June 18, 2024


I Fall For Art

Writing Lyrics – How to Weave Ambiguity Into Your Songs to Create a Well Crafted Lyric

Are you constantly trying to come up with new ways to keep your songs interesting and your ideas fresh? Yeah, I thought so. A great tool you can use to do this is ambiguity in your writing.

Let’s review some ideas on how to do this with a great example, in the song, “Use Somebody,” by Kings of Leon.

The Ambiguity of “Use Somebody”

Here are the lyrics, of the first three verses:

I’ve been roaming around always looking down at all I see
Painted faces fill the places I can’t reach
You know that I can use somebody
You know that I can use somebody

Someone like you, and all you know and how you speak
Countless lovers under cover of the street
You know that I can use somebody
You know that I can use somebody
Someone like you

Off the night while you live it up, I’m off to sleep
Waging wars to shake the poet and the beat
I hope it’s gonna make you notice
I hope it’s gonna make you notice

If you read through those lines, there’s an implication of prostitution, or at the very least meaningless sexual encounters. Lines like “countless lovers under cover of the street” and “off in the night while you live it up, I’m off to sleep” seem to bring that point home. These are ideas that would definitely lend themselves to the concept of “using somebody.” Using somebody physically, and then moving on.

On the other hand, even with all that information in the verses pointing to this meaning, our minds tends to gravitate towards the idea of “I can use somebody meaningful in my life.” Which interestingly enough is practically the exact opposite of the “use ’em and loose ’em” meaning that’s being implied. So our brains are already faced with this lovable contrast that makes use of this line so well. It really can be understood both ways in these verses. And this also lends itself to the idea provided in the lyrics.

If we weren’t convinced that our go-to “I can really use somebody worthwhile” meaning wasn’t at play here, we can see that it shows up strongly in verse three, when lines like “I hope it’s gonna make you notice / Someone like me” show up. Now there’s a clear contrast from the “use ’em physically” concept within in the lyrical content.

So they’ve done a great job of using a double, or ambiguous meaning here. It’s probably the reason they’ve named the song “Use Somebody,” even though the phrase “Someone like you” is the one that pops out the most in the chorus. Cool stuff. But what’s even better, is they’re not done…

The Ambiguity of “Someone Like Me”

Let’s revisit the third verse:

Off the night while you live it up, I’m off to sleep
Waging wars to shake the poet and the beat
I hope it’s gonna make you notice
I hope it’s gonna make you notice
Someone like me
Someone like me
Someone like me, somebody

Even the phrase “Someone like me” has ambiguous tones. What’s implied from the lines preceding it is “someone who is like I am… someone just LIKE me.” Or less subtly, “me.”

That seems to be the main meaning implied here, BUT it can also mean: “SOMEONE please like me, or love me. Please someone, anyone, just like me for who I am.” Do you see that? It’s a different meaning than what I presented in the previous paragraph. But it also applies in the lyrics of this song.

So the progression of the lyrics could be saying this:

(I’ve capitalize the words demanding emphasis)

1. I hope it’s gonna make you notice
2. Someone like ME
3. Someone LIKE me…

Or, in other words:

1. I hope it’s gonna make you notice
2. Me
3. Won’t anyone like me?

So again ambiguity weaves its way into some crafty lyrics. And twice in one song! Score!

Which is the RIGHT meaning? Or is it both? Cool stuff.

Ambiguity vs. Vagueness

As you saw, ambiguity in lyric writing can be a pretty cool trick, if you pull it off right. But I don’t want you to confuse ambiguity with vagueness. They may sound similar, but they’re not. Ambiguity has a clearly defined purpose, while vagueness does not.

Ambiguity implies open to interpretation between a few perceived options, while vague is just open. Ambiguity puts several meanings alongside each other. You saw how ambiguity works, with the Kings of Leon examples above. The best way to explain being vague is to reference Facebook, instead of a second song…. “Huh?,” you ask? Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this…

You know how you have that friend on Facebook who posts completely vague things, because they’re hoping to elicit a response from their friends?… They’ll say things like “wow, that made me sad.” Without any context. THAT’S vague. It’s a world of difference from ambiguity. Ambiguity has a plan. If you write songs that are vague you won’t be able to connect to your listeners. The proof is in the Facebook posts. So next time you write a lyric you think may be vague, ask yourself if that’s something your annoying friend would have posted on Facebook in the hopes of getting some responses. Notice your own response to it (or lack thereof). If it’s feeling vague, you may want to rethink your lines. Writing lyrics are about relaying emotions and conjuring up imagery that the listener can relate to. Vagueness CAN’T do that, by its very definition.

Ambiguity takes thought, planning, and a well crafted idea. Vagueness takes the lack of all that.

Try It Out

Writing ambiguous lines can be a tough one to tackle. It’s definitely not something that will come to you in every song. And if it is, you’re quickly on your way to becoming a world famous lyricist.

So what I would recommend would be to keep track of potential phrases that can be understood in more than one way. When you hear a phrase like this in everyday conversation, like “use somebody,” jot it down in a scratch lyric file that you can reference for later use. Then, when it’s time to write lyrics, you can flip through your phrases to see if anything lends itself to your current song idea.

Or, if the latest phrase you came across inspires you that much, just take a stab at making a song from it right away. You’ll always do best to immediately act on your inspirations, while they’re fresh in your mind.

Whichever your strategy, weaving this idea into your songs will give your songs a good chance of being very interesting to your listeners. And that’s what they’re looking for.

Next time, I’ll be commenting on how Kings of Leon chose to accentuate their words in the ambiguous phrase “someone like me” and how that affected the message of the song.