If you ask a sculptor what their latest work "means", the traditional art wisdom says you'll be deeply dissatisfied with the answer. After all, that particular artist has clearly chosen to express whatever unique insight and whatever private pain they have....in clay. If they wanted to work in words, they would have been a writer. Logically then, we would expect a more satisfying answer when posing the same question to our friendly neighborhood songwriter. After all, that person works in words, and actually spends hours trying to succinctly distill complex experiences into short, yet powerful, verbal snapshots. That are, for lack of a better term: "catchy". With some kind of musical notes glued on for the ride. With, as in any other art form, the ability to at once seem completely familiar and natural--while also fresh....even revolutionary. And, as in any other field of human excellence, the ability to inspire admiration, even awe, the "Wow! Can a human being actually do THAT!!" response. Uh-oh, dear reader....as the semaphore flags on my parents' cocktail glasses used to spell out: "You are standing into danger"--this may be harder than we thought.
Harder than we thought indeed, because, analogous to our first case, if the songwriter felt the need (and ability) to express his or her personal reality in straightforward prose, they surely would have worked in prose! Not rhyming jingles! And they CERTAINLY wouldn't have dragged that old emotional button-pusher MUSIC into the equation. Having embarked on this attempt to analyze this odd human activity, we are, in one sense, immediately defeated....one central truth of the matter is this: no one really knows where these artistic impulses originate. Having admitted defeat, however, we can attempt to describe the part of the elephant we can detect in our part of the room. So we soldier on.
People inquiring about songwriting often start with this question: Music first? Or lyrics first, music built to match afterward? For me, it's almost always lyrics first. The rhythm of the phrases will usually suggest a rhythm for the accompaniment, and eventually, some chord changes and such will suggest themselves. Not quite as simple as "You see, Sally, major keys are for HAPPY songs, and minor keys are SAD" ( in fact, somewhere on my website there's a rant about the whole twisted world of blues, based on the possibly racist (certainly Eurocentric) assumption that the flat third and seventh must mean that the Africans are sad.....but i digress).....sorry, I'm back now....ANYHOW, some chords suggest themselves, and we're off! In fact, tearing the daunting task of attempting to write a song down to a manageable trick: I'm looking for a title. Just a title. If the title is powerful enough to suggest one brilliant insight into the human condition (or just a fun insight!), the goddamn thing writes itself! And one insight is about the correct, pointed amount of wisdom that can conveniently fit into a 3 minute pop song . Don't make me drag Aristotle and his unity of time, place and action into this article, 'cause you know I'll do it, you know I'll do it! But old Ari could turn a phrase or two, depending on whatever vintage he and Plato were throwing back. Check these titles, submitted for your approval: "I Second That Emotion"........"I Feel Like Breaking up Somebody's Home" ...."I Hope the Russians Love Their Children Too" (ok, I cheated on that one...title shortened to "Russians"....for good measure, I'll throw in my own "If You Ever Need A Friend, Buy A Dog", and perhaps " If God Can Make That, No Wonder He's In Charge". Each of those sets a scene vividly enough that, as songwriters, we're OFF! Filling in the blanks....a thrust here, a riposte there....hell, pull out the rhyming dictionary and we'll polish this up in 15 minutes!
Songwriting articles often extol the benefits of co-writing.....careful with your feelings there. There are "pros" who write with other pros they've just met....insert joke of your choice about the pornography industry, but if you're the sensitive type, choose someone gentle to co-write with. I used to co-write with a friend, and we kind of unofficially started using "well, maybe it needs a bridge" instead of "that song sucks"....a bridge IS a contrasting counter-melody, right? Anyhow, your friend may have an idea but no place to go with it (not a frequent occurrence) but will more often be a brilliant help polishing what you've got.
Ah, polishing.....yes, I definitely believe in that. If the urge to express what seems like a great idea presents itself (it used to frequently hit me, when working for a heating company, as I was walking into a basement with a brush and a soot-vac), it needs to get written down quickly and immediately. Almost every songwriter nods sad agreement with Duke Ellington's famous comment "The best song I ever wrote....I forgot". Tell Mrs. Smith you'll be in to clean the furnace in a minute, and write that sucker down....in any sketchy form you can scrabble together. The central idea that inspired you originally will surely rekindle itself when you look at your sketchy notes a week later.....if you can read the sketchy notes. And yes, I am not above using Masterwriter or some other crutch at the polishing point. Unlike the movies however, where the songwriter has a great line, and is floundering, trying to slap in a rhyming line..."What rhymes with Lemon?", I do believe in the rule that the killer line goes last. If there has to be a weaker line for the sake of rhyme, make that the setup line. I almost think the screenwriters always have the songwriter doing it the other way as a kind of cruel joke....." Look at this poor sap in writing hell.....he doesn't know what he's doing! What an amateur!"
Am unsure as to whether the discussion of the two sides of the brain are science....or pseudo-science. But for our purposes here, the concept might be useful. Songwriters, and indeed musicians in general (ok, artists in general) have a judgmental side that edits the ideas and emotions that the other side of the brain demands they express. For me, the constrictions of the blues form simplify some of the leap of faith form-wise, if that makes sense. Often, musicians will suppress that editing side with drugs or alcohol, just so some of their innermost feelings will get out. Often, they will get so good at damaging that judgmental side, that stupid shit, for want of a better word, will come out. In that case, they gradually become an exaggerated version, then a parody of their original artistic selves, an embarrassing cautionary tale to future songwriters. Or, they go to the other extreme, analyzing the beats per minute of the last 30 top forty hits, and noting that the listener is drawn in by the use of the word "you" within the first 25 seconds in 20 of the last 30 platinum singles. Those people have already probably moved to Hollywood, but I would suggest that they go the final step, and move in with the Kardashians. Not how I do it, not my part of the elephant, don't wanna hear about it......well....that's not QUITE true. If I had something I needed to express, and I built a song out of it, and I really liked it; really thought it was good, maybe I would check it against some of these metrics. Just to understand whether that's why I thought it was good, to sort of check my sense of what was really getting across to my fellow humans. Because that, my friends, is the joker in the deck for all artists. Yes, it's your message....on your terms.....sculpt it, if that's what you do......it's not about what's going on in history....it's not about what's going on in your life ("Shakespeare was clearly depressed about his business reversals")....you may not even be consciously aware of all that you've put in there....it's your bottle (possibly formerly full of the bottled bravery you needed to put your vision "out there")....but it is, whether you like it or not, a communication. You've got to get this important message through....in code....maybe with a bridge