Monday, December 13, 2010

get out your pencils, class.

So, I write songs. It’s one thing that I’m slightly good at, depending on who you ask, and I’ve come up with a lot of notions about what makes a song good and what makes a song bad. Mostly, I’m talking about lyrics here, because let’s face it, all my songs are the same six chords and actually, they’re mostly just three, just like most poppy sounding songs, but the lyrics are where you or I, as a songwriter can really get out there and make something unique. Does this interest you at all? Good.

Firstly, this is my take on a highly subjective subject so there’s a good chance that most of this is gonna be complete drivel to some of you, and well, many (I’d even say most people) don’t give two fucks about the lyrics of even their most favorite songs and as such, slaving over lyrics to pop music is a lot like working extra hard to shine up the bottom of your car. That being said, lyrics are my favorite part of a song, and the most important point of connection to my favorite artists and kind of the only thing I really have any sort of authority to speak about (have you heard me sing or play? Jesus…it’s rough) so yeah, get out your rags, because we’re gonna shine up this undercarriage real good.

Okay, Ben Weasel, super close friend of mine that he is, once said that there’s a concrete spot in songwriting where you can tell when someone starts to suck as a lyricist and that’s when songs stop being about “I” and start being about “you.” I think that’s what he said, at least that’s the way I remember it and it serves my purposes here, so let’s just leave it at that for now. Well, this is not entirely correct as I can think of a ton of songs that are totally fabulous that are completely “you” based (No Control, Filler, every gorilla biscuits song ever) but the idea of the exercise is dead on. It’s much easier to write a song about “you” than about “I” but you’re much more likely to get somewhere a lot more interesting if you keep it about “I”.

To put this in terms of an example, if you’re writing a love song (and probably 90% of all songs are love songs) to write about “you” (the person you love, the person that fucked you over, the person you really want to fuck) is okay. You can shower them with praise, tell them to fuck off, describe what they did that makes them so fabulous/shitty/etc. but that’s pretty much it. When you write the same song about “I” suddenly you’re writing about how much whatever they did broke your heart/made you fall in love/left you confused. You can talk about how YOU (the ‘I’ of the song) feel when you see this stunning beauty or great ass, and you have all these emotions that you can conjure up. When the song is about you, the songwriter, not the pronoun, it’s more interesting, but more than that, it’s got more room to really have a visceral impact on the listener, because you’re not just describing someone, you’re laying yourself out there, which is much more fascinating and nuanced than just talking about how rad/shitty someone is could ever be.

Neil Diamond has this hilarious intro to some live record where he spends way too much time talking about “writing what you know” and you, as a writer know “I” better than you know “You” 100% of the time. Also, if you’re serious about getting in there and stirring shit up, you’re likely to get into some weird areas of self reflection that can very often lead to good and interesting lyrics. BUT, don’t get carried away. Let me give you an anecdotal example of taking this kind of thing too far:

My friend’s band was trying out new singers in the late 90’s. One dude came into their practice space and they started playing and he just went for it, singing over the song even though he’d never heard the song before. Well, this was a fairly snotty, fast paced and quick stopping band and when the song abruptly ended about a minute and ten seconds after it began, the would be singer was still screaming and he just busts out with “you broke my heart you fucking biiiiiitch!”

He was not called back.

There’s nothing so gnarly as trite heartfelt garbage, regardless of how truly you feel it. You have to bring something interesting to the table. It’s never enough just to feel it. You’ve got a zillion words and ways to present ideas out there. Just “I love you” or “I’m pissed” isn’t gonna cut it. Ever.

My former band mate (and pop whiz) Matt Stamps, in trying to teach me how to write songs once pointed to an example of a local vocalist who had written a great song called ‘the fourth of july’ and while it was about him and a girl breaking up, it was also about the bombs exploding in the sky and the small town celebration where the breakup happened. The end results were pensive and kind of sad, BUT also an artfully rendered little tune about how the explosions in the sky were reflective of his internal feelings of anguish.

The big thing he avoided with this little trope was overt wallowing in self pity. That shit is always, ALWAYS 100% terrible. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice tackles this issue better than I ever could, so check that out for more expounding on this theme.

Now, speaking of writing what you know, the last thing I’m gonna talk about here today, because my kid needs breakfast, is detail. The details in your songs are as important as the big hooks. I mean, the more specific you can get, 9 times out of ten, the better lyric you have. On a big scale, that has a lot to do with really specific places and settings. There’s no way that “Old Friend” by rancid would be as good as it is if it wasn’t being sung from the setting of an old tin van in the rain in Cleveland (while Tim is, from what I can gather, refusing to bone some girl). Beyond that, how great is it when Billie Joe sings about meeting his girl at the Berkeley Marina, or Coco from Gaslight talks about looking up at the quiet Edison sky, or Matt Skiba sings about the US Maple show at the Fireside? It doesn’t matter that you’ve never heard of US maple and you don’t know where Edison is (though you probably guessed it was in Jersey, right?) It’s that sense of bringing your listener in, that you’re using that shorthand that you use with your friends that makes a song seem intimate, that makes it interesting, that creates that rapport that makes us as fans feel like we’re friends with the artists that write our favorite songs, even though they might be total dickheads in real life.

To take this further, I think that the article “the” should rarely be employed in songs. It’s too vague. If I’m writing about the streets in my neighborhood (to use a cheesedick example) and I want to convey that every day, like some sort of character from a 90’s pop punk song, I’m walking the streets in my neighborhood, I would say I’m walking THOSE streets or THESE streets or even THEM streets before ‘the’. Just making it that much more specific can be the difference between something cool and something kind of boring. Now, there’s totally room for “the” as well, when you purposely want to be non-specific. Take “Old Friend” again:
“Somewhere in America, in THE city at night. We were far from home, but you know it’s gonna be all right.”

