It’s amazing. There is a programme on the BBC that purports to get inside the mind of the most successful songwriters on the planet and reveal the “secrets of song writing”. The more I watch it, the more horrified I become. I can’t believe that people who wrote such wonderful music are so ignorant of what makes a song reach an audience and connect with them in an emotionally significant way.
The first rule, in my view, is that there are no rules. If you are following rules, you are probably trying to make a product, not a piece of art. Products connect to people emotionally far less successfully than art.
Here, in this documentary, we hear rules like “every pop song must be less than four minutes long” (true only if your audience is a mass audience, otherwise not), that “you must have no fewer than five hooks in a hit song”, that you start with a beat and replace it with a real drummer and so on, ad infinitum. Lots of rules that don’t work, or worked once, but cannot work again.
Look, lots of this is good grist for your song production mill and the advice has worked for people before, but the essence of being a breakthrough new act with a breakthrough new song is, unsurprisingly, the breakthrough. If it sounds contrived, safe, similar to everything that has succeeded before, devoid of emotional content, with bland, “so what?” lyrics, your song is going to be one of the thousands of forgettable, disposable and ultimately insignificant works, regardless of how professionally executed, how luminous the stars on the production team and how slick the production.
Everybody is looking for great. Great means extraordinary. Extraordinary means unlike what has succeeded before. If love songs with a contemporary beat have succeeded before, that isn’t going to work for you. You need to do something new, refreshing, surprising and delighting for your audience. You have to deliver meaning.
I think it was extraordinary that the song that did the best at the beginning of the Iraq war was the song by the Black Eyed Peas, whose refrain pleaded “where is the love?” It caught the Zeitgeist. It said what everybody needed to have said at the time. It was exactly the right song at exactly the right time. In the Secrets of Songwriting, this is nowhere addressed.
The programme I had finished watching before this one was a documentary about Van Gogh, which painted his life in his own words and those of his brother Theo, taken from their lifelong correspondence and contemporary accounts of their lives by others. What shines through about Van Gogh was that his art was intended to be a souvenir of an expression of gratitude to life, the world and for having lived among real people. Again, this whole theme was nowhere in evidence in the song writing session. Integrity and honesty are not at the top of the list of what makes a hit song.
Authenticity matters. I always marvel at the outtakes of artists that are busy making a pop song that they think will sell (the very worst self-censorship at work), but who, in their quieter moments, sing and play from the heart. Why aren’t the producers busy giving birth to that nascent artistic expression?
The music industry has so co-opted and subsumed art, that everything is about demographics, gossip magazine covers, focus group reaction, concert ticket sales and other metrics that seem to indicate what the radio stations should play on high rotation. Did any of them actually like the damn song? Did it say something to them? Does it have any emotional significance and meaning? Those factors are not considered in the radio production meetings. However, this is all that matters to the listeners and the audience. Is it any wonder that radio tends to the mediocre? People don’t turn off the radio, they tolerate the misses. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough. They aren’t enlivened and lit up either. If you want to be a breakthrough act with a breakthrough song, you have to do both.
I feel like I am watching people that were successful, without understanding why, who then go on to make all the wrong conclusions about the reasons for their success. They forget it’s all about the art. They forget that people care. They forget that people feel. They forget that people want to feel. They forget that people are aesthetes and that music is an aesthetic experience.
Instead, they serve up anaesthetic, as if encouraging us all to stop feeling, to stop caring and to stop being engaged in life, love and people.
My advice to song writers and musicians is to never lose the love and to amplify and spread the love. The moment you lose that, you’re a production line worker making indifferent, commodity products for people that won’t even like what you produce.
Learn how to master your craft, but your art is about your heart and your soul. You have to put yourself and your feelings out there, vulnerably, so that others can feel too. You must first love humanity for humanity to love you back. If your vehicle through which you connect to people is song, then you had better make it relevant, if you want to reach them.
The secret of song writing is that there is no secret. Love, live, laugh, dance, affect. That’s all there is to it.