Since this week’s edition of New Song Weekly is not going to be posted until Saturday (we had some technical issues with the video and couldn’t schedule a reshoot until Friday night), I thought I’d take some time to just blog about something songwritery in the interim.
Earlier this week I attended my first local NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International) meeting. I’d been invited by a friend, and was curious to see in what ways this group might differ from the regular song-writing group I already attend. It did differ in that it included a writing exercise, and discussion of the exercise, with those willing to share with the group offering up whatever they’d come up with in the brief time we’d had to do the exercise. I did not feel comfortable sharing, but others did, and it was interesting to see how different people had interpreted the exercise, and where their creativity took them. After that it was pretty much the same as my other group, meaning people took turns playing material and having it critiqued by the group. The only difference here is that I did not know everyone in this group yet, so it was a bit more nerve-wracking in a sense because I was playing cold in front of strangers in a very intimate setting. It’s also hard to take a critique from someone whose work you are unfamiliar with. Does that sound weird? I don’t know if it SHOULD be this way, but for me I can’t just take an unqualified opinion as gospel. If Diane Warren or Gretchen Peters gives me song-writing advice, I’m gonna be all over it, no questions asked. But someone I’ve just met, whose own songs I’ve never heard… Well, how can you trust someone’s opinion blindly like that? Making the situation even more interesting was the fact that I went first. I sang “Going Home,” which was last week’s song. And then everyone gave me their feedback—some of which I agreed with, and some I’m still processing and not quite convinced of.
And here’s where I was setting myself up to land, which is with a blog about song-writing groups in general. Because I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with them, and I think that’s actually the right attitude, and I need to vent about it a little. First, let’s just put the obvious problem right out in the open: everyone in the world has their own opinion, and at any given moment, whatever you are doing, you are not going to be pleasing EVERYBODY. So no matter what, no matter how good your song is, SOMEONE is going to not like it. Granted, if you’re in a room with ten people and nine of them like what you’ve done, you’re probably just going to decide that one person is not worth worrying about. But it’s not always such a landslide. Which brings us to obvious problem #2—and really this is the big one: if you ask people to listen specifically with the assigned task of offering feedback after the fact, they are going to listen critically. And that changes EVERYTHING, let’s face it. If the whole point is to find a flaw, then you’re going to find one. Because that’s your objective. Because that’s how you’re going to “help” that songwriter. That’s how they will “learn and grow.” And all of that is true, don’t get me wrong; but there can be a point where it becomes ridiculous.
Mind you, hearing feedback is optional. It is. You can ALWAYS say, “Ya know, I just wanna play this, but I really don’t want to hear anything critical tonight.” You can say, “I don’t wanna hear my baby is ugly tonight, thanks anyway.” And it’s okay. Everyone in the room gets it because everyone in the room has felt that way. Or you can say, “I’m really digging the lyrics, but I’d love some feedback on the melody in the chorus.” You can be that specific. And that’s what everyone will offer feedback on. And it’s a beautiful thing. Sometimes we want feedback just to confirm something we already know, but are having trouble accepting. Yes, that chorus really does need to vary a lot more from the verse to be interesting. Yes, changing that word is probably going to make the song better. Ah, I thought so.
Sometimes feedback and constructive criticism are essential tools in helping to unlock creative blocks you didn’t even know you were having. If you’re open to what’s being said, and respect the people saying it, then you can really take your work to the next level.
Look, here’s the thing—and this goes back to the “listening critically” thing: not every song is meant to be immediately understood. What I mean to say is that not every song is a cut and dried story where you can follow a linear thread from start to finish. Not everyone writes that way, and thank God. But it’s problematic in a situation like a song-writing group meeting. Like a fine wine, some songs need time on your palate—which might mean two or three listens over the course of a week, or month, or year. God, I’ve been listening to and loving “Behind Blue Eyes” by The Who for the better part of my life, and I STILL found something new in that song last year when I was in the midst of a personal Hell. It resonated differently because my life experience had changed and I could interpret it in a new way. Now that’s the extreme, of course. I’m not suggesting that anyone invest 20-odd years into trying to wrap their brain around one of my songs. But sometimes our initial gut reaction is more important than our initial analytical reaction. And when you’re in a song-writing group, you’re more often than not listening from a highly analytical place, and the gut reaction can be overwhelmed by that. And so you jump in with all these comments and suggestions because it’s your job, and then you hear the song out at that person’s gig a month later and you fall in love with it—even though nothing has been changed. Because you’re listening emotionally. And that’s far preferable in my book.
I don’t need everyone to understand every single nuance of my songs on first listen. Sometimes they will, and that’s great. But sometimes they won’t, and that’s okay too. If they feel something, even if they aren’t sure what or why, then the song is doing its job. And if on further listens (and let’s face it, we want you to want to keep listening) they discover something deeper, then Hallelujah. I don’t think everything has to be explained all at once. I like a little mystery. I like the listener to have the option to choose sometimes what exactly the song is about.
But many song-writing organizations push you to be as specific as you can, and include more details, etc. And I think there are songs that need that. But not EVERY song. Sometimes an impression, something a little more vague and abstract, can have far more impact because you can make it YOUR story. And sometimes it’s just more fun.
I like both kinds of songs, and there’s certainly room for both in this world. But I think sometimes when we offer feedback we get very tied into the advice we’re used to hearing from the song-writing world at large, and so we leave our gut out of it and become clinicians. And that’s a double-edged sword.
