Copywriting Lessons from the Late, Great Jimmy Buffett
- 5 Min Read
One of the first nuggets of copywriting wisdom I ever read was how the shiniest gems of excellent writing are often found in country music. No, we aren’t talking about one of Luke Bryan’s latest hits, a song where he spews a list of things an AI generative site tells him are country. (Read: I do my prayin’ in a deer stand).
We’re talking about actual songwriting. Persuasion. Storytelling. Vivid imagery. You could be writing songs or copy – about cheeseburgers in paradise or case studies on a website – there are certain sentence building blocks that make good writing sing. They’re called rhetorical devices.
Pioneered by the Ancient Greeks (what wasn’t?), rhetorical devices persuade readers and listeners through familiar sentence patterns and rhythms. Think: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. For writers, they’re a cheat code to memorability. And Jimmy Buffett, as he painted lyrical pictures of windblown breakers and blown-out flip flops, used rhetoric devices with the best of them. Pull up a beach chair and check out these examples.
One of the most well-known – and visible – literary devices is alliteration, the repetition of the initial consonant sound in two or more nearby words. It’s a common approach for taglines (“Melts in your mouth, not in your hands”). products and program names (“House Hunters”), and Kardashians (Kris, Kourtney, Kim, Khloe, Kendall, and so on).
Buffett used alliteration like a poet, both in titles, like Songs from St. Somewhere and “Making Music for Money,” and in lyrics. My favorite examples are the bombastic repeated “b” consonants in “Boat Drinks,” as in “The boys in the band ordered boat drinks,” and the mournful “s” sound in “Margaritaville”, “Searching for my lost shaker of salt.” Later, still somewhere in Margaritaville, he really pours it on with, “Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home.” Good thing he had some “booze in my blender” to help him hang on.
To tally Buffett’s metaphors is to reckon the grains of sand on the beach, from “the knees of my heart” to his “novelist eye and stout sailors legs.” Some of his most emblematic writing is on “Fins,” from his 1979 album Volcano. Buffett sings about a Cincinnati woman who “feels like a remora” preying on the “sharks who swim on land,” as they “hang out in local bars and feed right after dark.” Can’t say I relate, but I love the story.
Like a director shouting in a megaphone, amplification is when a writer expands or repeats a word or phrase to clarify or change its meaning. We see Buffett use amplification in his breakthrough 1977 album, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” and to humorous narrative effect with the lyrics, “Son of a son, son of a son, son of a son of a sailor.”
With antiphrasis, words or phrases are the opposite of what they say, like the Stranger Things upside down. You see this juxtaposition in Pencil Thin Mustache, where he sings about “nostalgic rage,” or his 1974 song “Tin Cup Chalice.” My personal favorite is when he sings about a “little mortal sin” on the song “Grapefruit—Juicy Fruit.”
Like two lanes on a divided highway, parallelism, or parallel structure, describes a sentence or phrase with mirrored grammatical structure. This technique strengthens the connection – and highlights differences – between two similar ideas and objects. Think back to Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. Buffett’s writing is littered with parallelism.
We see parallelism on the album A White Sport Coat and Pink Crustacean: color + noun, color + noun. On “He Went to Paris,” Buffett uses parallel construction, then breaks the pattern for dramatic effect as he recounts the sad tale of a one-armed pianist: “His body was battered. His world was shattered. And all he could do was just cry.” He does the same schtick with less serious subject matter on his hangover anthem “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don’t Love Jesus.”
Throughout his 56 lifetime albums, Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band showed the world a breezy brand of island escapism. Buffett’s work was seriously silly, approaching existentialism and post-modern life with a wink and a smile. If he couldn’t sing, he would have been a heck of a copywriter.