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Clichés and Country Music: A “Perfect Match”

Wendy Stutzman Simmons

East Tennessee State University

December 2, 2002

1. Literature Review

1.1 Introduction

Literary critics ridicule them when found in any form of discourse. English majors try to avoid them when writing. Journalism instructors conduct seminars in an attempt to stop their students from using them in newspaper articles. What are these dangerous phrases that we should avoid using? Although they are often considered substandard phrases, clichés are a familiar and well-established element of rhetoric (Cruse, 2000; Franke, 1997; Goldfine & King, 1994).

Although there have been many attempts to discredit and eliminate clichés in conversation and writing, these little units of speech are alive and well, especially in popular country music, (Franke, 1997; Goldfine & King, 1994) a genre that does not “challenge cultural conventions” (Franke, 1997) as other forms of popular music. Instead, county music, according to Malone (1993), “offers escape and catharsis from present realities, while also providing self-affirmation through security-laden symbols as home, family, church, and the South” (p. 114).

1.2 Definition of Cliché

What constitutes a cliché remains a debate among linguistics; however, there are several definitions that share some common themes. The first view defines a cliché as a commonly used phrase that has become so overused that thoughtful speakers and writers avoid using it. They feel that to use the device is to insult the intelligence of their audience (Partridge, 1947; Goldfine & King, 1994; Riffaterre, 1983).

A second, less negative view of clichés, written by Theodore Bernstein (1975), in The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, criticized the use of clichés because they demonstrate a lack of originality on the part of the speaker or writer. However, he recognized that a cliché is sometimes the most direct way to express a thought. Furthermore, he took a more historical view of cliché usage when reminded his reader that "many of today's clichés are likely to be tomorrow's standard English, just as many of today's standard words were yesterday's metaphors: thunderstruck, astonish, cuckold, conclave, sanguine, and thousands of others that form a substantial part of any dictionary" (p. 103).

Another premise characterized clichés in a positive light. Franke (1997), Amossy (1982), and others believed that clichés should be viewed as frozen forms of representation. When recognized as such, the structure and guidance clichés could offer a reader or listener a means that could simplify the complexity of communication process.

1.3 Clichés in Discourse

The presence of cliché in a text does not automatically purge discourse of all complexity of meaning. In fact, Franke (1997) and Riffaterre (1983) argued that clichés might be regarded as legitimate components of literature because they draw our attention to a “mythology or system of commonplaces” to which word combinations are attached (Riffaterre 1983, p. 15). Because these common word groupings have “global properties, ” according to Cruse (2000), “it seems highly likely that such phrases are stored as complete units in the brains of both the speaker and the hearer; as such, they are easy to retrieve while speaking and easy to decode for the hearer” (p. 76).

In other words, clichés help hearers to quickly identify a speaker’s message given in a common language that doesn’t rely on eruditic language or implied concepts that are required in order to process more complex literary devices. (Goldfine & King, 1994; Franke, 1997). To illustrate this process, Goldfine & King (1994) asked their reader to consider the thought, effort, and number of words required to convey the ideas implied by such expressions as “wolf in sheep's clothing”, “wash one's hands of a matter”, or “killed with kindness.” They wrote, “Indeed, clichés should be particularly appealing in today’s fast-paced society, for they require little time or effort (other than memory) to compose and a similar level of effort to interpret” (p. 350).

1.4 Country Music and the Commonplace

As stated earlier, perhaps nowhere else is the “commonplace” celebrated and the cliché more powerful than in the genre of country music. The everyday struggles and triumphs of the average listener are recognized within the genre in several ways. First, Franke (1997) notes that:

Country singers repeatedly emphasize that they express common knowledge and eternal truths rather than the changing realities of social life. Quite consistently, they do so in a language not distinctly and idiosyncratically their own, but a common one, obviously belonging to all and contributing to the familiar realm of the “as everyone says.” (p. 409)

Secondly, both in format and in theme, country songs are written to be accessible to their audience by offering lyrics that present common themes like home, family, love, separation, infatuation, caring for a neighbor, and losing a loved one. Because of this, the singers are considered to be “one of the family” by the listener (Franke, 1997). The reoccurrence of these themes creates a familiarity between singers and listeners that is not present in other forms of music.

The third way in which the commonplace is celebrated in country music is that the listeners’ opinions have a significant influence on the country music industry. Franke (1997) reported that this genre is highly consumer orientated and almost exclusively produced and consumed by middle-aged white men and women. Additionally, Jones (2000) believed that country lyricists are conscious of the listener’s expectations, requiring that the songs they write follow certain conventions. He stated, “There must be a striking, memorable phrase that is repeatable and singable, and writers must follow certain expectations about language--colloquial diction, dialectal forms, nonstandard grammar, clichés, and simple vocabulary” (p. 67).

