Writing Songs That Matter (Part 3)
Writing Songs That Matter Part 3
In the first two parts of this series, I discussed the importance of writing a lot, rewriting what you've written, collecting ideas, and keeping a workman-like attitude to the craft of writing.
Here in Part 3, I want to offer a couple of nuggets of specific advice on how to make your songs better connect with people the way you want them to.
One Short Sentence
It's the Big Question about every movie, poem, song, or novel:
“What's it about?”
You should have a short, simple answer to this question about your song. If you don't, then that's very likely a sign that you don't have a clear idea of what you're trying to get across to the listener, which in turn means they're not gonna get it (whatever it is), and in songwriting-land, that’s the Cardinal Sin.
What I'm talking about here is basically the same thing as the dreaded 'thesis' from high school English composition class.
Examples are fun, so here are a bunch of theses for some popular and well-written songs:
“I've been a bad father and I regret it” (Cat's in the Cradle)
“I'm aware that you don't love me anymore and resigning myself to it” (I Can't Make You Love Me)
“Chin up, you're gonna get through this” (The Middle, Jimmy Eat World)
“I prefer women with ample buttocks” (Baby Got Back)
“I'm here for you, pal” (You've Got A Friend, Lean on Me, the Friends theme song)
“I miss my lover when she's gone” (Ain't No Sunshine)
“I will always love you” (I Will Always Love You)
“I'm depressed and I've lost my way in life” (Runaway Train, also 6,164,981,239,078,486,519 other songs, mostly from the 90s)
“Being with you makes me happy” (You Are My Sunshine)
“War is bad.” (Give Peace A Chance, many others)
“I fell in love and got hurt” (Ring of Fire)
“My daughter's getting married and I'm happy about it but also kind of sad.” (Butterfly Kisses)
“It's a dangerous world, please take care of yourself” (Wild World)
It's actually great practice and lots of fun to take popular songs and condense their lyrics into a few words.
Another bonus to applying this test at regular intervals as you write a song is that it helps you detect 'Meaning Drift', which can and does happen to songs as they progress. For example, you may state your thesis and find that it doesn't quite capture the song anymore because the song's meaning or intentions have changed almost without you noticing! (Okay, I could be the only one this happens to, but I strongly suspect not!)
Again, there are exceptions. Consider Procol Harem's smash hit 'Whiter Shade of Pale.' (The Sixties were a bad decade for rules, including mine.) Everyone loves that song, but it's hardly clear exactly what it's about. A kind soul would call it 'surrealism'. A less kind soul might call it 'word salad set to a great tune'.
A couple important caveats to this rule. First, your thesis doesn't necessarily have to be obvious. With many great songs, the thesis is right there in the title. Think of Boyz II Men's 'I'll Make Love to You.' No confusion as to what THAT song is about. But you are certainly free to be more artful about how you 'package' your thesis. Many listeners (myself included) actually love it when we have to do a little bit of thoughtful unwrapping to get to the kernel of truth or beauty the writer has buried in its center. But it's crucial that the kernel be there, and your thesis is that kernel.
Second, it is NOT crucial that you have such a 'thesis statement' in hand as you begin approaching your song. In fact, this might risk straitjacketing yourself and crippling the all-important exploratory stage where so much of the initial creative sparks of a song happen. That would be bad! However, once you are deep enough into the song that it starts feeling like work and not so much like divine inspiration, it's best to start putting it to the 'one short sentence' test on a regular basis.
Use Images and Details
In the game of storytelling, you have lots of arrows in your quiver. Humor, Dialogue, Allegory, all that stuff. I would argue that Imagery is the most important. The best way to get something to stick in someone’s mind is usually to make a compelling picture out of it. Maybe it’s beautiful, maybe repulsive, maybe startling, maybe nostalgic. Just make it vivid!
You want to paint with words as soon and as often as possible. And it doesn’t take a whole lot. A great case study for this is the Eagles' “Peaceful Easy Feeling”. The opening verse goes:
“I like the way your sparklin’ earrings lay
Against your skin so brown
I wanna sleep with you in the desert tonight
With a billion stars all around”
Holy Evocative Imagery, Batman! I feel like I should be scanning the parched earth for scorpions.
But here's the kicker: There's not a single image in the remainder of the song. After the first verse, it's just vague generalities about heartbreak and stuff. The song is a winner, though, because the writers did such a terrific job painting a vivid scene in the first verse (not to mention a supremely singable melody) that you don't even notice. (Still, it's tempting to ask: Could it have been even a stronger song, if not a bigger hit, if they'd spiced the rest of the song with some more imagery?)
(Again, there are no hard and fast rules. “The answer is blowin' in the wind” is pretty abstract stuff, and that's one of the most famous refrains ever written.)
In all your writing, use specific details whenever possible. You want your songs to feel as real as possible (why? Because that way they will matter to people.). Well, details are what separate reality from fantasy.
Is there a car in your song? Try not to call it a 'car'. Try telling us what kind of car. Paint us a picture. Put us there. There are no cars in reality. There are only Pink Cadillacs, Little Red Corvettes, and Silver Thunderbirds.
Of course, it's possible to go overboard with this. The world is full of failed novelists who never got to tell a decent story because they were too busy describing the bathroom wallpaper in excruciating detail. Your listeners come with their own built-in imaginations. Take advantage of that and let a little detail go a long way.
I originally planned for this series to have only 3 parts, but I've got a few more specific bits of advice I want to share next time. So keep an eye out for Part 4!
Thanks for reading.