NEW SECTION FEATURING ADVICE FOR BUDDING SONGWRITERS
FROM PEOPLE WHO'VE BEEN THERE, DONE THAT.....AND SURVIVED..
THIS TIME IT'S NASHVILLE STUDIO MAN DAVID ROBINSON OFFERING SOME POINTERS ON THE THORNY SUBJECT OF ORIGINALITY.
The followiing text originally appeared on the newsgroup alt.rec.songwriting and any references to other's work is to be seen in that context. David is replying to fellow lister Cyndy...
"The issue of originality, over-used rhymes, and clichés
comes up often in songwriting. It seems that in critiques, that is the first
thing that is usually pointed out. But I have thought a lot about this lately.
I think in trying to help the writer it gives us something to point to and
say, a-ha this is your problem, when in reality the song may just be weak
Speaking of critiques, your opening lines were so good, Cyndy, that I saved
that post. I happen to agree with you so far....
"One of the reasons I think it is a good time to bring this subject up, is the recent postings of some very original lyrics on this newsgroup. I certainly hate to be the one to put someone down for original lyrics, especially since there are so few of them, but I feel like I just have to say, for the most part, they are too original for me. I do not mean to say, however, that there's not an audience for that type of thing, it's just not me."
Here you almost lost me. You're saying 'original lyrics' and then that they're 'too original.' What I think you're talking about is some of the more abstract writing coming from our new Goth friend. While some of his references are obscure and very abstract, he's not completely original (check out "Christ's Entry Into Brussels In 1889" by James Ensor at the Getty Museum, or the latest coffee table book that pairs images from it with Bob Dylan's 1965 masterpiece, 'Desolation Row'). He's putting a macabre spin on Christian spirituality, which isn't all that new or original. He might deny the influences, or even cite wholly different ones, but I don't think originality is the word you're looking for. Until you correct me (or I find out later in this string) I will assume it's NOT.
"But I think this brings up an interesting dilemma. Just how original can you be in writing songs? I view songwriting as almost totally opposite from poetry. In poetry, to me it seems, the writer tries to obscure the meaning. While in songwriting the meaning has to be apparent. I know a lot of us say (myself included), "Well, I really just wrote this one for myself." And I know that we do write things sometimes just because it feels good to us at the time without the consideration of what anybody else may think of it. But, I still think the ultimate goal, and the art of songwriting is to connect with other people".
This is a conundrum I've been wrestling with for years; it started somewhere
near the end of my degree studies and intensified when I moved to Nashville.
But first things first: 'good' poets don't try to 'obscure the meaning.' Poetry
isn't about obscuring meanings, it's about expression and creativity and many
of the same things songwriting is about (it's just done differently). But
poetry has never been an instrument of mass media the way songwriting has,
and as a result doesn't pander obsessively to popular tastes the way Pop songwriting
does (I'm including all of Rock, Country and a few other genres in the term
'Pop songwriting' here). And really, Pop songwriting HAS to pander to those
tastes, otherwise it wouldn't be 'Pop.' Of course, everyone has their own
variation on this, and SHOULD. I'm sure you could find at least a half dozen
people on this list that would despise the very idea of 'trying to be a Pop
songwriter' (of any stripe). I think your analysis in the end, that songwriting
is about COMMUNICATING with other people, most closely resembles my own intentions
though. At one time, if all I did was express myself, that was enough. But
now I find that my writing has to be more efficient, it has to reach other
people as well.
"Some people write for themselves and some people write for other people; each deserves the audience he asks for." (Paul Leka)
"What I have found in my own writing, is in order to make this emotional connection, I cannot avoid clichés and over-used rhymes. For me, it seems like people relate better to simple words and ideas that they have heard in the past, and they almost 'expect' to hear something familiar. I will try to change them around a little, try to mix in some not so used rhymes, and try to come up with original themes, but that is about all I can do. If I get too original, people just do not respond. Of course my biggest concern is that this may be due to my lack of skill as a songwriter."
Around here, if your writing avoids the clichés and whatnot too cleanly, you're seen as a kind of 'songwriting snob.' The same goes for musical terminology; if I mention key signatures or tonic chords too often, other musicians get self conscious and start to take offense. Heaven forbid I get on a technical bent and start talking about phase relationships and stereo imagining in the studio--then I'm written off as a techno nerd junkie wanna be.
Beginning songwriters don't take note of clichés; it's only the intermediate and craft-conscious writers that worry about them. Successful and (usually) rich songwriters seem to be oblivious to them. I think the real point is to make that emotional connection; you have to notice when you're writing above the audiences' head, so to speak. As far as clichés go, well...I'm conscious of them, but the way around them is to use the same or similar terms in a new way, casting new light, etc. (what is that all the books say? 'Breathing new life' into them?). The trick is to do it in a way that's on the same intellectual level as the original cliché (that's my guess, anyway). When I first began writing, I barely had a grasp on rhyme at all, much less perfect rhyme. Looking back on older pieces, it wasn't until I 'got serious' about songwriting that I fell into perfect rhyme and started using the overused rhymes and clichés. Once I started developing some craft and technique though, I gradually got away from it. The most important thing to me now is to tell the story, and then make it rhyme. If you want to hear someone that has a good handle on re-using clichés, give a listen to David Wilcox. He turns them inside out all the time.