This predictable formula is appealing to the average listener because, according to Malone (1993) and Franke (1997), the ideas are easily relatable to the listener’s experience and the lyrics are generally understandable because the language is quickly processed. Also, the music is appealing to people who are comfortable with contemporary culture because, according to Franke (1997), the song lyrics “lack the redeeming aura of rebellion and protest as it is not really a part of youth culture” (p. 400).

1.5 Contributions of the Cliché to Country Music

Goldfine & King (1994) might argue that the cliché functions successfully in the genre of country music because the clichés provide, “… an explanation of the speaker's concept to which most members of the audience can relate; that is, there is a generally accepted meaning attached to a cliché” (p. 345). As stated earlier, because of the commonality in language, theme, and style, county music’s audience can readily accept the usage of clichés.

Franke (1997) asserted that clichés are an integral and contributing element of country music. She stated that the clichés serve several purposes. First, clichés facilitate “easy consumption” (p. 400) because the listener can quickly relate to the ideas presented by the song, as clichés are often the most direct way to express a concept or thought.  Second, Franke believes that clichés are “integrated stylistic elements that contribute to the meaning of the songs and are rewarding to consider” (p. 400).


2. Method

2.1 Procedures and materials

In order to further study Franke’s assertions about country music clichés, I decided to study the frequency of clichés in modern county music. I analyzed the lyrics of Billboard Magazine’s Top 25 “Hot Country Singles and Tracks” for the year of 2001. The songs that were included in this study can be found in Table 1. I read the lyrics and selected the phrases that I considered to be a cliché. Then, I attempted to verify my intuition by asking myself two questions based on Franke (1997) and Amossy’s (1984) definition of cliché: “Does this word grouping offer a reader or listener a means that could simplify the complexity of the message?” and “Is this phrase unique to these lyrics?” If the answer was “yes,” to the first question and “no” to the second, then I considered the word grouping to be a cliché and included it in one of the tables (2-11) that can be found at the end of this paper. If the answer was any other combination of answers, the word group could not be considered a cliché because it did not meet the criteria. If a cliché appeared in a song more than once, in a chorus or repeated line, it was only counted once.

3. Results and Discussion

In this analysis, I found 120 clichés included in 25 song titles and lyrics. On average, each song contained 4.8 clichés. Additionally, there were a total of 423 phrases in the group of songs that I analyzed (not counting a repeated phrase more than once). If each cliché equaled one phrase, I calculated that the clichés occupied 28.5% of the songs’ phrases. Because of these statistics, I believe that these clichés comprise a significant part of the song lyrics.

The clichés I found were familiar to me and thereby were easily accessible as I began to make sense of the lyrics. I also found, as Franke (1997) hypothesized, the clichés significantly contributed to the meaning of the lyrics. Without the clichés, the songs certainly wouldn’t convey the same meaning. The clichés are so plentiful and used in such a way that they almost exclusively provide meaning for the listener.

In order to better organize the cliché’s, I divided them into ten categories. I found clichés about emotions, about nature, about life’s difficulties, about the human body and it’s functions, about the heart, about the passage of time, about mental processes, about work, about life and death, and about animals.

Keeping in line with the propositions of Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) assertion that metaphors help humans to more readily understand emotional and mental concepts, I discovered that the majority of clichés had physical source domains (e.g. You shook my tree) that explained an emotional concept (e.g. You made my life chaotic) as the target domain of the metaphor. If the songwriter’s goal is to make music “easily consumable” and provide the listener with concepts that are relatable to a common experience (Franke, 1997), the reasons for the frequency of clichés within the lyrics of a country music hit are very apparent.

4. Conclusion

Franke (1997) stated that if her reader was troubled by her assertion, which stated that the employment of clichés in country music was critical to the meaning and interpretation of the song, it was probably because, “we would prefer to believe that our most personal experiences are unique and that their representations therefore require highly original expressions” (p. 411). However, consider the usage of clichés in county music from another paradigm. It is just as probable that our most personal experiences are widely shared. Loving, believing, thinking, feeling, seeing, touching, giving birth, feeling physically attracted to someone, fighting an illness, moving to the city, and hating one’s job are common occurrences in the average person’s life. Although the occurrence is not unique to one person alone, the truth of the situation still exists for the individual. Furthermore, it is possible that the meaning of these events can be understood because of a conventionally constructed context (Franke, 1997) that a cliché represents.

