While many think that figurative language is reserved only for classic literature, many of the songs you hear on the radio are full of rich figurative language that rivals the writings of some of history's great authors.
Get ready to learn about some of the best songs with figurative language.
Song year: 1984
Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah is one of the most hauntingly poetic songs of all time. The song uses Biblical imagery to tell a story with different meanings for different people. Some see the song as a lament for those who've lost in love, while others think it's about a person's struggle with religion.
Regardless of its meaning, the song has many metaphors. The song's Biblical allusions illustrate the many types of hallelujah. Cohen's song is an extended metaphor to show that hallelujah isn't always a joyful word – it's used in times of fear and sadness as well.
Song year: 2019
Harry Styles released one of the best anthems of summer, “Watermelon Sugar,” in 2019, and it's been a bop ever since. With lines about the taste of strawberries on a summer evening, the song compares summer fruits to the heady rush of falling in love.
The first few lines of the song use two similes to create a strong connection between the feelings of falling in love to the wonderful moments of summer. Styles goes on to use the metaphor, “baby, you're the end of June,” to compare his love to the joyful feeling of summer.
Song year: 1983
While Michael Jackson's “Human Nature” isn't the most popular song on his Thriller album, it is undeniably well-written and uses a lot of figurative language to convey its message. The song is set in New York City and tells about a young man who explores the city and finds a romantic partner.
In the song's first lines, he uses personification and a metaphor to compare the city to a woman. He sings about the city winking an eye and calling out to him, loud enough to rattle his windows.
A few lines later, he uses metaphor again, comparing the city to an apple he wants to consume. He also compares the city to a beating heart near the end of the song.
Song year: 1991
Tom Cochrane's “Life Is a Highway” contains a metaphor right in the title, setting the tone for the rest of the song. The song opens with a simile, “life's like a road that you travel on.”
The song's central theme compares life to a highway, telling listeners how important it is to keep riding. The song reminds you that you have to be a part of life and not just let it pass you by like cars on a highway.
Song year: 1992
The song “One” by U2 is arguably one of the best break-up songs of all time. The song chronicles a bitter split between a couple who love one another but have too much baggage to make things work. The song uses a metaphor, where the narrator compares his lover to Jesus but says that she's trying to fix something that doesn't need fixing.
The song reaches its crescendo with another metaphor: “you say love is a temple, love a higher law.” The lover says that love is more important than anything, but then she twists things with her treatment of the narrator.
Song year: 2013
Whether you love or hate Frozen, there's no denying the incredible writing in the smash hit “Let It Go.” The song occurs at a pivotal moment in the film when Elsa has to confront her ice powers and decide whether to hide her true self or to give in and be who she is.
The song uses a simile early on when Elsa sings, “the wind is howling like this swirling storm inside.” She's comparing her feelings to a strong wind that can't be contained. The song itself is an extended metaphor. Elsa compares herself to the weather, something she can't control. She finally accepts her fate and decides to be herself.
Song year: 2010
“Firework” by Katy Perry is a famous example used by high school English teachers across the country. The popular song has some simple metaphors that are easy to spot.
The song opens with a simile that talks about feeling wrong and wanting to start over. Perry compares feeling useless to a paper bag in the wind.
The refrain uses the metaphor of comparing someone to a firework. Perry tells the listener that they're capable of great things if they just let their talents out like a firework exploding.
Song year: 2012
Alicia Keys is undeniably one of the best songwriters of her generation. Her hit “Girl on Fire” proves her writing prowess with its bold, powerful metaphors. The entire song is a metaphor from its repeating mantra of “this girl is on fire” to the line “she's burning it down.”
The song compares a particular girl to fire, saying that she's capable of anything and can stand on her own. Keys' song is so powerful because it came when women were beginning to assert their worth, and it became something of a feminist anthem.
Song year: 1979
Pink Floyd's album The Wall was released in 1979. The concept album features the main character, Pink, who builds a wall around himself and his emotions throughout the songs. Perhaps one of the most famous songs on the album, “Another Brick in the Wall,” has been the defining song for several generations.
The song critiques the British school systems in the 1970s. The famous line “all in all, you're just another brick in the wall” is a metaphor that can have dual meanings. It can refer to the way school systems are institutionalized. Students are just a number, and learning isn't individualized.
Taking in the context of the entire album, as the protagonist Pink is building his wall, all of the bad things that happen to him become just one brick he uses to shield himself.
Song year: 1989
Madonna's “Like a Prayer” was one of the most controversial songs of the 1980s. Many listeners felt the song compared religion and sexual relationships, which made many people in the religious community uncomfortable. Love or hate the song, it has some undeniably great examples of figurative language.
In the song, Madonna uses many images to illustrate a young girl's love for God (or a relationship between two lovers, depending on your interpretation). She compares attention from her loved one to a home, prayer, an angel, flying, and more. The similes go on throughout the song.
Song year: 2013
Miley Cyrus's “Wrecking Ball” is perhaps her most infamous hit. The song tells the story of a couple who called it quits but still have anger toward one another. The primary use of figurative language is a simile in the most-recognizable line of the song, “I came in like a wrecking ball.”
