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The generally accepted rule of songwriting these days is that your title should be part or all of your hook, it should appear in the chorus at least once, and it should repeat over and over and over and over and… This is reflective of a “marketing” perspective on songwriting, a legitimate approach to the question, how can we get this song stuck in our listeners’ heads for days?
But there are so many different approaches to crafting great songs that have worked for artists over the years — writers don’t need to feel committed to following one single, prescribed path in their songwriting. A title that doesn’t appear in the lyrics could be chosen to help color how the listener hears the song, providing additional information before they’re “inside” of it. Or a song title that is pulled from the lyrics could be chosen because it offers an interior view, a preview, or a view from inside of the song looking outward, not because it’ll worm its way into your brain.
Every song comes together at the unique convergence of an artist’s mind, their particular influences, and that particular moment. Make your choice of title the one that feels right for you and your song.
One thing is for sure, if you establish a songwriting rule, artists are going to break it. Here are 10 of our favorite examples of songs that have successfully broken the titling mold.
Bob Dylan — “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
Also, “Positively 4th Street,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “My Back Pages,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Spanish Harlem Incident,” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” I think Bob Dylan likes giving people false expectations when they flip a record and explore what’s on it… But the bard is also following folk traditions pretty closely, as hundreds of ballads and blues tunes have historically used the title of the song to provide context for the story that lies within. Given his influences, it’s natural that Dylan would so commonly choose to eschew title-lyric similitude.
Blink-182 — “Adam’s Song”
Pop-punk rockers Blink-182 came out with this third single from their smash-hit album, Enema of the State in the fall of 2000. The song, which addresses issues of teenage angst, depression, and loneliness, is written in the style of a suicide note, but bassist-vocalist Mark Hoppus told Rolling Stone that the titular “Adam” was not a real person, but rather, a stand in for his own sense of loneliness while out on tour. The title of the song offers a character for the listener to connect with as the song journeys from despair to a place of hope, and gives a more personal face to a universal storyline.
Pearl Jam — “Elderly Woman Behind a Counter in a Small Town”
Up to this point, nearly every song Pearl Jam had written had a one-word title — so they decided to go for broke with something ridiculously long. And to double down, they chose a title that doesn’t appear anywhere in the lyrics.
When I first heard the song, I thought the title was “Fade Away,” or maybe “Hearts and Thoughts.” Taking the title into consideration, though, the song gains added depth — it’s about an elderly woman (behind a counter in a small town) who sees an old flame after years and years. The title provides a bed of context through which to enter this nostalgic, heart-wrenching world.
Primitive Radio Gods — “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand”
Speaking of long titles… This song was all over the radio in the ’90s, and was a smash for one-hit wonders Primitive Radio Gods. It was even featured in the Jim Carrey film, The Cable Guy — which further secured the song’s success. Written in an almost a stream-of-consciousness style, the verses seem to have little to do with one another, or with the chorus (which is actually a B.B. King sample), let alone anything to do with the name of the song. The title, it turns out, came from a Bruce Cockburn song (though altered slightly) that resonated with the author, Chris O’Connor.
Queen — “Bohemian Rhapsody”
I can’t imagine there being anyone who couldn’t sing at least some part of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” off the top of their head — this song is just that iconic. The fact that the song’s title is a nod to classical music shouldn’t come as a shock, the lyrics and music are riddled with rock, opera, and classical music explosions. It breaks almost every rule in the book, too. It’s way too long; it has dramatic musical and lyrical changes basically everywhere; and there’s no actual graspable hook (or, you could say it’s all hooks). “Bohemian Rhapsody” however, remains a work of genius and a monument to Freddie Mercury’s talent as a writer.
Coldplay — “Viva La Vida”
Another multiple song culprit, just like Dylan! Coldplay has several tunes that could’ve been on this list, like “Amsterdam,” “Adventure of a Lifetime,” “The Scientist,” “Don’t Panic” and “Parachutes.” It actually feels like most of Coldplay’s most popular songs have no titular repetition… Hmm, have they stumbled onto a secret hit-making formula?
As one of Coldplay’s indisputable biggest hits, “Viva La Vida,” which roughly translates to “Long Live Life,” is about a deposed ruler who finds himself “sweeping the streets he used to own” and lamenting over his days as king. Although wildly successful, the song is not without its controversies. Several people, including Joe Satriani and Yusuf Islam (f.k.a., Cat Stevens), came out of the woodwork claiming the song bore similarities to their own. These claims haven’t really managed to tarnish the song’s popularity, or the band’s reputation. And a decade after its release, this song is still a regular radio staple.
The Who — “Baba O’Riley”
Listed as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, there probably isn’t anyone out there who hasn’t heard this song at least once in their life. They probably don’t know it by its unusual title, however — most people call it “Teenage Wasteland.” The title is a mashup of two people who had great influence on The Who’s guitarist, Pete Townshend: spiritual guru Meher Baba and classical composer Terry Riley. Initially intended to be part of the score for the follow-up to Tommy, which takes place in a polluted wasteland, the song has a certain epic, cinematic quality to it. One thing it does not have, however, is its title anywhere in the lyrics.
David Bowie — “Space Oddity”
“Ground Control to Major Tom…”
Thus begins one of David Bowie’s biggest hits — ostensibly about an astronaut exploring space, though many have speculated it’s actually about a drug overdose. The title both provides context for the world of the song, and is a play on the title of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, released the previous year.
The song has since taken on a life of its own as a cult classic, and it’s even the inspiration behind the first-ever viral video from space. Astronaut Chris Hadfield covered it while aboard the International Space Station.
Nirvana — “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
This track, which was Nirvana’s breakout hit and officially heralded the mainstream saturation of grunge as a cultural and fashion trend, was actually inspired by Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill, drunkenly spray painting the words, “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on singer Kurt Cobain’s bedroom wall after seeing a can of the spray deodorant Teen Spirit in the grocery store. Cobain, notably uncomfortable with success in general, came to despise the song and refused to play it at concerts, but it was a seminal track for any teen navigating their way through the world in the ’90s.
Led Zeppelin…. Take your pick!
We leave you with perhaps the most red-handed offender here. Zep actually has about 25 songs in their catalog with lyrics that do not contain the song title. According to SPIN Magazine, the band only has 87 individual recorded songs total, so that would mean 28.7% of their total creative output has misleading titles.
And since you’ve actually made it all the way down here to the bottom, we’ll be nice and list all of them for you so you don’t have to go a-hunting on your own to find them. Spoiler alert? Ah who cares, it’s ZEP!
- “Achilles Last Stand”
- “The Battle of Evermore”
- “Black Country Woman”
- “Black Dog”
- “Boogie with Stu”
- “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp”
- “Candy Store Rock”
- “Celebration Day”
- “The Crunge”
- “D’yer Ma’ker”
- “Fool In The Rain”
- “Four Sticks”
- “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”
- “Immigrant Song”
- “The Lemon Song”
- “Misty Mountain Hop”
- “Out on the Tiles”
- “The Rain Song”
- “The Rover”
- “Royal Orleans”
- “South Bound Saurez”
- “Trampled Under Foot”
- “Walter’s Walk”
- “The Wanton Song”
These are just the very top tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds more songs that don’t feature the title in their lyrics; The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” New Order’s “Blue Monday,” Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping,” Blur’s “Song 2” just to name a handful more. So many are massive hits, others less well known. Take a scroll through your music library, and you might be surprised to find even more.
What are some of your favorites? Share them in the comments!
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