Figurative Language in Popular Songs
Figurative language – i.e. the usage of similes, metaphors, allusions, personifications and hyperboles – is arguably the greatest tool at a songwriter’s disposal outside of words themselves. That’s because practically every song you hear, no matter how unique its sound or performer may be, is likely based on a sentiment – such as love, depression, partying or boasting – that innumerable songs have been dropped about already.
So the challenge of being a music artist and a songwriter in particular isn’t only having the ability to craft catchy lyrics. But perhaps just as importantly, one has to possess the ability to reword well-worn ideas in a manner that is freshly-compelling yet understandable to the listener – a goal that can only be achieved, usually, through figurative language.
In this article, you will find various examples of how figurative language has been utilized in popular songs, via artists we’re all familiar with. It can be postulated that no style of writing depends on these devices as much as songwriting does.
So by the end of the day you will likely come to realize that many musicians, perhaps even your personal favorites, depend on the likes of metaphors and allusions a lot more than you may have presumed beforehand.
This is when a speaker or writer makes a reference (usually indirectly) to something, an event or a person. More often than not, an allusion is made to a popular event in the past or a famous figure. It can also be made to popular events that are happening currently.
This is an example of an allusion:
Tom was a Samson in the boxing ring.
The example above is a Biblical allusion since it makes reference to the legendary Israelite fighter from the Bible.
Examples of Songs containing Allusions:
This song is filled to its brim with allusions. It actually contains over a hundred historical references. These references include:
- Doris Day (American actress)
- Johnnie Ray (American rock star)
- U.S. President Harry Truman
- U.S. President Richard Nixon
- Marilyn Monroe (American actress and singer)
- Joseph Stalin (a former leader of the Soviet Union)
- Albert Einstein (German theoretical physicist)
In the first verse, Cohen sings: “I heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord”
“David” is a reference to David in the Bible. According to the Bible, whenever King Saul was possessed by evil spirit from God, David would reach for a harp and play it. The playing of the harp would drive away the evil spirit possessing Saul and make him feel better. This is what Cohen is referencing in the song.
“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” is the first line from the first verse of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”.
This is a reference to Psalm 23 verse 4 in the Bible, which goes like this: “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil“, for God is with me.
In the chorus, the singer sings:
“If I go crazy then will you still call me Superman?
I’ll keep you by my side with my superhuman might
In addition to making a reference to the famous comic book character Superman, he also references Kryptonite, which is Superman’s only weakness.
Onomatopoeia can be defined as the process of forming a word through the vocal imitation of the sound the word makes. A good example of an onomatopoeia is the word “buzz“. The word “hiss” is also another fine example.
Examples of Songs containing Onomatopoeia:
On “Super Bass”, Nicki Minaj sings: ” He got that super bass boom, badoom, boom, boom, badoom, boom, bass“.
When the rapper/singer sings: “boom, boom, badoom, boom“, she is basically imitating the sound of the bass guitar.
In the chorus, Kesha sings: “Tick tock on the clock, but the party don’t stop“.
The “tik tock” in the phrase is an onomatopoeia because it is clearly imitating the ticking sound a clock makes.
A simile is used to compare two things of different kinds that share at least a similar character. More often than not, in doing the comparison, either “like” or “as” is used. For example: “Their relationship is as solid as a rock“.
Examples of Songs with Simile:
In verse 1 of “Hot N Cold”, Perry says this: “You change your mind like a girl changes clothes“.
Here, she is basically comparing the way the addressee frequently changes their mind to the way a girl changes clothes.
There is a prevailing stereotype that girls tend to be indecisive in regards to what they wear, especially when they are about to step out for a social event or just meet with friends. They would therefore often change their clothes multiple times until they finally settle on one. In comparing the addressee’s frequent changing of the mind to this alleged character of girls, she is basically saying that the addressee is indecisive.
In the chorus of “Moves Like Jagger”, Adam Levine sings: “Look into my eyes and I’ll own you with them moves like Jagger“.
Adam is basically comparing his moves to that of the Rolling Stones’ singer Mick Jagger’s iconic dance moves.
The chorus of “Like A G6” finds the singer of the Far East Movement singing: “I’m feelin’ so fly like a G6 Like a G6, like a G6“.
What the singer is doing is comparing herself to a G6. A G6 is a very luxurious plane. Its full name is Gulfstream 6. The singer is basically saying she is as cool as the G6.
An alliteration is a literary device where the writer or speaker uses the same consonant sound in at least two nearby words. This is one of the most famous examples of alliteration: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers“.
Songs containing Alliteration:
Louis Armstrong’s 1967 monster hit song “What a Wonderful World” contains a fine example of alliteration. For instance, the song’s title itself is an alliteration – “what a wonderful world“. This phrase is mentioned approximately 4 times throughout the song.
The “w” sound that the singer repeats uses in “what”, “wonderful”, and “world”, is alliterative.
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” is a lyric that is found in the chorus of Joni Mitchell’s 1970 classic “Big Yellow Taxi”.
On October 27th, 2014, Taylor Swift released one of the most prominent singles of her career, “Bad Blood”. She introduces the song with a chorus, which begins as follows: “‘Cause baby, now we’ve got bad blood“.
This phrase is a good example of alliteration because of the “b” sound that begins the following words:
Personification is the process of giving human qualities or characteristics to things that are not human. For example, we have employed the use of personification in this sentence below:
“The trees are dancing beautifully in the wind”
We all know that dancing is something that only humans do. When we therefore say that the trees are dancing in the wind, we have given the human characteristic of dancing to a non-human object which in this case are the trees.