That “The” is so awesome, because the notion that it conveys to me is that this could be any city and every night out there in that van on those roads, that feeling of being isolated and lost and excited and hopeful is present, no matter what city you’re in.

I dunno….like I said, highly subjective topic. This is just a little bit of what I think about when I sit down to write songs. Looking at my career, you probably shouldn’t put too much stock in this eh?

Okay, waffles are done. Gotta skate.
xoxoxox

22 comments:

FranklinStein said...

wow, disgustingly relevant right now. I was thinking last night while writing a song how you can't half-ass the lyrics when you're employing a limited amount of chords for practically every song you write. nothing jaw-dropping or anything, just a little reinforcement. on a relevant topic, "16 hours" contain some of the best lyrics about feeling like shit...and the word acrobatics in "porno and snuff films" is more of a guarantee to give me a throbbing boner than Candice's tits.

also, Jeff Mangum owns.

Katie said...

A lot of this is relevant to what I think about when I paint. I want to get a point across but I don't want to be painfully fucking obvious. I also don't want to be so obscure either....tough line to walk. Good thoughts there BK.

Donnie said...

I was talking about your song writing with my cousin the other day. You have been writing songs for so long and there isn't really a and one in the bunch (in my opinion)

Skiba started off great but in recent records he seems to be slipping like he's out of ideas and has resorted to bad puns.

anyway great post

Donnie said...

* isn't a bad one in the bunch....

Brittany Strummer said...

Sometimes, when I'm bored at work, I like to read Lawrence Arms lyrics as if they're poetry and if I were to read them to someone without the music someone would think I was reciting a poem because basically that's what lyrics are. In fact, when I listen to a band I focus on the lyrics more than the music. I'm trying to write my reviews for my favorite albums of 2010 and it occurs to me that I don't know jack shit about music. The lyrics move me more than anything else in the song. While I can appreciate the music, it's the lyrics that leave a significant mark on my brain.

clapyouphillistines said...

Chris was quoted in an interview that you write songs in about "twenty minutes". Is this an exaggeration? Is he just unabashedly lying?

I'm blown away regardless. The lyrics on Apathy and Exhaustion are Grade A. They are choice cut.

It's difficult not to jump into praise when considering that album. The interplay between you and Chris is right-on. The lyrics are the best punk rock has to offer. Sadly? I don't think so. By lyrics, you set the standard for excellence.

The lyrics are what keep me listening to Larry Limbs. My asshole tightens when I listen to the vocals sometimes (it was an acquired taste for me after so many listens), but the lyrics are so intelligent and descriptive. It's exciting to hear your songs for that reason alone.

Okay, I just finished.

limited nobility said...

made up gaslight lyric of the month-"the stars burn bright like light bulbs in this Edison sky/so I thank god for my gal and that Edison guy"......ya know cause Edison invented....and gaslight are kinda shit...anyway,I always enjoy (and re-read) these music related posts......philistines-what's up with the spelling?ironic?u 14 or a girl or some shit?

clapyouphilistines said...

Nah I spelled it wrong. Good catch.

limited nobility said...

elvis costello said something like,to find your "style" as a song writer you should deliberately attempt to imitate your idols (in his case george jones,dylan etc) and in failing to effectively do so you will sort of accidentally happen upon your "voice" or whatever you wanna call it

Sean said...

I have a similar conversation with my friend who's an avid pop punk enthusiast.


Every time he mouths made up words to Rancid's newest cd, I ask him why he likes Dominoes over, say, Life Won't Wait. His response is always "This cd's just fun... It catchy!"


Any attempt to get him to listen to the lyrics of the two albums or actual songwriting quality and not just hooks and melodies causes him to interject with a "Oh, I don't listen to lyrics... they bore me."

alright, maybe that cd isn't the best example to prove my point to him... but still!

It's A-me, Martucci said...

Glad to see ya finally took care of that spelling there clap. I only mentioned it four fucking times

Banana@1000MPH said...

I was looking at your twitter and you are following the fake Fat Mike, there was some press release a bit back about it. Here's the real one:
http://twitter.com/fatmike_of_nofx

Drunken Acorn said...

I read a interview with Jason from None More Black and he said he likes to use the "you" in a song. But the "you" is him. So he saying "you" but meaning "I". @ Donnie. I got to disagree with you on the Skiba thing man. This Addiction was awesome, had some great lyrics on it. Lead Poisoning and Dead on the Floor are some of the best songs Skiba's ever written.

Nick said...

Your twitter account might be the greatest thing to happen to me all week. I don't even have an account. It's just a kick to read your quips in microblog format. Translates well, man.

Owner Operator said...

beeks. give us a lsit of your favourite bands/songs/records?

limited nobility said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
limited nobility said...

beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Seagull Steve said...

Couldn't agree with you more about this stuff. Thanks for the insight.

Kyle Milton said...

uhh.. is this going to be on the test?

Sean said...

hey, just wonderin if any of you socks have ever been here.... it looks pretty fucking cool...

http://artbns.com/swedish-subway-system/

Donnie said...

Acorn - This Addiction is much better than Agony and irony, but he lost me again with Demos

maggiejoan said...

lyrics usually set the groundwork for the reason I like a band. If the music lines up, awesome, but not the most relevant thing to me.

The Lawrence Arms are the first punk rockish band that I listened to that had good lyrics and made me realize that not all punky type stuff had to have lyrics like "we ain't got no place to go/so let's go to the punk rock show."

So, thanks for that.
/fawning