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.