June 20, 2008 at 8:45 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

This site exists to discuss songs. That being said–

I can’t even imagine writing a novel. Think of the years it must take to get the thing off the ground–the enormous work of all that writing and the inevitable burden of getting it published. Or before that, consider just handing the first draft off to your mother or father or your husband or wife or your best friend and waiting for a reaction. And what if it’s terrible and you know it but, man, look at all those pages.

Maybe a poet has it easier. The idea of crumpling up a single page and starting over might actually feel liberating. You’re just capturing a moment after all and there are lots of other moments and other pieces of paper. (Apologies to epic poets.)

Songwriters have the advantage of not having to rely entirely on their words. Music adds weight where there is none and air when there is too much. There are exceptions of course, but if you ever leaf through the pages of the collected “songs” of a songwriter in a bookstore somewhere, they’re pretty limp. [Jewel: tell us more about Alaska.] Frankly, this balance struck between words and music serves to prop both elements up — often to an extent they wouldn’t have reached on their own merit. For instance, there isn’t any argument about how great a song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is. [At least, there shouldn’t be.] But reading the words, “When you’re weary, feeling small / When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all; I’m on your side. when times get rough / And friends just can’t be found / Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down” — you aren’t necessarily struck by some original idea. If you’re more cynical, you might even roll your eyes at the the sight of clichés like “tears in your eyes” and “times get rough”. But in that sweet tenor voice of Art Garfunkel, you never once doubt the sincerity of any of those notions. A lot can be said for inflection and delivery and attitude in a performance; sometimes that’s all that can be said.

But in creating something that you can listen to in a couple of minutes, the song also has the advantage of being less demanding. You could let your girlfriend/mother/wife/etc. listen to it and she can continue to drive her car or order something online or have a conversation. Songs sneak up on you in a way literature can’t– [I know it’s possible, just not as likely.] They actively involve more of the senses. And perhaps, as a result, they are harder to describe and examine from a craft perspective.

Anyway, the point is songwriting is a completely different bird and most songwriters are bad at describing the process but I want to try anyway — maybe for selfish reasons. [I’m not sure what that means; I just want to make sure I cover myself here.] So: I’ve started writing down all the devices, strategies, and inspirations I use to write songs. I thought about what goes on in my head when I’m coming up with an idea for a song or when I’m stuck with something unfinished. The process is ongoing and like a lot of writing, it’s probably more about self-validation than anything else.

My ongoing list is made up of observations about both music and words. I won’t pretend that I’m an expert in either, but I’m fascinated by the strange power songs have and spend most of my time thinking about how I could write a better one. Maybe there’s something helpful about being neither a great musician nor a great writer. Great musicians often have a hard time reigning in all that talent. When there are few limitations to your talents as a musician, the basic song format might become a real bore. They same must be true of great writers. How could the verse/chorus structure of popular song really allow all the space they would require?

Wow. Talk about self-validation: I’ve just legitimized my songwriting abilities by proving that my limitations as a musician and a writer might actually make me an ideal songwriter. If only Salieri (from the film Amadeus), who proclaimed himself “The Patron Saint of Mediocrity” could have enjoyed the importance we put on popular music today, he might have found real satisfaction as a songwriter and could have avoided the suicide attempts and insane asylums.

So let’s celebrate the imperfect art form of the song. I hope readers feel willing to share what “it” is they like so much about a certain song and maybe other songwriters could give us some insight into their process.


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