Saturday, June 20, 2009

Strange Dream/Songwriting Principles

Last night I dreamt that I was riding on a schoolbus, seated next to my friend Daniel Hong, who was detailing his attempt to win an American guitar competition by mastering a song called "Evil Ideal" and another tune by a group called The New Raisiennes. An odd dream in part because Daniel does not play the guitar, and also because both the song and band seemed oddly familiar. "Evil Ideal" - Siouxie and the Banshees, maybe? The New Raisiennes - did they just tour with M83? According to google searches, neither the song nor the band exist. I then decided that "Evil Ideal" was indeed an excellent name for a song, and I have begun to write it. However, this is almost certainly the final mention of The New Raisiennes.

This leads me to some notes on the way that I write songs, and the way that I think songs ought to be written, boiled down to three principles. A disclaimer is necessary. None of my songs have ever been professionally recorded, and I've only performed them in front of groups containing mostly friends who are obligated to like them, so I really don't know what I'm talking about. On the other hand, I know what I hate, and I don't hate all of the songs I've written.

First principle: Songs should derive from a musical or lyrical phrase.

This almost seems trivial. After all, what else is popular music? The most striking feature of a popular song is usually the hook, paired with lyrics or purely instrumental. But this stands in contrast to the idea that songs should derive from interesting topics or from strong emotions. While these can fuel a song's development, most successful pop songs discuss a very small number of topics and convey a limited range of emotions, and even those that venture into more unusual territory are grounded in a brief and memorable phrase. Consider such political anthems as "The Times, They Are a-Changin'" "Born in the USA" and "Shipbuilding". A song called "The Government Sucks", no matter how deeply felt and well-argued, will always be a bad song.

Similarly, writing to express a particular emotion usually goes badly, because complete expression takes precedence over the musical aspects of the song. Songs aren't poems, but quoth Wilde, "All bad poetry is sincere". Again, songs can be emotionally expressive, but they don't need to start there. This leads to the...

Second Principle: Don't be afraid to make things up.

When I write songs, I usually treat them as fiction with a first person narrator. There are a number of songs told in third person, but these are not the norm, and I've never written one. It's too difficult and too boring to retell one's life in rhyme and meter. Even if the gist of song is autobiographical, make up the details. Two of my favorite song genres, the torch song and the woman done wronged me song offer ample opportunities for embellishment and fantasy. Suppose I'm writing a song in the latter genre, and the most recent woman who "wronged me" was simply boring. Rather than detailing how boring she was, I'll sing about how she took all my money and ran off with my best friend. Great songwriters and pop singers are musical scriptwriters and actors, not diarists.

Third Principle: Lyrics don't need to make sense.

I'm not a huge fan of total nonsense lyrics (see: Red Hot Chili Peppers), but songs need not express great truths, nor attain narrative completion. Consider my all-time favorite song "Strawberry Fields Forever". "No one I think is in my dream/I mean it must be high or low." The line between cryptic and meaningless is fine, but one that a good songwriter must almost certainly learn to walk. And it is absolutely unnecessary that a song be coherent - verses need relate to one another at most loosely and conclusions are thoroughly optional.

No comments:

Post a Comment