What Pop Songs Teach Us about Voice

We’re going to play a game: Name that tune. Can you name the songs listed below? No cheating! I picked a variety of decades and artists. See if you can name them all.

  1. You may say I’m a dreamer / but I’m not the only one
  2. A singer in a smoky room / a smell of wine and cheap perfume
  3. Hanging out the passenger side /of his best friend’s ride / trying to holler at me
  4. Gold teeth and a curse for this town were all in my mouth.
  5. We count our dollars on the train to the party.

What Pop Songs Can Teach Us about Writing Voice

That first song has a line which grabs your attention.

The second line sets the scene with sensory details.

The third comes from a song that defined a term for a generation. But it doesn’t tell us the [Urban] Dictionary definition straight out—it shows us through a scene.

The fourth song uses a handful of similes and other fresh imagery.

The fifth song characterizes the singer and her friends.

Together, these five songs show how important a unique voice is—and how popular a strong one can become.

How do you improve voice?

The opposite of strong voice is a generic, impersonal one. To create a strong voice, do the following.

  • Be relatable and understandable. (Don’t write in a way that the reader can’t follow. Don’t try to spell out dialect or accents phonetically.)
  • Use sensory detail that your character would notice.
  • Show what you mean using people or situations unique to your character’s experiences.
  • Use similes and metaphors. Revise cliches into fresh imagery.
  • Characterize through specific word choice.

Writing Exercise—Fifteen Blinks

Option One: Read this to find out what a Fifteen Blinker is. Choose five to ten specific words or images from one of the songs below and write a Fifteen Blinker using those words.

Option Two: Pick a song with memorable lyrics. Look up those lyrics. Rewrite the song by swapping out the words and imagery for those of another character’s point of view. Some ideas:

  • One of your characters
  • Romeo, the lovestruck Shakespearean teenager
  • A pothead (e.g. one of Cheech’s, Chong’s, or Seth Rogen’s portrayals)
  • A proper British lady trying desperately to impress her in-laws
  • A man who has been cryogenically frozen through several decades and just woke up
  • A seven-year-old who wishes to be a princess
  • A toddler

Want more writing exercises? See my tag. Want some critique partners to exchange work with? Join the community at StoryWorldCon. Want a writing workshop tailored to your work and your budget? Choose your course at StoryWorldCon. Subscribe to my blog for course dates!

Answers:

Click on the links below to read the full lyrics.

  1. “Imagine,” John Lennon
  2. “Don’t Stop Believing,” Journey
  3. “No Scrubs,” TLC
  4. “New Slang,” The Shins
  5. “Royals,” Lorde

I’ve been listening to The Shins for years, but I never actually paid attention to the lyrics in “New Slang” until today. As I referenced above, they’re full of great imagery:

  • Turn me back into the pet I was when we met.
  • I’d ‘a danced like the king of the eyesores
  • New slang when you notice the stripes, the dirt in your fries.
  • Hope it’s right when you die, old and bony.
  • Dawn breaks like a bull through the hall

Every time “Royals” comes on the radio (which is very frequently), I am awed by the fantastic diction. This was written by a fifteen year old: 

  • I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh / I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies
  • We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams
  • And we’ll never be royals. / It don’t run in our blood, / That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.

What song has your favorite lyrics? I remember in tenth grade English needing to bring a song in to share with the class. I brought Fiona Apple’s cover of “Across the Universe.”

5 thoughts on “What Pop Songs Teach Us about Voice

  1. Elaine says:

    I’ll play that game.

    FROM: A PROPER BRITISH LADY

    Well, really. it seemed so trifling as to be hardly worth the mention as far as the teenage waif with hair the same shade as a particularly deep puddle was concerned but her mother was screeching an emphatic refusal despite the fact that her father had allegedly already agreed to the proposed outing.
    But, there was no sight nor sound of her friend and, consequently, she plodded along it was as if her feet were slipping over remnants of her tarnished dreams until she reached the optimum spot for viewing the multi-dimensional package of sound and vision and tuned out everything wholly disconnected with the digital cinema experience .
    But the movie did nothing to lift her spirits as it was no more than a representation of her everyday life and the gall that rose inside her would have made the perfect ammunition for spitting in the faces of the idiots who wanted her to pay attention to members of the naval armed forces tearing into each other at a nightclub. Neanderthals. It was an absolute freak show. Then she was subjected to scenes where the Police were assaulting an innocent suspect. For pity’s sake! Will he even know his experience was made a spectacle for public consumption in a reality show?
    Is there life on Mars because, seriously, it must be less incomprehensible than here.

  2. Judy says:

    This is rather rough, but it was a fun exercise. Here is John Lennon’s Imagine from the POV of a 7-year-old who wants to be a princess.

    Pretend that I’m a princess
    It’s easy if you try
    I have all the power
    Now you can’t make me cry.
    Pretend this day is happy
    Cause it’s my birthday…
    Pretend I wear a crown
    It isn’t hard to do
    Shining gold and glitter
    A magic wand too
    Pretend that you’re a good king
    Instead of my real dad…
    You may say it’s a dumb dream
    But I want it really bad
    I hope someday I’m a princess
    A real princess can’t be sad.

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