Dr. Sarah Gulish is co-founder of Songwriting for Music Educators and runs the music ed publishing company, F-flat Books. She writes & records music with various groups and has had her work featured in film and on Broadway. You can listen to her latest original project, New Enemies, on available streaming services & check out her work in songwriting education at songwritingforme.com and fflat-books.com.
The Case For Cheesy Lyrics
I’m in my 16th year of teaching music at a public high school. I’m also in my 20th year of writing, recording, and performing original music. As a champion of songwriting both in my personal practice and in my classroom, I often find that students of songwriting struggle with similar issues when it comes to creating the “perfect song.”
Just last week, I sat across from a student who wanted to share a song with me but had to preface our interaction with the fact that her lyrics were “cringy” (they were not). After assuring her that songwriting is a process and that the goal for our time together would be working through and refining her ideas, she relaxed and shared her work with me.
This is not the first time a student has told me that they were afraid their lyrics were “cheesy,” “cringy,” or even “stupid.” In fact, I can’t remember an instance when a student confidently said, “Dr. Gulish, I can’t wait for you to check out this new song! The lyrics are absolutely brilliant in emotional intent, use of metaphor, and rhyme structure. Just you wait!”
Getting better at writing lyrics takes practice. We can sometimes forget this when we listen to lyricists that move us to tears or make our heads spin (it also doesn’t help when we hear interviews of artists who talk about lyrics just flowing naturally with little effort). While effortlessly lyrical prowess might be an exception, it most certainly is not the norm. There are books dedicated to getting better at writing lyrics (like Pat Pattison’s famous example). And, if you do a quick google search on “how to write better lyrics,” you will find blog posts, articles, and exercises to keep you busy for many months.
Today, I am going to unpack the concept of “cheesy lyrics” and share an exercise that helps my students get past the F.O.C.L. (fear of cheesy lyrics), or “cheesaphobia.” Note: this fear is not just attributed to young songwriters. I have this fear, too! And many of the adults I work with are in the same boat.
What makes something cheesy?
First, let’s define what “cheesy” means. Oxford language dictionary says that cheesy means “cheap, unpleasant, or blatantly inauthentic.”
Now, when thinking of lyrics, what makes them “cheesy”? This is obviously somewhat specific to the listener and can be attributed to multiple factors, such as life experience. However, there are seemingly some universal qualities we can identify as making a song undeniably cheesy.
In short, it feels inauthentic and “over the top.”
When we perceive something as cheesy, we perceive it as missing some core truth. The words are obvious, surface-level, and overly romanticized. They feel untrue at some very deep level. The thought of performing words that are untrue feels disingenuous. Whether it’s because we believe a “cheesy” sentiment is deeply impossible due to personal experience, or some other reason, the result is the same. We don’t connect with and relate to the message.
What cheesaphobia says about us as songwriters
As songwriters, we make sense of the world through our songs. Through stories, self-expression, emotion, and musical craft, we create bridges of connection and create art.
I believe that being afraid of “cheesy” lyrics points to two primary fears that many of us have:
-We are afraid of being seen. True love? Heartbreak? Loss? Joy? Confusion? All of these experiences and emotions are core human experiences. When we translate core experiences into songs, it is an extremely vulnerable act. In putting ourselves into our songs, we are asking others to accept the core parts of us. That can be scary! If others perceive our work as “cheesy,” it can feel like they are rejecting us.
-We don’t trust that music can connect. Think of all of the songs you love. I bet there are some lyrics that you would consider “dumb” or “cheesy.” But you still love those songs, right? There is something about setting lyrics to music that creates a bridge of connection that is unlike anything else. Even if your lyrics feel too personal or the emotions are too raw to be perceived as real, the song itself AND the performance of that song could transform the lyrics into something powerful and captivating. How many of us have sung “Don’t Stop Believing” at the top of our lungs?? If someone wrote that statement on a bumper sticker, I sure wouldn’t buy it. But at a karaoke bar? Count me in.
The antidote for cheesaphobia
Write cheesy lyrics. There is nothing more disarming than facing fear head-on. I love doing this exercise with my students. First, I challenge them to write the cheesiest lyrics they can think of. Then, we have a “cheese contest” where we swap lyrics and all vote on the set that wins for “most cheesiest.” Then, we analyze the songs we’ve written.
Do you know what emerges?
We write a lot of great lyrics. Disarming fear can often provide freedom in creative expression. But it also reminds us that, like other art forms, writing songs is a process that includes ideas and revisions. It’s ok if the first round of lyrics isn’t that great. You can edit! You can adjust. And you can discuss- “What do these lyrics convey? What are you trying to convey? Does it feel authentic? How can we choose words that feel more authentic?”
So, the next time you feel writer’s block because you’re afraid of what might emerge, take a minute. First, examine the core fear that you are experiencing. Then, journal about it, talk about it, and write about it in song form. Maybe that fear-based exercise will become your next hit record.