I agree with Franke (1997) when she concludes that:

In country music, clichés do not indicate the inadequacy of language to express intimate feelings, nor do they signal aesthetic deficiencies. They are part of an aesthetic that produces variation on themes such as the “broken heart” in order to underline their essential sameness, which emphasizes the collectivity and continuity of human experience. (411).

            Although it’s a cliché, there is “safety in numbers.” For many people (including myself), it does bring comfort to know that someone else has experienced a situation that is currently being experienced. Clichés appear to be an effective way for a songwriter or singer to get a potentially complex message to a listener in an efficient and simple manner.


References

Amossy, R. (1982). The cliché in the reading process. Sub-Stance, 35, 34-45.

Bernstein, T.M. (1975). The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York: Atheneum.

Cruse, Alan. Meaning in Language. (2000) London: Oxford University Press.

Franke, A. (1997). The “broken heart” and “the trouble with the truth”: Understanding clichés in country music. Poetics Today, 18, 396 - 412.

Goldfine, R.K., King, G.M. (1994). Never at a loss for words: Why do clichés live on? ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, 51, 338 - 351.

Jones, J. T. (2000). The delight of words: the Elizabethan sonneteers and American country lyricists. Popular Music and Society, 24, 63-78.

Lakoff, G., Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Malone, B.C. (1993). Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Partridge, E. (1947). Usage and Abusage. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

Riffaterre, M. (1983). Text Production. Translated by Therese Lyons. New York: Columbia University Press.

 

                                                                              

 

 


Table 1

BILLBOARD MAGAZINE’S 2001 TOP COUNTRY SINGLES & TRACKS

____________________________________________________________________________________________

#                                          Title                                                            Artist                                      Labels

____________________________________________________________________________________________

1

AIN'T NOTHING 'BOUT YOU

 

Brooks & Dunn

 

Arista Nashville

2

IT'S A GREAT DAY TO BE ALIVE

 

Travis Tritt

 

Columbia

3

DON'T HAPPEN TWICE

 

Kenny Chesney

 

BNA

4

YOU SHOULDN'T KISS ME LIKE THIS

 

Toby Keith

 

DreamWorks

5

I'M ALREADY THERE

 

Lonestar

 

BNA

6

ONE MORE DAY

 

Diamond Rio

 

Arista Nashville

7

SHE COULDN'T CHANGE ME

 

Montgomery Gentry

 

Columbia

8

WHO I AM

 

Jessica Andrews

 

DreamWorks

9

AUSTIN

 

Blake Shelton

 

Giant/WRN

10

WHAT I REALLY MEANT TO SAY

 

Cyndi Thomson

 

Capitol

11

WHEN I THINK ABOUT ANGELS

 

Jamie O'Neal

 

Mercury

12

GROWN MEN DON'T CRY

 

Tim McGraw

 

Curb

13

I'M JUST TALKIN' ABOUT TONIGHT

 

Toby Keith

 

DreamWorks

14

ONLY IN AMERICA

 

Brooks & Dunn

 

Arista Nashville

15

WHERE THE BLACKTOP ENDS

 

Keith Urban

 

Capitol

16

BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD

 

Keith Urban

 

Capitol

17

I WOULD'VE LOVED YOU ANYWAY

 

Trisha Yearwood

 

MCA Nashville

18

I COULD NOT ASK FOR MORE

 

Sara Evans

 

RCA

19

MY NEXT THIRTY YEARS

 

Tim McGraw

 

Curb

20

IF I FALL YOU'RE GOING DOWN WITH ME

 

Dixie Chicks

 

Monument

21

BURN

 

Jo Dee Messina

 

Curb

22

COMPLICATED

 

Carolyn Dawn Johnson

 

Arista Nashville

23

ASHES BY NOW

 

Lee Ann Womack

 

MCA Nashville

24

WHERE I COME FROM

 

Alan Jackson

 

Arista Nashville

25

ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS

 

Trick Pony

 

Warner Bros./WRN

 

NOTE. From  http://www.billboard.com/billboard/yearend/2001/country_singles2.jsp

 

 

 

 

 

Table 2 _____________________________________________________________________________

Clichés About Emotions 

____________________________________________________________________________________________

 

