First Lines – what hit songs really do

If you attend enough songwriting seminars you’ll soon be stuffed with rules about how to write hits or even how to write good songs. Last week I got into a discussion at a meeting of my local NSAI chapter about first lines, and what they have to do. Since it was my first lines that were being criticized I immediately went out to gather evidence that my lines were good lines. I ended up writing this little essay for our group.

Here’s an analysis of the first two lines of the Billboard top ten country singles on April 20, 2011. I used these abbreviations:

  • 1st, 2nd, 3rd person
  • DMS – describes a mental state
  • DN – describes the narrator
  • DA – describes an action
  • DS – describes a scene
  • M – metaphor or simile standing alone
  • NV – no verbs, just nouns and adjectives
  • Q   – asks a question
  • Present, Past, Future

Zac Brown, Colder Weather, 3rd, Present, DMS, DA

She’d trade Colorado if he’d take her with him / Closes the door before the winter lets the cold in,

Darius Rucker, This, 1st, Present, DS, DS

Got a baby girl sleepin’ in my bedroom / And her momma laughing in my arms

Thompson Square, Are you gonna kiss me or not  1st, Past, DS, DA

We were sittin’ up there on your momma’s roof / Talkin’ bout everything under the moon

Kenny Chesney, Live a Little 1st, Past, NV, DA

Stressed out, running late, racing down the interstate / Spilled hot coffee, down the front of my jeans

Miranda Lambert, Heart Like Mine 1st, Present, DN, DN

I ain’t the kind you take home to mama / I ain’t the kind to wear no ring

Jerrod Nieman, What do you Want 1st, Present, Q, Q

Why’d you call me today with nothing new to say? / You pretend it’s just hello, but you know what it does to me to see your number on the phone.

Sara Evans, A Little Bit Stronger 1st, Past, DA, DMS, DA

Woke up late today and I still feel the sting of the pain / But I brushed my teeth anyway

Jason Aldean, Don’t You Want to Stay 1st, Present, DMS, DA

I really hate to let this moment go / touching your skin and your hair falling slow

Billy Currington, Let me down easy 1st, Present, DS, DS

There’s a little moonlight dancing on the sand / There’s a warm breeze blowing by the ocean as you’re taking my hand

Rascal Flatts, I Won’t Let Go. 1st, Present, M, M

It’s like a storm \ That cuts a path \ It’s breaks your will \ It feels like that

Most of the first lines are ”reporting” in the sense that they describe something explicitly. There also aren’t a lot of fancy adjectives, and in many cases the scenes described are commonplace – “got a baby sleeping in my bedroom” “we were sittin’ up there on your momma’s roof” ”stressed out, running late” “there’s a little moonlight dancing on the sand.” These are really cliches when you think about it.

The important characteristic of these first lines, I think is that even if the scene is common place or a cliche, but it opens a door and shows a little of something that we as humans are inherently interested in – two people in love, a family, a guy who spilled hot coffee on his pants on his way to work. Skip Ewing says the first line of a song has to invite you in and leave room for something else to happen. It doesn’t have to wow you, but it has to tell you that there’s something going on that should be interesting. Except for Rascal Flatt and Zac Brown none of these songs have killer original first lines, but they are all lines with promise.

Another thing I think is noteworthy is that 9 of 10 are 1st person narratives and 7 of 10 are present tense. Two of the others (Chesney and Evans) are clearly in the very immediate past and indicate that we’ll be talking about right now pretty soon. The most interesting thing about a stranger on the radio is how he feels or what he is doing right now. A stranger telling us about his past is likely to be a bore whether it is in a bar or on the radio, and so those “I remember when” songs have to be strong fast.  I’m not sure how Thompson Square gets away with it, but not everything can be explained.

One last thing. The first lines of some of these songs remind us of other songs by the same artist. Darius Rucker has had two hits about the joy of married or family life, and the first line of this song tells us that if we liked those, we’ll probably like this one too. The same is true of the Sara Evans, Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert songs. One way to hook a listener is to remind them of a song they already like.

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