I also think there’s a bit of ego that can be involved. A bit of “Hey, check me out. I am so cool I can critique YOU.” And I’m just as guilty, by the way. Everything I’m saying here is true for me when I’m the one giving the feedback as well. These are traps we all fall into. But because I know that, I take all feedback with a couple grains of salt. And I also recognize (as we all do) that the luxury of the peer feedback model is that it’s the songwriter’s prerogative at any given time to simply say, “Nah!” and go about their business with their song as is. You’re not forced to agree with anyone, or to take anyone’s advice. Even if everyone in the room agrees about what you should change or fix, they can’t make you change or fix it, and that’s as it should be. Of course, you want to be in a place where you can really HEAR the feedback and take it in and decide not to use it from a place of intelligence and heart, and not from a place of defensiveness or sheer bruised ego. But in the end if you just don’t agree, you win. You really always win. It’s just that sometimes you have to wade through the loss of confidence that can come from a dizzying feedback session where everyone has SOMETHING for you to “fix.” I refrained from using the word “negative” there, because I find that everyone I’ve encountered goes out of their way to be positive and helpful and not beat anybody down. But it can still sometimes feel that way in the end. Especially if you liked what you had going on before hearing the feedback. It can make you question everything, and that can be challenging—because there is no right or wrong in the end.
And here’s the REAL kicker: even if you’re being groomed to write a so-called “hit” the formula can be imperfect. Following it can still not help you, and NOT following it can still get you where you need to go. So what incentive, really, is there to ever listen to anybody?
Here’s my favorite example of a song I consider to be SO flawed, which was a huge hit: “Back at One” by Brian McKnight. It hit #2 on the charts in 1999, and I can’t even listen to it because it makes me crazy. Because after you get handed a bunch of critiques about things needing to make “sense” and clarifying and whatnot, when a song like this gets through with no one batting an eye, it can make you downright bonkers. What’s wrong with the song? It’s in the chorus. I’ve had this discussion with many people and they’ve never noticed. These are the same people who dance their first dance to “I Will Always Love You” at their weddings, even though it’s a song about leaving. Because for most people listening to music is an emotional event, and not about analyzing (or even knowing) all the lyrics. How else would www.kissthisguy.com exist? Back to “Back at One.”
Okay, are you ready? Here it is. The chorus:
“One… you’re like a dream come true…
Two… just wanna be with you…
Three… girl it’s plain to see… that you’re the only one for me…
Four… repeat steps one through three…
Five… make you fall in love with me…
If ever I believe my work is done… then I start back at one (yeah)”
What’s wrong with that, Kim? It’s sweet! Let me break it down for you, it’s THIS line that makes me want to scream: “Four… repeat steps one through three…”
Uh… WHAT?! Those are STEPS?! “You’re like a dream come true” is a STEP? IN WHAT UNIVERSE? It’s a declaration, to be sure. It’s a nice thing for your boyfriend to say to you. It’s not a step of any kind.
What makes me REALLY mad (and I say “mad” and not “angry” intentionally, because there’s absolutely an insanity component to how I react to this song) is how EASY it would have been to MAKE those first three items actual steps. Think about it, “One… I’ll say I love you every day… Two… I’ll always let you have your way…” Okay, that’s a terrible lyric, but you see my point. This song made Brian McKnight a lot of money, I have no doubt. And while he was raking it in I was getting critiques from TAXI that made my blood boil. Because it was semantics sometimes and I just couldn’t handle the hypocrisy.
So there’s a perfect example of a song that made it “anyway.” If I’d been in a song-writing group with Brian McKnight, I’d have called him on that for sure. My point is, it didn’t make a damn bit of difference to the rest of the world. As flawed as I feel that chorus is—as NONSENSICAL as it ultimately is—people played it and played it and played it. So it’s all about grains of salt in the end.
Then you have someone like Neko Case. I LOVE her. I almost never know what the hell she’s talking about, but that’s part of the allure. She paints dark and haunting emotional pictures with bits of story that you can infer and internalize at your discretion. And I love her because she said this (in an interview with Julianne Shepherd at www.thestranger.com): “I hope I can comfort people a bit—maybe show people that making music is fun and accessible to them as well. I’m not out to become Faith Hill, I never want to play an arena, and I never want to be on the MTV Video Music Awards, much less make a video with me in it. I would like to reach a larger audience and see the state of music change in favor of musicians and music fans in my lifetime. I care very much about that.” It doesn’t have much to do with what we’re talking about, but I stumbled across it and think it’s fantastic.
And it did get me thinking that part of the problem is that song-writing groups consist of people writing for different genres, with different goals; and different rules apply to each market and situation. I mean, yes, if Neko wants a song on country radio, then she’s going to need a different approach. But she just said it. She doesn’t want to be Faith Hill. But if someone thinks she DOES want to be, how will that influence their feedback on her material? Hm. Even more salt.
Then again, how about a song like “I Am the Walrus?” Hardly obscure or fringy in the way Neko might be considered to be. Still getting airplay over 40 years later. But what the hell is THAT song about? Okay, there are classes you can take to analyze the music of the Beatles. And yes, you can read up on Wikipedia right now and find out exactly what the song is about. But personally, I don’t know beyond the vague acid trip references I’ve heard over time. I’ve never bothered to research it. Because I don’t CARE. It makes no difference to my enjoyment of the song to understand it. And it’s a pop song. And these days some would have you believe a pop song has to be very accessible and relatable and clear-cut, etc. And to that I say, “I Am the Walrus.” And shut up.