When you write a song, think of it as something that will last forever. Sure, musical styles will change over time and that’s okay and expected. However, there are a couple of things you can avoid, lyrically, that can help preserve your song as time moves along.
Avoid Phrases of the Minute
A lot of times a phrase comes along that’s somehow really popular in the moment, and then it’s gone. At the very least, it’s branded as cheesy for the rest of eternity. For example, in the 90’s there was a certain period of time where it was actually socially acceptable to say something, and then follow it with “… Not!,” to negate what you just said. Like, “You’re cool… Not!” As lame as that seems now, there was a time when it was being said too frequently. We have Wayne’s World to thank for that one.
You may be thinking “I’d never use a phrase that lame in my music,” but you may not know, because it’s cool now. The rule of thumb is, if something became super popular, practically overnight, and has (at least) a bit of cheesiness to it already, it probably won’t stand the test of time.
An example of this happens in the Uncle Kracker song, “Smile.” In the opening verse he uses the phrase “Cooler than the flip side of my pillow, that’s right.” When the song first came out it already felt strange that he was copying a phrase of the moment, and it only gets more awkward sounding as time passes.
Using a phrase of the moment like this could work to your advantage if you’re writing a super catchy pop song that could be an instant hit, because you’re attaching it to something that’s popular in the moment. But don’t expect that to last. I also wouldn’t suggest using that as a strategy when you write.
So try to avoid phrases like that in your songs, if you want your songs to be timeless. After all, imagine how it would sound if you were still pitching a song that placed “… Not!” after a line of your lyric. Learn to be a judge of what has legs, and what won’t last. If you avoid clichés altogether, you won’t even have to worry about this problem at all.
The way you address dates and ages can come back to bite you later on too. Let’s say you have a song about going out into the world. If you used a line like “I was class of ’12,” that will get old fast. But if you said something like “I graduated last year,” it will last a lot longer. Granted that line won’t always be factually accurate, but it won’t sound awkward to someone listening to your song five years after it was written.
Talking about your age can have the same effect. If you say “I’m 28” in a song that stays with you, when you sing it twenty years later, it could sound funny (unless its inaccuracy becomes intentional as you age). Instead you can say, “I was born in (insert year here).” As long as your song’s not about being young, that will carry your age with you as the years move along.
The easiest way to address moments like these is to simply ask yourself “will this sound weird if I’m singing this song five, ten or twenty years from now?” If the answer’s yes, you may want to reword things to be more time-friendly. There’s always a different way to say something that can give you the results you’re looking for.
It’s harder to predict what will or won’t be cool musically later on down the road, except to say that if you’re copying a sound that’s super catchy and became popular very quickly, it probably won’t last too long. So the music end of things is hard to predict. But if you follow the rules of thumb we looked at here, it’s a good start to writing lyrics that can be timeless. Just trust your gut, and always ask yourself if the lyrics would still apply at a later time. Then you’ll be on your way.