By Erik Christensen
June 29, 2016
There are unwritten rules for writing pop music. If you want airplay, if you want people to listen, it’s gotta be this way—c’mon kid: make sure that song is catchy, about three minutes long, and make it about something anybody can relate to.
And, like most rules, these are complete nonsense. Most of us don’t like being told what to do.
Care to stroll through some great songs that aren’t typical? Want to mess with the status quo? Welcome to the All-Time, Top Five Ways To (Not) Write A Hit Song.
Don’t start with the chorus.
Build up to it so people can sing along.
Well…no. How about The Beatles “She Loves You” as a template? Boom, immediately to the chorus, which grabs you ’round the neck and doesn’t let go. Is there any song more instantly exciting, more recognizable? I missed the Beatles originally; I was a fat little kid with a baseball mitt by the time they broke up in the late ‘60s. But, as I grew up, I went through all their records, saw all the movies, and cherish these songs like no others.
(Side note: every succeeding generation seems to do this—my children can quote “Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” almost verbatim, and a good friend’s elementary-school-aged son absolutely fell in love with the “Number 1” compilation a few years ago. Every young person goes through a discovering-the-Beatles phase, and that’s a good thing.)
Get all ethnic up in here.
It absolutely warms my heart to know that music messes with color lines. In the late ’50s, young white kids danced to Chuck Berry and Little Richard, much to their parent’s horror. Paul Simon reportedly went to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record “Kodachrome” and wanted “those same black musicians who played on ‘I’ll Take You There’ and all the Aretha Franklin songs.” Little did he know the studio house band was the Swampers, a motley collection of pasty-white good ol’ boys. That’s right, Paul—all those greasy licks on Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, and Etta James records were made by these guys:
It also warms my heart to know that Paul Simon championed South African and Brazilian music later for his Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints albums. In both cases, he collaborated with indigenous musicians and created some brilliant music.
Keep it short.
Go ahead, pick any lengthy Bob Dylan song—“Masters of War,” “Desolation Row,” “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” or “Brownsville Girl.” I wouldn’t trade these for any two-and-a-half-minute pop song written in the last 20 years.
Sure, just because a song is long doesn’t make it good—“In-a-Gadda Da Vida,” anyone?—but why be so constricted by a format? There’s a great story about Dylan in the early Folk City/hoedown days not being able to fit two songs in to the “10 minutes per performer” limit—“each of my songs are way over five minutes!”
And what about the iconic classic radio dinosaur “Freebird”? After refusing to cut the piano intro (played by roadie Billy Powell who, no one knew, was a brilliant classically-trained piano player for years) or the three-guitar blowout at the end, they decided to just send it in to the record company and the radio stations without telling them it clocked in at almost seven minutes long. Love it or hate it, there’s no bigger hit at that length.
Stick to the
How amazing are the epic story songs of Roy Orbison? How lucky was I to see him play live a handful of times before he passed away in 1998? Usually starting with a soft-spoken, evocative first line—“a candy-colored clown they call the sandman/tiptoes to my room every night”—and building to an operatic pop symphony by the end. Uber-bass guitar genius Garry Tallent has said that “Running Scared” almost put him off of music completely. How could one do it any better?
Say what you mean.
Ladies and gentlemen: Randy Newman. Long before his “You’ve Got A Friend In Me”-style songwriting for cinema, Randy was the king of the cynical, ironic character song.
Talk about missing the point—he received hate mail for “Short People,” but no, he didn’t really feel that “short people got no reason to live”—it was a joke. And, irony of ironies, “I Love LA,” which many saw as satire, was really true—Randy was really singing So Cal’s praises, not criticizing the shallow, self-interested vibe of Los Angeles. Both songs were misinterpreted. And is there any more joyful video than this one?
Mr. Newman is genius at picking out a deplorable character to tell the story—and that’s the point: the speaker in the song is a jerk, not the songwriter. There are many, many others in his catalogue who do this—“It’s Money I Love,” “Rednecks,” “My Life Is Good,” and so on. This is a captivating technique; I wish more songwriters would do this, much like an actor playing a role. Do people think Daniel Day-Lewis or Michael Fiennes are really like the terrible characters they play in film?
Maybe it’s the last vestige of teenage rebellion—rock and roll has always been young people’s music: a lonely wolf howl of freedom, independence and making your own sense of the world. And even for someone like myself—pushing 50, or pulling it, if truth be told—there’s still a joy in not doing what I’m supposed to. Turn up the music.
Erik Christensen teaches English at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and still thinks Vin Scully is the best baseball announcer ever.
Erik Christensen band is doing a short tour of Oregon and California in July, then plays the Penn Cove Brewery Taproom in Coupeville on August 12.
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