Songwriting: Overusing Metaphors

It seems to be a slow news week so far, so let’s take a look at a spin-off question that arose in yesterday’s discussion:

Is it possible to over-use a metaphor?

Can we actually have too manyΒ songs about the Prodigal Son, Lazarus, the Ninety and Nine, or Psalm 23?

Let’s put it in more specific terms. Suppose a group has been going for seven years and has released five albumsβ€”and every single song on each album is about the Prodigal Son. Can one actually have too much of a good thing?

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42 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. You know I love the idea about Concept Albums. Maybe 10-12 songs about The Prodigal Son is a little much in the industry…but I would be an advocate for a group tackling maybe threading…The Gospel of Luke. Start with the birth, Prodigal Son and other Parables, Miracles, Scenes of Compassion, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and what Christ said about the Second Coming. That sounds broad, but it would be neat to take the listener through all of it.

    And it would be quite the evangelistic concert set and a captivating, interweaving storyline for the lost/unchurch person.

    • Oh, make no mistake, I love concept albums, too. In fact, it was Michael Card’s concept albums that got me hooked on music in the first place.

      In this era when songs are easily available as single-song downloads, it’s a wonder that artists who want a fan to spend $9.90 instead of $0.99 in a year’s time don’t do more concept albums. If the album as a whole is a unified artistic statement, instead of just a compilation of ten or twelve stand-alone units, then there is more reason to buy the whole thing.

  2. Do you think metaphors get overused because groups or songwriters pile on after a major hit by someone? Example: Tons of Lazarus songs crop up after “My Name is Lazarus” is a big hit. Instead of trying to be original, people fall into the perception that more of the same is better. Just a thought.

    • You are definitely on to something there. πŸ™‚

  3. Interesting topic. In your example, I’d say if a group has a song about the Prodigal on every single album, that’s an issue that the group or the producer of the group has let occur. I’m not sure that most of the major professional groups out there today would let that happen. They seem to me to try to keep things fresher than that as a rule.

    In more general terms, can we have too many songs about one topic? I’d say that depends on the quality of the song. Take Lazarus, for example. He has gotten lots of press in recent years, so let’s list some of the bigger ones of the last 20 years or so: My Name Is Lazarus (Greater Vision), Take Off Those Rags Lazarus (Nelons), Right On Time (McKameys), Four Days Late (Karen Peck and New River), Lazarus Come Forth (Bishops), and Bring Lazarus Back (Mark Bishop). None of these songs strike me as being remotely the same even though they’re about the same subject. Fast, medium, and slow tempos are represented, 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures, and soloists, trios, and mixed quartets performing them. While the subject may be written about a lot, none of these groups have more than one Lazarus song that I can recall, and each of these songs is strong and unique–and did well for each of them on radio, if I recall correctly.

    That said, I do think that because of my assumption of the Bible being the inspiration for the majority of gospel songs, and because I do think we can read a passage of scripture multiple times and God can speak to us differently each time we read it, I think it is possible to write and re-write songs about the same central theme but that are different and speak to different people in different ways. I think it’s up to artists to not bombard us with too much of the same subject matter, after all they have the control over what gets sung or not. I do think that there are certain aspects of gospel music that can be overused, such as a hymn in a bridge or a fake ending on a song, but I find that I don’t mind it as much if it makes sense in the song and flows well.

  4. I guess another question would be, how many times can a certain topic be done before one song is basically a copy of another? I could sit and write an amazing song about being sheltered in God’s arms, but Dottie Rambo beat me to it, so I might as well just sing her song instead.

    Perhaps this is why there are so many cover projects out there….maybe artists have had some good ideas, only to find out they’ve been done before, so they just go do that one instead of re-inventing the wheel.

    • Quantity is not the issue. It’s always a matter of quality.

      We wouldn’t even be having this discussion if Daniel had used a more sensitive subject for his example…the cross.

      Can we have too many songs about a particular parable or a particular miracle? Some would argue yes.

      Can we have too many songs about the cross? Most would say absolutely not.

      • DBM, the crucifixion and Resurrection is central to our faith. It’s not a parable or a metaphor. That’s the difference. πŸ™‚

        I agree that quality matters far more than quantity. But seriously, what would you or I do with a CD submitted with ten quality new songs about the Prodigal Son?

      • I remember having a song rejected once because it was too similar to another song the artist had just recently recorded.

      • Daniel,
        It would still depend on the quality for me.

        If it was ten songs that sounded just alike that failed to develop, then it would come under fire for a lack of originality.