"What I really think though, is that it's just a very thin line, and that's probably what makes songwriting so difficult. On the one hand you have to be original, but on the other hand not so original as to lose your audience. And lyrics depend so heavily on the music, that it is just about impossible, I have decided, to give or get an accurate critique with lyrics only. The simplest lyrics may sound profound with the right music and it is possible that beautiful lyrics may not hold up too well when set to music."
Yes, I agree completely. Songs are comprised of three elements: words, music, and performance. A given song may lean heavily on one element more than the other two, but they all three need to be there. And again, the main point is that you COMMUNICATE with your audience, not how many clichés you do or don't use. Make them part of the song; think of their reactions as an integral part of song structure.
"I have been attempting to analyze songs lately, to see what does and doesn't work. I have found that clichés and over-used rhymes appear a lot in songs you hear on the radio. And while it seems I have found this is especially true in country, it is not only limited to country. I hate to bore you guys to death with this but just as an example of the opinion I have just given I have posted these words to what I consider a great song. Written by Bob Dylan, many may have heard it recorded by Garth Brooks. "
The radio is not the first place I'd go in search of great songwriting technique.
Consider that 'great songwriting' and 'hit songs' are not necessarily the
same thing, and in fact the two rarely coincide. It's usually not until long
after a song has been in circulation that it can be fairly judged both a 'hit'
and a 'great' song.
"To Make You Feel My Love When the rain is blowing in my face..."
Obviously, this isn't Dylan's best work. I think it achieved radio airplay simply because Dylan wrote it, and Garth Brooks sang it. Dylan probably wrote it BECAUSE Brooks was going to sing it, and those kinds of contrived collaborations rarely stand up over time. It reads like a Dianne Warren lyric, and needless to say she isn't my favorite writer...Brooks could have chosen from hundreds of Dylan's songs and come up with a much better record, but he probably wanted something written specifically for him...tsk, tsk, what a waste. That said, Dylan can be very masterful when it comes to using clichés. A better example might have come from one of the Traveling Wilbury records, where they ALL trotted out their favorite clichés, but made them work. Dylan in the guise of a Bruce Springsteen wanna-be, lampooning a lot of Springsteen's work...Tom Petty lampooning Dylan, and Jeff Lynne doing his best George Harrison impersonation, with George standing right next to him, no doubt. I'm getting off the point, though, which is: you can write clichés poorly or well, it depends on how much effort you put into it. Most people don't put much effort into it, and I think that shows through. Maybe it's because they don't know HOW to put the effort into it, and maybe some of them couldn't be bothered with putting any effort into it at all. But you're right, you can go through any catalogue of songs and find clichés galore from some of the best of writers (don't forget, though, that some of these clichés were the result--after the fact--of what were once some very original ideas and writing).
"I have also saw read critiques where over-rhyming, as in this case with the first three lines rhyming, is discouraged. So once again we're led back to the question of what does and doesn't work."
Not everybody is a great critic...some people are just working concepts out for themselves. Maybe we should put that in as a notice or warning (what's that Latin phrase for 'Buyer Beware'? Tempus Fugit? Nolo Contendre? Something like that?!?!? I forget...) , especially to 'newbie' writers--something like "I'm not an expert, but..." I'm always suspicious when I see a critique that starts out, "In a recent songwriting workshop," especially if it continues with either 'held by the local NSAI chapter' or 'moderated by such-and-such, a famous songwriter/lecturer/really nice guy who has all kinds of amazing credits.' Somewhere within the critique you are bound to find the phrase, "that just wouldn't sell in a) Country music, b) on the radio, c) if you pitched it to TAXI" or some other purported vehicle of songcraft or wanna-be arbitrator of taste.
Don't get me wrong, I think NSAI is a really good organization for people interested in developing their songwriting chops. Lots of good information. And I'm not knocking what's his name, the famous songwriter/lecturer/really nice guy who has all kinds of amazing credits, either. I just don't think he can give you all he knows about songwriting in thirty minutes, or even an hour. I've studied with successful songwriters for months, even years, and they couldn't give me the whole enchilada. And not all of those guys are particularly good at articulating what they do know in front of an audience composed of many different skill levels, either. On the other side of the coin you have a lot of people who latch on to the latest catch-phrase and recite it incessantly whether it has any bearing on the lyric at hand or not until they become a cliché unto themselves...a three hour workshop doesn't make you an expert on song or lyric writing technique; neither does a degree in Songwriting. Even having a 'hit' song doesn't make you an expert; there are plenty of good songwriters out there who couldn't explain how they do it to save their life, and couldn't even tell you if what you have written is 'good' or not.
What makes someone an expert? Being right ALL the time. Not just now and then, or once in a while...but looking at each lyric from a fresh perspective, determining what does or doesn't work about it (as opposed to some criteria set forth in a book you may or may not understand for what a given line is SUPPOSED to do), and analyzing it from that perspective. Personally, I can't do that, which is one of the reasons I don't spend nearly as much time writing critiques as I used to. I just don't have the energy to be right for all of the time it would eat up, even if I could be right all the time. Which I can't. I'm all for going over a lyric with or for someone now and then, but being a critic is actually a full time job, a specialty all of it's own, and I'd rather be a songwriter...
"A man must serve his time to ev'ry trade, save censure--critics are all ready made" (George Gordon, Lord Byron, English Bards and Scotch Reviews)
"I wrote this post..."
Well, Cyndy, I'm glad you did. It really made me think. And now that I've vented, I'm going to bed.
is a Nashville based ex Navy electronics specialist and Berklee College of Music graduate who also writes songs.
For further info. about his career and his studio work see WHISKEYJACK