When I warn people to avoid writing lyrics that don’t make sense, most brush it off. We tend to assume that our internal sense of what does and does not make sense will hold steady through thick and through thin. But the rigors of perfect rhyming, correct emphasis placement, and syllable counting can play tricks on our common sense.
While it may seem unfair to place such an easy target in my cross hairs, I will use the example of Katy Perry’s “California Girls” (I omit the idiotic alternate spelling “gurls” deliberately).
The beginning of the chorus’s first verse, “California girls, we’re unforgettable,” is unforgivably bland but can at least lay claim to the distinction of making sense. The same cannot be said for the second verse of the chorus, which sports the line “California girls, we’re undeniable,” a statement that is, to put it kindly, unintelligible. A fact can certainly be undeniable, a person can be undeniably something, but what the hell does it mean that a person is undeniable? That we are not able to deny their existence? Is this a trait specific to California girls?
That is not to say that musical theater lyricists are exempt from criticism. As Stephen Sondheim has pointed out in the past, Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics are full of vaguely evocative but utterly mystifying lines like “when the skies are brighter canary yellow” or “like a lark who is learning to pray,” imagery more reminiscent of a particularly vivid acid trip than, say, a tropical beach or the Alps.
One of the major characteristics that distinguish lyrics from poetry is the constant burden of clarity. The ability to convey meaning is one of the pillars of lyric-writing, and so nonsensical lyrics not only confuse the audience but also betray their medium. And if ever your skies are a brighter canary yellow or you are struck with the desire to deny the existence of Katy Perry, call 911.
Scratch that. The second one is perfectly normal.