I feel sad. I feel so very sad. I think this might be the most sad I've ever felt. If I were to compare the sadness that I am feeling right now to other people's sadness, I'm pretty sure that my sadness is the most sad of them all.
How did reading that make you feel? Did it make you feel sad? Or did it make you feel nothing at all? Or irritated? Or angry? It certainly made me feel angry writing it. I was virtually thumping the keys of my little laptop. It was probably wondering what it did to deserve such abuse. Well, laptop, I can tell you what you did. You were the conduit through which a writer sought to move me emotionally simply by stating the fact that he was feeling sad.
I have recently been involved in several conversations/discussions with people regarding the role of specificity in songwriting. One thing I have heard is basically the following statement:
1. The more general and sweeping the statements you make in your lyric, the greater the number of people who will connect with your song (a sort of fishing trawler approach to songwriting if you will).
This of course can lead to a lyric such as:
"I feel sad. I feel so very sad.... etc."
Because of course, yes, everyone has felt sad at some point in their lives! (With the exception of The Flying Purple Unicorn of Sparkly Joy who resides in Happy Land).
So by stating in your lyric that you are sad, you are thereby connecting yourself to all the billions of people in the world who are sad when they think about their relationship breaking up, their parents getting divorced, their pet dog dying or Donald Trump becoming President.
Does that make sense? Because it seems to...
Then why do I not feel sad?
The reason is that the emotion is a result. It's not the issue. You can't make emotion with emotion.
The reason I cried (along with the rest of the world) in the first five minutes of Pixar's UP, is not because the guy was sad that his wife had died. It was because I had seen the moments of their lives through his eyes. Those tiny specific moments that happened to them and only them and no one else in the world. I saw those moments, I experienced them through him and when I realised they were gone forever I was devastated.
So how does this help us in songwriting for the stage?
I believe that being specific is the key to being universal and I know I'm not the only one who believes this. Countless songwriters have done this brilliantly but often it is not recognised that this is what they are doing. Sometimes, they don't even realise that's what they've done (the one hit wonder phenomenon). People like Joni Mitchell knew exactly what they were doing. Her song 'A Case of You' is an absolute masterclass in the universality of specifics. Take a look at this lyric for example:
On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada, Oh Canada
And sketched your face on it twice.
I have never drawn a map of Canada and I'm not an artist so I stay away from drawing at all costs, lest it destroy my ego. But I can feel (very deeply) what this moment is all about. For me it's about regret, lost love, loneliness and yes, sadness. And yet, not once did Joni Mitchell say that she was sad or lonely or regretful. She didn't need to tell me, because she had shown me. And the reason her words are so powerful for me are because of the emotion that lies beneath them. Simmering under the surface.
The specific moment she described translates to a universal audience because they have all felt lonely and sad. What she has done is painted a picture of what loneliness and sadness looked like to her one night and she hung it up on the wall for the world to see.
Have a look at the chorus lyrics for Bridge Over Troubled Water by Paul Simon as well. You may be confilcted about this one...
Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water
I will lay me down
Now, at first glance, these lyrics might seem quite vague. And that's the reason I chose them. But again, look closely. Mr Simon is painting a picture for us. He is saying If you're sad I will make you feel better. But the way in which he is saying it is very specific. He allows you to see with your minds eye, the cold turbluent waters that are raging, you can feel the bridge descending over it allowing you safe passage to the other side of the river. He lets you know that he can help you through these difficult times and you will make it to the other side, but he does it all in one very specific and powerful image.
So those are my thoughts on the matter. We are at our most universal when we are specific and we are at our least universal when we are vague. Emotions are a result, they can't make other emotions. They are an end point. If you want to convey sadness in your lyric, think back to a time when you felt sad, but instead of describing how you were feeling, try describing what you saw, what you did, where you went, who you met, what they said. These are the moments that will paint your picture. Then when you're done with your brush and canvas, hang it up on the wall and let the world see it for themselves if you are brave enough. Because that takes courage.
Just thought I would pop down a few things I have learnt about song-writing down. Over the years.
1. There are many successful ways of writing a song. You can't do it wrong, you can only do it badly. Find what works for you and do that. If you write lyrics first then music later, or the other way round. In fact I've found it useful to try out as many different ways of writing as possible. Even if there is one that sticks with you, it's great to have the others in your toolbox in case you ever get stuck. Different orders, lyrics first, music first, both together. Try it all. Some may surprise you.
2. Be flexible. Try not to hog tie yourself into rhyming schemes and length of lyric or melodic lines. If you can see it coming, chances are your audience will as well. And there's nothing better as a member of an audience than being surprised. Try things out, extend your lines long past what you think you can get away with and then whack a really strong rhyme on the end. I am constantly surprised at the shit that I get away with. Try extending a melody beyond where you think it should end. Test yourself. And once you've tested yourself and found something that you like, then the hard work begins.
3. Structure is really important. Once you've had your fun coming up with interesting lyrics and figures, the difficulty lies in the repetition of those moments of interest. New lyrics for a complicated melodic/rhythmic figure are part of the toughest bit of songwriting. Say you've come up with a triple rhyme scheme that you really like and is amusing/moving and memorable. How do you make another verse that is not only just as amusing/moving but is more so, and develops your initial ideas for the song further? This is where the work starts. Spend a lot of time thinking, sing to yourself under your breath as you cycle or shower. Take time to figure things out. Use rhyming dictionaries, talk to friends and colleagues, try things out endlessly. It takes time but it's worth it.
4. Analyse your work. Be critical of yourself. Listen to feedback BUT don't take it as gospel. A million people will have a million different opinions of your work. But underneath it all, you are the only one who knows what you are trying to achieve with the song. Take the feedback that will help you to realise your vision of the song. Sometimes it will be difficult to hear but it's worth listening.
5. When asking for feedback. Try not to ask for it immediately after finishing your song. If you have written something you are emotionally connected to then any feedback, no matter how positive, will be hard to take. Give yourself some time to distance yourself from the song, so that you can view it objectively. When you've had some distance from your work then take you'll be able to listen to their feedback without shouting at them that "You don't understand!" and locking yourself in the bathroom for three days. The thing is, if they don't understand what you're trying to do with the song then you haven't done it right and it needs looking at. In that intervening time you can prepare yourself mentally for everything that they are going to say about it and chances are you'll start to criticise it your work yourself, which is the best thing you can do.
6. In pop, songs can mean different things to different people. That's what's great about them. But if a song illicits confusion, that's a problem. For one person it can be about a person in love, to another it may be a love song to a dead parent, or about a new pet. That's great. But if the listener is unsure whether it's about one or the other, there's the problem. A song can use vague language as long as the sum total of that vague language conjures up a
coherent and specific connection in the listener's mind.
This has been nice!
More to come next time...