The Pop Song

Here goes my essay from Arena this week…

Essay: Songwriting




A small part of most people still loiters in their teenage years, vapoury connections to cult films or gloomy records, character defining fashion, those sky blue bellbottoms, the domineering shoulder-pads, that flannel shirt.  For me there are scenes of awkward bass-guitar playing on creaky stages or in cramped rooms. And it’s always these memories that carry the urge to try my hand at writing a song.

It’s easy to assume there’s a step-by-step guide to songwriting. Certainly, trends appear when it comes to mainstream radio, lost or forbidden love, the odd dodgy cliché, familiar backbeat and guest featured artist. In reality, music is no different to most other art forms where paint-by-number frameworks can be used to make it more appealing to larger audiences.  But good writing is more than just structure, as are good songs.

Tracy Chapman feels that songwriting is like creating something from nothing, saying that when it comes to composing, it as if she isn’t really in control. Paul Simon too, who says he doesn’t understand exactly what all his songs mean but part of what makes a good song is that people get different meanings from them. So many of their songs have storytelling at their heart and like a good short story, a song should say a lot with few words.

Other writers tend to bury their words deep in the music, Kurt Cobain, Bjork, very different styles but the blend of lyric and sound almost create emotive shapes in the mind. David Bowie used a technique at the writing stage that bore some similarities to this, where he would cut up lines of text and allow the new word structure to provoke a set of images, encouraging him to look at the familiar from a new angle, a technique that’s used by some poets.

There is often criticism that the constant sampling and adaption of songs weakens the modern scene. But the folk tradition of songwriting revolves around recycling, the likes of Bob Dylan continuously using classic folk songs to influence the melody of new material. Sometimes the artist only realises the similarities after completion, which happened when REM credited Leonard Cohen on their track ‘Hope’ because they felt it bore a resemblance to his song ‘Suzanne’.

Like all art its worth investigating your reason for carrying it out. In the late eighties two members of KLF published a manual on how to have a number one hit and there are times when it seems as if songs are released specifically in the hope of being picked up by an advert or sporting event.  There was a time when the Christmas song was the jackpot. If money is the motive it might be worth keeping major celebrations in mind. It would be easy enough to squeeze the line ‘walking up the aisle’ or ‘happiest day of our lives’ into a song. Even better if you can think of something to rhyme with ‘it’s time to cut the cake.’