As I’m sure you’re aware, most song lyrics have rhyming words at the end of each line. It’s so pervasive in Western popular music that you might struggle to think of a song without rhyming lyrics. Rhymes provide a linguistic resolution, or a kind of verbal downbeat. They feel solid and grounding and can almost magically add weight to the meaning of the lyrics if done right.
In most cases, maybe even in an ideal situation, song rhymes are nearly transparent; they provide the pleasant feeling of a balanced, solved syntactical equation and supply extra heft and authority to the meaning without drawing much attention to themselves.
When rhymes stand out, you want them to do so for the right reasons. First and foremost, it’s an impressive feat to say something truly meaningful in rhyme, given the limited options we’ve got in the English language, the finite number of words that rhyme.
If you can go beyond that by using a familiar rhyme in a novel way or finding a new, unique rhyme, and still be able to serve the lyrical meaning, then it’s a virtuosic act.
If you write enough songs, you’re going to use some familiar rhymes. It’s unavoidable. You just want to find a way to use those familiar rhymes well. When I interviewed Craig Finn, the lead singer of The Hold Steady, he said, “I don’t have a problem rhyming ‘bar’ with ‘car’—I do it all the time. But sometimes it doesn’t feel right.”
It probably doesn’t feel “right” for Finn when the relationship between the rhymes is too predictable or formulaic. For example, dance and romance or fire and desire are often paired to generate more or less the same meaning every time you see them together. But you can effectively rhyme even the most familiar pair of words if you find a creative way to get from point A to point B.
In “Last Blue Yodel” by Jimmie Rodgers, he rhymes “cough” and “off.” Not an extremely overused rhyme, but not unique by any means. Though I can almost promise you there is no other song out there that gets from “cough” to “off” in this particular way.
Well she rubs my back with alcohol just to cure my cough (2x)
Well I almost broke my back trying to lick the alcohol off.
It’s not just the uniqueness of how he gets from A to B, but the image itself, which is simultaneously endearing, pathetic, darkly confessional and hilarious, while revealing a speaker who is mocking both himself and the traditional braggart Casanova of romantic blues.
During the Tin Pan Alley era of American songwriting, an emphasis was placed on finding new, ingenious rhymes. George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” contains some extremely familiar and overused rhymes like bible/libel and daughter/water, but also the wholly unique rhyme (in reference to Jonah): “He made a home in/that fish’s abdomen.” Part of why this line works so well is because of the other, more familiar rhymes around it. If the entire song were comprised of rhymes this inventive and outrageous, all the attention of the listener would be focused on the acrobatics of the rhymes and not the greater meaning of the song, transforming the song into a mere novelty.
Too little effort with a rhyme can diminish the meaning of a song (those mad/bad/sad rhymes that are so ubiquitous they feel emotionally empty), and too much effort can distract a listener or shift the whole point of the song away from the greater meaning. It’s a tricky balancing act to incorporate rhymes creatively and in the service of meaning, but somehow, almost miraculously, there are excellent songwriters out there doing it every day.