“Give it my best”, “Reach an understanding,” “Everything I hold dear,”  “Grown men don’t cry,” “I know where I belong,” “Settle all the scores,” “Find a world of happiness,” “The one’s I hold dear,” “Every dream I’ve had’s come true,” “Every prayer has been answered,” “I’ve found all I’ve waited for,” “You give me chills,” “Willing to walk on the wire,” “You’re a candle burning in the night,” “We can still be friends,” “I take it slow,” “The gift of your love,” “She couldn’t change me,” “I turned her on,” "I saw a flash of light when she kissed me,” “I got a funny feeling,” I didn’t have a clue,” “A feeling shot right through me,” “You’re all I need”

 

Table 3 _____________________________________________________________________________

Clichés About Nature

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“Made a wish on a star,” “Sun is shining when I close my eyes,” “Every seed I’d sown,” “Where the blacktop ends,” “I’m going back to the well,” “I never felt the earth move,” “You shook my tree,” “Rolling like thunder,” ”Quiet country nights,” “Memories withered on the vine,”

 

Table 4

_____________________________________________________________________________

Clichés About Life’s Difficulties

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“Hammered by heavy blows,” “Knocked me off my feet,” “Hard times,” “Everything weighed on my mind,” “I’m hanging on by a thread,” “Find a hiding place,” “Fall flat on my face,” “It cut like a knife,” “Strength to walk away,” “I finally got a grip,” “Conquered my fears,” “I’m not that strong,” “Someday I’ll make it to the big leagues,” “I can’t hang on that long”

Table 5 _____________________________________________________________________________

Clichés About the Human Body

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Visual: “Wipe a tear from his eyes,” “Bluest eyes you’ve ever seen,” “Looking right at me,” “Written all over my face,” “Held back the tears,” “Your eyes tell me what you need,” “See the seven wonders” 

Taste: ”I still taste that first kiss,” “Name is on my lips,” “Taste of sugar reminds me of your kiss,”

Tactile: “Back in my arms,” ”I’ll hold you every second,” “That moment your lips touched mine,”          “You’re close enough to touch,” “I wanna hold you close,” “I wanna push you away,” “I wanna make you go,” “I wanna make you stay,” “I’m laying low”

Biological: “Spitting image of my father,” “Cut so deep it hurt,” “Melting with every kiss,” “You haven’t changed a bit”

 

Table 6

____________________________________________________________________________

Clichés About the Heart

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“Deep in my heart,” “My heart is yours,” “My heart skipped a beat,” I had a change of heart,” “You make my heart beat faster,” “My heart will break,” “Fluttering heartbeat”


 

Table 7

_____________________________________________________________________________

Clichés About Time

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“Time is a turning of a page,” “Spend precious moments,” “Make up for lost time,” “Monday rolls around,” “Right here in this moment,” “I’ve waited for so long,” “I haven’t seen you in forever,” “Something doesn’t happen twice,” “Phase she was going through,” “I wouldn’t change a minute,” “He talked all the time,” ”I’m not talking about forever,” “A moment frozen in time,” “Moments of pleasure,” “Time is crawling”

 

Table 8

_____________________________________________________________________________

Clichés About Cognitive Processes

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“Needs to clear her mind,” “Crazy things I’ve done,” “Come unglued,” “I’m a saint and I’m a sinner,” “She changed her mind,” “Thinking is a chain reaction,” “I thought you wouldn’t remember,” “I cannot forget,” “wild ideas”

 

 

Table 9

_____________________________________________________________________________

Clichés About Work

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“Punching the clock,” “Slave to my job,” “Working in the grind,” “Working is an uphill battle,” “Trying to make a living,” “A woman needs to work harder than a man,” “I bust it all week” “Weekends are freedom”


 

 

Table 10

_____________________________________________________________________________

Clichés About Life and Death

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“I’ll be there till the end,” “It’s a great day to be alive,” “If I live to be a hundred,” “I’m dying inside”

 

Table 11

_____________________________________________________________________________

Clichés About Animals

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“He’s a lone wolf,” “I’m long in the tooth,” “Howling at the moon,” “Dog-eat-dog world”

 


 

Table 12

Number of Clichés in Each Category

_____________________________________________________________________________

                        Type of Cliché                                                              Total Number

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Emotions                                                                      24

Human Body                                                                23

 

Time                                                                             15

 

Life’s Difficulties                                                           14

 

Nature                                                                          10

 

Cognitive Processes                                                      11

 

Work                                                                           8

 

Heart                                                                            7

 

Life and Death                                                              4

 

Animals                                                                        4

 

 

                        Total Number of Clichés                                           120

 

 

 

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Wendy Stutzman Simmons