I posit that lyrics (that is to say, good lyrics) tend to fall somewhere between two polar ends: clever and telling. Clever lyrics can be found in their purest form in the work of lyricists like Noel Coward and W.S. Gilbert. No plumbing of emotional depths is even attempted in such lyrics, for they are dazzling feats of wordplay that tend to be sung either by the lyricist himself (as in Coward’s case) or by characters acting as a surrogate for the lyricist (as in much of Gilbert’s work). Simply put, the lyricist becomes the star.
Nonsense Lyrics, or How To Deny a California Girl
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).