Songwriting Part 3: about "a" son / people are crazy, but they’re not dumb

Around the world Clint Eastwood is most famous for his brilliant one-liners, but, believe it or not, what made his career may have actually been the things he didn’t say. As an actor, Eastwood is known for blotting entire pages of dialog out of his scripts. In an ‘85 interview with Rolling Stone he explained “In a real A picture, you let the audience think along with the movie; in a B picture you explain everything”.

The same principal can be true as a songwriter. It’s important to keep in mind that a person’s imagination is far more vivid than your language or melody will ever be. Because of this, it doesn’t necessarily help your story/message/cause to insult their intelligence with over-explanation or ultra-simplification. In my opinion, the ultimate goal is not to simply relay information, but to actually draw people into the conversation. If you explain everything away, it doesn’t give them an opportunity to think along with you, and actually limits their ability to enter into a conversation.

I’ll give you an example from my own work (I know it seems a little pretentious, but it is easy because I know my own songs better than anyone else’s)

“Dress us up in the blood of a son”

I’ve seen several people reword this line to say blood of “the” son, but that isn’t what I wrote. Simply using the word “a” instead of “the” gives the listener a chance to ask themselves some very important questions such as: “If this is a son, then was he actually someone’s son, and how did that someone feel about the blood that was drawn?” They would probably have to answer: “the same way I’d feel if it was my son”. The conclusion they would hopefully come to would be that Jesus wasn’t just the Son of Glory (insert bright lights and cheesy white-girl vocals here); Jesus was also someone’s little boy. He was also a son.

Notice all the words I just wrote in that last paragraph in an attempt to explain a thought, when the more powerful explanation is still in the simple word “a”. It gives the listeners an opportunity to ask themselves who the “son” is, and that is far more important than the precision of my information.

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17 comments
  1. Ken said:

    Very wonderful indeed!

  2. I think that's brilliant. Making people meditate is goal of any good writer; because ultimately we convince ourselves of what we believe. Either under inspiration of the Spirit or for base and carnal wisdom, words will only become faith once they're filtered and mused over by the hearer.

  3. T. York said:

    thank u john mark. great explanation. thanks for sharing. I will pray that God continues to birth in you more great songs.

  4. Nanette said:

    Wow. yet again.I picked up your CD in Houston at The Awakening and Reformation Tour…and each time I listen to each song, I think….I wonder what that means….I really appreciate how you think

  5. Andy said:

    This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. Robert Frost was once asked to explain a poem and he simply replied "You want me to say it worse?"

  6. Uly6 said:

    Awesome, your way of songwritting is so original. it amazes me. You have been doing a very good job, I really apreciate your songs.

  7. Chris said:

    Great insight. And I think you do a brilliant job at this.I do think that some artists take this to the extreme. They make their lyrics or poetry so abstract that you wonder if it has any meaning at all…and maybe it doesn't. As you said, "Words don't exist to be spoken, they exist to be heard." So, if one cannot "hear" or interpret the message then why was it written or spoken at all? And, I know that the artist could be challenging listeners to dig deeper. Or like Lewis Carrell's "Jabberwocky" purposefully trying not to make sense. So, this would more apply to those who are trying to send a message but do it in such a way that hardly anyone could understand. If the words aren't spoken in such a way that they take you to a greater place of understanding then you have not accomplished the goal. Then there are the pseudo Christian artist that you wonder if they are covertly disguising lyrics about Jesus because of impure motives. Not to say doing such a thing is wrong in and of itself. I certainly appreciate worship songs that take me to a point and then let me go the rest of the way. But, I fear that Christian artist are afraid of being irrelevant or unmarketable if they sing about what's really on their hearts. So, they cover things up or speak in riddles just to make sure they can one day "cross over."

  8. It's amazing how much people perceive on a daily basis. Life itself is a complicated web of context and interpretation. I can't figure out why we try and dumb it down so much in the Church. Well, maybe I take that back. We make the simple complicated and the complicated simple. We use statements like "You just need to have a positive attitude about your husband having cancer!" or "Yes, you are supposed to disciple others, and here is a curriculum on discipleship that will line it out for you in 12 easy steps." Both approaches don't mean to assume that people are too weak/stupid to understand the deeper implications of life and faith, but it still wreaks of that attitude.So yeah, "a" is a much better choice!

  9. jonj said:

    i love this post. I'm a songwriter, and I love to keep things open-ended, and to create a sense of mystery. I'm a Christian, and I love God, but I don't think it has to be so in your face all the time. I also also think it's about freedom in expressing yourself. To the person who talked about pseudo Christian artists, I know what you mean, but I way to many Christian artists box themselves into fit a certain category. We all go through pain, hardships, we fall in and out of love, and I feel like that needs to be seen more.

  10. Abigail said:

    Brilliant! In a lot of ways, I think that's how God wrote the Bible, too – he doesn't explain everything; He leaves a lot of questions for us to ask and conclusions for us to come to, engaging us in the conversation of who He is and how we get to know Him. Thanks for being such a great and inspiring artist!

  11. ron8289 said:

    Great how an article can change the whole meaning of a line. Writing is a delicate art. It is so fragile to the point where if even a tense or an article or even atrivial punctuation is changed, then the whole feel (and sometimes the message and meaning) is changed. "The blood of a son" is a great provocative line especially for those who are "churched". For those in the church, to change the lyric to "the son" allows a the congregation to fall into familiarity and automation from hearing the same story over again. With your lyric, as you pointed out, the humanity is restored and people realize again that Jesus was not only God, but that He was man.

  12. My wife and I were at the Beauty of the Lord at Kempsville Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach. We were there while you were getting set up on Sat. morning, and heard you say to the overhead projectionist "A Son, not The Son" for Ten Thousand. My wife and I had this discussion that you just mentioned, about how a good songwriter can evoke so much more by changing one word, and just an indefinite article at that!Thank you for doing that conference. It meant more than you know.

  13. Danielle said:

    wow

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