        On the other hand, if it sustained my interest for the duration of the recording, then it would get high marks for taking a narrow topic and making it interesting.

      • I meant to add…

        There will always be “too many songs.” Even the best songwriters borrow ideas and phone it in at times.

        Sometimes they get it right, though. Lazarus songs abound, but one happened to come up on shuffle today that isn’t just another typical Lazarus song…”Giver Of Life” by the Hoppers.

  5. Love the discussion.
    Personally, I’ve nenver become tired of hearing songs about the same biblical text. I agree that to a large degree, it’s about the quality of the songwriting. After all, it is the “living Word” and I have read the same passages again and again, as well as hearing the same text preached from on numerous occassions.

    Southern gospel songwriters are so creative in their presentation and story telling. They do a great job of helping us see biblical passages from different view points, allowing us to feel the mood of those involved, the despereation, the celebration, etc. The applications of a text are endless, I think.

    Fniallly, let’s not forget how a writer’s musical interpretation helps tell the story from a variety of vantage points. I love how they connect feeling with truth through the way they create their melodies, harmonies, endings, tempo, etc.

  6. We can’t forget about the woman at the well. We don’t even know her name, yet there are literally hundreds of songs about her. I believe it is actually a qualification for being a full-time gospel group, to have a song about the woman at the well. It is a fantastic story, BUT, I do believe that there are too many songs written about it.

  7. Daniel, you are asking a couple distinct questions here.

    #1 Can we actually have too many songs about the Prodigal Son,…
    – I would say no, if we are speaking of the entire genre of Southern Gospel Music, or of music in general. Let’s face it, SOME songs are going to be, and indeed are, fantastic, while others, are horrible. But what happens? Generally, the bad songs go into oblivion where they should remain, while the good stay and enrich us.

    #2 “Suppose a group has been going for seven years and has released five albumsβ€”and every single song on each album is about the Prodigal Son. Can one actually have too much of a good thing?”
    – Sure, but they will have to suffer the consequences of their choice. On the other hand, if every single song on their albums were fantastic then people will want to listen to it. But I sincerely doubt that is possible. But, I also sincerely doubt this scenario is possible.

    I think the same question could be asked about sermons. I have heard the prodigal son preached in at least a 1000 different ways, I have preached it myself I think, so far 7 different ways. We have heard it from the younger son’s, the older son’s, the father’s, and God’s perspective, I once heard it preached from the perspective of the fatted calf. (That one was horrible by the way!) But generally speaking, if the sermon is Biblically sound, if it is well done, if the preacher has spent time in prayer and in composition, then normally that is going to come through. God is going to use it and I think people will respond to that type of message.

    On the other hand, if it is poorly composed, if it is full of cliche’s and trite comments, if for instance the preacher cares more if he can make words rhyme instead of his listener having an experience of God, of coming face to face with Christ, if the preacher just cares about writing another sermon or getting it done with, then well yes that sermon will be bad, and people will say I with he’d preached on something else that metaphor is overused. (Not to say that God can’t use it… God can do whatever He wants.)

    Ultimately, I think it boils down to three things,

    #1 Do I actually have something that God wants me to say. Or even, do I have something substantial to say?
    (Because let me tell you i am fed up to my eyeballs with songs that have “nah nah nah” and “la la la” as their main words.)

    #2 Am I capable of rendering that word.

    #3 Am I willing to put the prayer and the time in to render that word well.

    If I can’t answer those in the affirmative then I think the song, sermon, or whatever will fail. Because in the end, isn’t the question really not do we have too many songs about X, Y, and Z but rather do we have too many inferior songs about X,Y, and z.

    • You make a lot of great points, but I simply can’t get past the thing you probably suspected I couldn’t get past – the sermon about the Prodigal Son from the perspective of the fatted calf! I’ve been laughing for about five minutes straight trying to picture it! πŸ˜† πŸ˜† πŸ˜† Any chance a recording exists?

      • That should be the next Rodney Griffin lyric…LOL

      • Every time I read this I think of the Cathedrals’ song, “Come On In”…”Kill the fatted calf, make ready the celebration” etc. πŸ™‚

      • Yeah, but try re-writing that song from the perspective of the fatted calf! πŸ˜†

      • Um….no. πŸ˜‰

      • πŸ™‚

  8. I don’t think so… And if there was one made it probably should be burnt! It was truly horrible. There was actually Mooing in it! All I could think of is: how do these people listen to this guy week after week? It was a big lesson in faith! But I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say maybe it was truly just a one off bad sermon, I never went back so I don’t know. This was about 5 years ago in Indiana, I won’t say where to protect the innocent…

    • Ah! I had been misunderstanding your comment that you had preached it! πŸ™‚

    • Oh my, right here in Indiana.

