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The Hold Steady shows the power of specific lyrics

Photographer: David Shankbone

This weekend The Hold Steady had a two night stand at First Avenue. For those unfamiliar, The Hold Steady is a rock band with influences like Led Zeppelin and The Replacements, though, as Stephen Colbert once quipped, they look like graphic designers. Led by singer/guitarist Craig Finn, songs by The Hold Steady are known to unfold like stories, covering themes like positivity, addiction, religion, and redemption. Finn’s lyrics are often set in the Twin Cities, with references ranging from Uptown to Northeast.

But The Hold Steady are not just a Twin Cities band. They tour around the world and are greeted with the same rabid fans that packed First Avenue this weekend. They kick out the jams, certainly, but it’s not just the music that gets the people singing along or raising their fists. It’s also Finn’s lyrics–as he told Pitchfork in 2005–they’re specific.

Like good short stories, essays, or novels, Finn includes specific details into his songs–like descriptions of characters and the names of specific places where the stories are set. Too often writers of stories and lyrics think being vague allows a listener or reader to put themselves in the writer’s world. I see it every semester I teach writing. But unfortunately, our minds don’t work that way.

Well-chosen, specific details give the audience things to picture in their heads. It’s those mental images that best help an audience place themselves within that new world, which is necessary before they can relate the song or story to their own life experiences.

Specifics are why author J.R.R. Tolkien went through the trouble of creating new languages–he needed to convince his readers that Middle Earth actually exists. Or why give those excruciating details of betrayal to our friends about what our boy-/girlfriend did to break our hearts. Those details will allow our friends to imagine themselves in that situation, even through they’re picturing someone else. Those details will help them empathize because the heartbreak will be more real.

The Hold Steady’s method of story-telling through song isn’t the only way to make good music, but it’s something for aspiring lyricists to consider, because what I see at every The Hold Steady show I go to is proof that it can work.

I included some examples of their specificity in my review of The Hold Steady’s Saturday show. It originally appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

MUSIC REVIEW | The Hold Steady create a sense of place at First Avenue

Last night, Craig Finn and the Hold Steady crew played to raised fists from a pogoing crowd. Chicago may have seemed tired, but Minneapolis was wide-awake and partying on one massive night.

Finn sings often about the Twin Cities—from the St. Paul Saints to the Quarry Shopping Center—so it seems like no wonder a hometown stand would sell out First Avenue and send their fans in a fever pitch. But Finn insisted to the crowd that no matter where they are in their world travels the response is the same, “because everyone seems to have a place like [the ones we write songs about].”

I believe it, because specificity makes for magic.

I teach that to my creative writing students. It’s a common misconception—for prose and song craft—that vagueness allows the readers or listeners to superimpose their own experiences onto the one-size-fits all words or lyrics. Unfortunately, it makes for bad writing and uninspired lyrics. Finn seems to understand that and thus creates such place-based songs rooted in the specifics of our fair cities.

Some examples from last night.

From “South Town Girls”: “Take Lyndale back to the south side/take Nicollet up to the Vietnamese/take Penn Ave back to the north side/take Lowery east to the Quarry/meet me right in front of the Rainbow Foods/I got a brown paper bag and black buckle shoes.”

That’s a specific trip; a specific meet up. It doesn’t matter if listeners haven’t been to the Twin Cities or even cruised across Northeast to the Rainbow. Those specifics make the trip—the story—real and allow those unfamiliar to relate with the drive and meet-up using similar personal experiences.

Or from “Sequestered in Memphis”: “I think she drove a new Mustang/I guess it might be a rental/I remember she had satellite radio/I guess she seemed a bit nervous.”

Finn’s specifics here, though not about the Twin Cities, give us a clear picture. We see this woman behind the wheel of a car not her own. The details—that she rented a Mustang, but was still a nervous woman—both advance the story and characterize the central players in “Sequestered in Memphis.”

Certainly, as with any rule in prose- and songwriting, there are numerous examples that break said rules. But given the incredible devotion of The Hold Steady’s fans, both at home and abroad, the importance of Finn’s lyrical specificity is never clearer than when so many were crammed into a sweaty First Avenue.

No need for stage props or a large, eponymous backdrop. Just tales of often-tragic heroes trying like everyone else to make it through life alive.

Last, if you’re having a case of the Mondays like me, here are a few of The Hold Steady’s music videos for distraction:

“Stay Positive”

“Stuck Between Stations”

“The Swish”

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