Cyrus uses the image of a wrecking ball to iterate that she gave her all in the relationship. She wasn't the one to leave, and she tried her best to make it work. She also uses the simile to suggest that maybe she came on too strong.
Song year: 2013
Pharell's song “Happy” is one of the most iconic songs of the last decade. As its title suggests, the music is all about feeling happy, whether your life is going great or if you're at a low point. Pharell uses a few examples of figurative language to express what it's like to feel happy.
One notable line is in the chorus: “clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.” This simile demonstrates how happiness is difficult to contain. The metaphor used in the line “I'm a hot air balloon that could go to space” is another great example. Again, Pharell expresses the uncontainable joy that goes along with feeling happy.
Song year: 1975
Many music fans love to speculate about the meaning behind Queen's six-minute opus, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It doesn't help that frontman Freddie Mercury would never say what the song was about. He wanted people to interpret it for themselves and ascribe a personalized meaning. Whatever it means, it's one of the band's most loved songs, and for a good reason. Mercury's use of language is impeccable.
Early in the song, he uses the metaphor “caught in a landslide” to show that he's stuck in a situation he can't get out of. While the song can be taken as pure fiction, telling the story of a young man going to prison (and eventually hell) for murder, many read the song as a metaphor for Mercury's struggle with his sexuality. Much like the landslide, he tried to avoid his true self but eventually couldn't.
Song year: 2020
If anything good came out of 2020, it was the two surprise albums released by Taylor Swift, Folklore and Evermore. Both old and new fans have lauded Swift's shift in both music and lyrical style. Swift truly outdid herself with the songwriting on both albums.
“Willow” is one of the most notable songs. The song is about a woman who falls in love with a man who refuses to give up on her. Swift uses metaphor and simile to weave a graceful story. The song begins with two similes, comparing Swift to rough waters and her lover to a ship that could get to her.
And continues with the titular line in which Swift compares life to a willow that bent to her lover's will.” These lines describe how Swift's lover saw through her facade and was able to get to the real her.
Song year: 2013
The volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted in Pompeii in 79 AD, destroying the entire city and many of its inhabitants. Almost two thousand years later, Bastille would turn the tragic event into a hit pop song.
All of “Pompeii” is a metaphor. The band used the idea of being trapped under the flow of a volcano to compare growing stagnant with your place in life.
Song year: 1962
“Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley is one of rock and roll's quintessential tunes. The song has only a few lyrics repeated throughout, but the meaning is powerful. Presley calls out a purported friend or lover in a short but scathing metaphor.
The insult compares the song's antagonist to a hound dog, who has nothing to offer the singer but pain and problems.
Song year: 1994
TLC's “Waterfalls” is one of our favorite songs with figurative language. The verses tell stories of people who live dangerously, but the chorus uses metaphor to teach listeners a lesson.
The chorus warns listeners not to get themselves into dangerous territory, comparing dangerous situations to waterfalls and safety to rivers and lakes. The group reminds us that staying where you are is sometimes the best thing to do. Sometimes you already have a happy life without having to use illicit means to have more.
Song year: 1982
“Hungry Like the Wolf” contains a simile in the title and uses metaphor to create a primal connection between a man pursuing a woman to an animal seeking its prey. Duran Duran's song goes beyond the simple simile of the title and chorus.
The singer continually compares himself to a wild animal on the hunt.
The lyrics create a song that is both intriguing and a little out of touch with modern times. Most present-day women wouldn't appreciate being compared to prey that a man stalks, not taking no for an answer.
Song year: 1975
“Landslide” is one of Stevie Nicks's most brilliant songs. The song is a lament for the end of a phase in life, be it the end of a romantic relationship, a child growing up, or the death of a parent. The entire song is an extended metaphor that perfectly encapsulates the fear and hope that comes with a significant life change.
The song relates moving forward to looking down from a mountain and attempting not to get caught up in the landslide, which is symbolic of fear.
Song year: 2011
1D's song “One Thing” was one of their early hits. It tells the story of a boy who's fallen head over heels for a girl who's got that special something. In the song, he compares her to kryptonite because she's the only thing that can take him down.
Song year: 2018
Bazzi's “Mine” is a heady song about the dreamy feeling of being so in love with someone you can't think straight. The singer compares his girl to a star, both the celestial body and a celebrity like Mariah Carey because she always stands out in a crowd.
Song year: 2013
Much like Madonna's “Like a Prayer” compares a sensual relationship to religion, Hozier's song is an even more direct metaphor comparing the two. He compares his lover to laughing at a funeral, inappropriate but mirthful. He directly calls her his church and says he must worship in the bedroom. The song is often tongue-in-cheek while still sounding mysterious and haunting.
Song year: 2016
Timberlake's “Can't Stop the Feeling” has more going for it than a catchy melody and beat that make you want to get up and dance. It also has some savvy writing and metaphors. Timberlake's song is all about feeling happy and how you can't contain that happiness. It comes out physically, as shown in his lines about having sunshine in his pockets and soul in his feet.
These are just a few of the most famous songs with figurative language. Great writers, including songwriters, use figurative language to put a new spin on familiar themes. Now that you've heard of a few of these songs with figurative language, you'll probably start to hear songs with metaphors all the time.