirit of a workshop, before I start criticizing, however, I want to point out one line I just love in the song. There’s this fantastic image about fireflies doing a foxtrot above the speaker’s (singer’s?) head that I just love, though the next image of a sockhop beneath the bed sort of ruins the whole thing for me. A sockhop just doesn’t paint a cool image. Or maybe it’s the under the bed part.

In either case, the main issue I take with the lyrics in this song is the way lines relate to one another. There needs to be cause and effect not just two lines that rhyme. For example, the lines “Leave my door open just a crack / ’cause I feel like such an insomniac.”


I’m just not seeing the connection between insomnia and a door being open a crack. And the lines don’t even paint an image for me. It seems that the songwriter was more interested in rhythm and flow than actually making sense. You can get away with it in songs (apparently, since this song is a hit), but not in writing. Let’s look at another one.

“But I’ll know where several are / if my dreams get real bizarre / ’cause I saved a few and I keep them in a jar.”

Again, not seeing the connection between knowing where things are and bizarre dreams.

Finally, we have, “To ten million fireflies / I’m weird ’cause I hate goodbyes.” And I’m not buying it. I’m just not. I’d say the large majority of the population would find it weird if you loved goodbyes, not if you hated them. And even assuming, as the song seems to, that it’s the fireflies finding it weird, well, that’s not an image that I’m buying even within the context of this song. I don’t think of fireflies and transience, of making and then leaving different relationships.

So how does all this relate to writing? Well…you can’t do these things in fiction. Rhythm has to come second to the reader being able to track what’s actually going on (though you can certainly use heavy rhythm, even in fiction). Cause and effect relationships absolutely have to make sense–even if not in our actual world, within the world of your story. If it doesn’t, you’ve either made a mistake in understanding how things happen or you haven’t developed your world enough yet for your reader to make the jump with you. And you absolutely cannot make up your own interpretations of how a greater audience feels. If you’re going to tell me about big broad ideas, you had better back up your argument or hope most of your readers agree with you. But when the song tells me it’s weird to hate goodbyes? I call bullshit.

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