  9. Ohhhhh NO!!!!

  10. Wow I just misspelled my own name. But in my defense, I am typing on a new laptop and these keys feel weird.

    • New keyboards do that! πŸ™‚

    • What kind of person can’t even type their name correctly (no matter the keyboard)? πŸ˜‰

  11. Well played sir! πŸ™‚

    • πŸ˜€

  12. Here’s the chorus for the fatted calf song:

    They rejoice because he has come home
    And God has saved a sinner
    He gets a robe and a ring
    And I will be his dinner

    Let it minister to you.

    • OH, MY! I should never underestimate the creativity of my readers! πŸ˜† πŸ˜† πŸ˜†

      Any verse ideas, anyone? πŸ™‚

  13. The verses will be up when I get a break…lol

  14. OK. πŸ™‚

  15. Welcome to the life of a Gospel songwriter! We grapple with this very issue and discuss it frequently among ourselves. Some examples that have been mentioned are ones we also mention…and here’s what our concensus usually is: If you’re going to write a song about Lazerus, the three Hebrew boys in the fire, or the woman at the well, you surely do need to have a fresh idea. Mark Bishop is particularly brilliant at coming up with a TOTALLY fresh idea (I’m trying to avoid “hook” here, but it’s a valid word) for something that’s been done before. I have a song about the prodigal son that focuses on the father…the hero of that parable to me, but I’m sure other songs about him have been written. I also think a song that focuses on the brother who stayed behind and worked hard with his Dad would have some merit if done well. As for Lazerus, well…I feel that after Rodney Griffin finished his masterpiece and Aaron Wilburn finished HIS…well, as my brother would say, for me to write a Lazerus song would be like someone drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa! That’s just my opinion for ME…not any of my other writer friends. As to the original question, can you have too much of a good thing when it comes to Bible characters and stories? I can’t say yes or no. The operative phrase is “good thing”. If it’s a wonderful song, and someone records it, someone somewhere will surely get blessed. One final thought…I like to write about folks in the Bible that have been neglected. I have a quartet song about Enoch that I thought some of my quartet boys would gobble up. Guess what – they all put it on hold but passed. And I STILL intend to write a song, Lord willing, about the poor demon-possessed Gadarene man who terrorized everyone – himself most of all. His story is more touching to me than anyone else whose encounter with Jesus left him radically changed. When I read the line about “clothed, and in his right mind”, I cry every time. Great thread, Daniel!

    • Thanks for the insight! I’d have to agree that a fresh enough perspective definitely puts things in a different light.

      I hope you are able to finish that song idea some time. πŸ™‚

    • I started a lyric about the maniac of Gadara a while back, but never could pull the thought together….. Maybe one day!

    • I can think of two songs about the maniac. Rodney Griffin’s “At the Feet of Jesus” off of Greater Vision’s Live at First Baptist Atlanta builds the song around him. Gold City’s “Since Jesus Touched Me” gives him a verse. You ever heard of that one, Mrs. Dianne? πŸ™‚

      He could definitely use some more songs.


      There is another one about him too.

    • Gold City cut “Loose Him And Let Him Go” on Double Take: Live in 1986 that has a verse about the Gadarene. It’s a good up-tempo song.

  16. Ha…yes, Brian – I DO remember that one. I thought at the time that I wanted to write a whole song about him. A little trivia about that song, and “Keep Me on the Wheel” which was on the same project. I wrote them both right at NQC time, and when I saw Mark, I sang them both right to his face and he put them on hold right then, and they recorded them. He is one of those folks who can hear the whole song with full harmonies and orchestration, in his head, just from me SINGING it to him. He put “Saved” on hold (and they later recorded it) when I sang it to him on the PHONE. More fun to sing it to him in person, though; I like to watch for that twinkle in his eye. πŸ™‚

    • Didn’t know he was such a hot topic these days. I got a song about him “finished” and soon to be heard.

  17. Certainly, you can have too many songs on an album or in a concert about “The Prodigal Son.” There are more good ideas and good truths to write about than that. We need variety in our music to keep music interesting. We need fast songs and slow songs. Fried potatoes are very good & tasty but I don’t want to eat only fried potatoes when there are many other good foods. If I think the music is well written, I like to hear and I enjoy several different styles of music about many difterent ideas. God bless.