Should Lyrics Be Universal or Specific?

should lyrics be universal lyrics specific lyricsHave you seen Moana? Several of my family members have, and we ended up discussing a contradiction we encountered with the music – the music is catchy, but the lyrics aren’t or aren’t as catchy as the music. Mostly because they’re so specific to the story. But is that really a problem? When should lyrics be universal or specific?

The Pros & Cons of Story-specific Lyrics

Like many of my random, babble-analysis, I’m gonna have to define a few things. Not because you don’t know what they are but because my definition might be different and cause mad confusion. Or because I’m anal retentive. Take your pick.

Specific Lyrics v. Universal Lyrics

When I talk about specific lyrics versus universal lyrics, I’m talking about how well the song stands up taken outside the story. For example, many of Stephen Sondheim’s songs can be taken entirely out of context and still be beautiful songs. In fact, many of them are more beautiful separated from the story because the story is rather dark, and without it, the songs have a new, less disturbing meanings.

Here are some lyrics from “Unworthy of Your Love.”

I am nothing.
You are wind and water and sky,
Jodie. Tell me, Jodie, how I
Can earn your love.

The melody is sweetly lyrical. Put the music and lyrics together, and you have a sweet, pretty love song. You hear it and know that Charles and Jodie are singing about their unrequited love for each other. Bittersweet but beautiful.

That is, until you realize that it’s about two people who tried to assassinate different presidents singing their separate loves to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson (It’s from Assassins.). Not so sweet and pretty in that context, is it?

In that song, the only two words that are specific to its context and story are “Jodie” and “Charlie.” The rest are metaphorical, figurative expressions of love and feelings of unworthiness, which is what makes the song work outside of that context.

On the other hand, Sondheim’s “The Worst Pies in London” can’t really be taken out of context. It tells that it’s about a pie maker in London who makes awful pies because of a meat shortage. That’s what I mean by story-specific lyrics.

Think of it as explicit versus implicit. Story-specific lyrics are explicit: the story is stated clearly in the song. Universal lyrics are implicit: the story is implied in the song through more big-idea words and imagery.

Why Pick Universal over Specific Lyrics?

Because you can sell it to more people. There. I said it.

Ok, ok. Greedy capitalism aside, universal lyrics do have the potential to appeal to more people simply because they make sense out of context with the story. If you’re trying to spread a message or simply share your art with as many people as possible, universal lyrics might be more your cup of tea.

Why Pick Specific over Universal Lyrics?

If your main goal is advancing the story, vague details may not cut it. Especially if the character is having a major epiphany or making an important decision in the song. You can try to portray that through universal lyrics, but if you can’t, are you going to sacrifice the strength of the story for a single song? I’m guessing not. (I hope not.)

Which Lyric Style Is Best?

Assuming that you’re using the song in a story, the best option (IMHO) is to do a nice mix. If you can make it a little stronger on the universal side without sacrificing any plot strength, then, that’s great.

Compare Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go” to Frozen‘s “Let It Go.” “How Far I’ll Go” weaves from specific to universal and back again. Sections of it are very compelling and can be taken outside the story. Other sections don’t make a lot of sense outside of the story. And the universal ones tend to be catchier (so meter and rhyme might be involved, too).

“Let It Go,” on the other hand, uses lyrics that support the story but can also stand on their own out of context. To me, that makes its lyrics more impressive. Don’t get me wrong – “How Far I’ll Go” is a catchy song, but the island-specific imagery and language aren’t as catchy as the melody. At least, that’s the best reasoning I can think of.

What do you think? Am I totally off-base? Should lyrics be universal? Or should they be specific? Does it matter at all?