Examples of Personification in Songs:
Green Day’s singer Billie Joe Armstrong begins “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” with the words, “I walk a lonely road“. Then in the chorus, he goes on to sing: “My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me“. These are the two examples of personification used in “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”.
In the first example, we know that being lonely or having the feeling of loneliness is a thing that humans often have to deal with. So when Armstrong gives that human attribute to a road, he has basically personified the road.
In the second example (which is an even stronger example of personification), he gives the human trait of walking to a shadow (which isn’t human). He has perfectly personified his shadow (which is a nonhuman thing).
In May of 1984, Prince and his band released one of his most iconic songs “When Doves Cry”.
To begin with, the song’s title itself is a form of personification. The act of “crying” is traditionally a human characteristic. Owing to this, when the singer attributes this quality to “doves“, he has personified the doves by giving them a quality that traditionally belongs to humans.
Then in the second verse, he sings “animals strike curious poses“. A pose is something humans typically do. You are said to have posed when you assume a certain position to take a picture for instance.
In the third verse, we come across another lyric that contains some personification. Here, Prince gives the human characteristic of “pride” to “doves” when he says “even doves have pride“.
Ryan Tedder starts OneRepublic’s “Stop and Stare” with a brilliant example of personification when he sings: “this town is colder now“. It should be noted that in this line, he is not talking about the town being literally cold. The adjective “cold” used here refers to unfriendliness or the lack of affection. Put simply, he is basically describing the town as being cold-hearted (which is a human characteristic).
In the same verse (the 1st verse), Tedder drops another figure of speech when he says “every glance is killing” him. A “glance” isn’t human and therefore cannot literally kill anyone. However, the singer speaks of it as if it were human by saying it is “killing” him.
“Hip Hop is Dead” by Nas
On “Hip Hop Is Dead”, Nas is actually criticizing the current state of Hip Hop music. In his eyes, this music genre, which he loves so much, “is dead”. This phrase is pure personification since Hip Hop is represented as a human. Actually throughout the song, he cleverly represents it as a female human. For example, in the second verse, he gives Hip Hop the female human pronoun “her“. He also proceeds to call Hip Hop “his first wifey“.
And then in the song’s hook, he officially announces “her” sad demise to the entire world:
“Hip hop just died this morning
And she’s dead, she’s dead”
There are at least three cases of personification in Owl City’s “Fireflies”. The first usage can be found in verse 1 in the form of this phrase: fireflies that “fill the open air and leave teardrops everywhere“.
Clearly, the writer is giving these bugs human attributes when he alludes to them crying via the “teardrops” they leave behind.
“Cause I’d get a thousand hugs from ten thousand lightning bugs as they tried to teach me how to dance”
The line above can be found in the second verse. This is also another fine case of personification in action. Here, the speaker has personified the “lightening bugs” (the fireflies) by giving the human ability to “hug” and “teach“.
The final example of personification appears in the song’s last verse. Here, Owl City sings: “I got misty eyes as they said farewell“.
The key phrase we are dealing with is “said farewell“. The mere fact that the fireflies bid the singer farewell via speech is a clear sign that they have been personified.
On “Talking to the Moon”, Bruno Mars says the following: “I sit by myself talking to the moon“. Here, Bruno is basically personifying the moon (which is not a human being).
What is a metaphor? This is a figure of speech where a writer or speaker compares a similar trait or characteristic between two things that are not alike. The writer makes use of very imaginative and colorful language to describe something by comparing it to something else that has a similar characteristic.
It can also be defined as a simile without the use of the words “like” and “as”.
For example: “The night was a black blanket“. In this example, “night” and “blanket” are two different things. However, they share something in common, which is their blackness. As you can see, the comparison is actually not true in the literal sense.
Examples of Metaphors in Songs:
The chorus of “Titanium” finds Sia screaming: “You shoot me down, but I won’t fall. I am titanium“. This is indicative of her immense strength. She’s so strong that even bullets can’t hurt her. In telling her listeners this, she compares herself to titanium, which is a very strong metal.
“Hound Doug” begins with a chorus in which Elvis sings: “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog Cryin’ all the time”.
This is another fine use of metaphor. Elvis compares the addressee to a hound dog. And why? Because they share a similar behavior – they cry all the time.
The intro of Queen’s iconic song “Bohemian Rhapsody” finds Freddie singing: “Caught in a landslide no escape from reality“.
What this means is that Freddie has found himself in an unpalatable situation from which escaping would be very challenging. The line is a metaphor. And why? This is because the singer hasn’t literally found himself dealing with an actual landslide. So he is basically comparing the challenges he is facing in real life to the challenges of being caught up in a real landslide.
When a writer/speaker deliberately exaggerates something very extremely for emphasis. For example: “I’m so thirsty I could drink all the water in the ocean“.
The statement above is highly exaggerated and is therefore an example of hyperbole. The fact is no matter how thirsty you are, you can never drink all the water in an ocean.
Examples of Hyperbole in Songs:
The chorus of “A Thousand Miles” finds Vanessa saying this to her lover: “I’d walk a thousand miles if I could just see you tonight“.
This is obviously a massive exaggeration. In as much as Vanessa desperately would love to see her significant other tonight, we know it is impossible for her to literally walk a thousand miles to achieve her objective.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
In the fourth verse of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Freddie asks his lover this: “So you think you can love me and leave me to die?”
The truth is that Freddie would be hurt if his lover left him but he would not literally die as a result. He is therefore clearly exaggerating. But he does that to emphasize on the amount of pain he would have to deal with in the case his lover decided to leave him.