I recently subscribed to Wayne Haun and Joel Lindsay’s new You Write Songs site [Edit, August 13: The site is now defunct and the link has been removed.] I’m excited about this and glad to see that two experienced vets of the biz are investing some time and effort in encouraging the next crop of young songwriters. As someone who’s just ventured into this field myself very recently, I figured I need all the tips I can get.
After subscribing, I watched a video that was made available to subscribers only. It was Joel Lindsay’s top five common songwriting mistakes.
I don’t want to give away all five, but I did want to discuss one point on which I definitely disagreed with Lindsay. (Hey, I didn’t have a problem criticizing John Piper’s preaching, so this is small potatoes. Anyway it’s been way too long since I wrote a post on songwriting, and I have at least one faithful reader who says they’re his favorite! So Rick, this is for you…)
One of the “mistakes” that Lindsay mentioned, alongside legitimate symptoms of new writer clumsiness, was writing music that is “outdated.” He said, “We’re all affected by great music of the past, and yet we want our music to sound current and fresh.” He stressed the importance of keeping up with the music that’s popular, that “the kids are listening to,” that’s topping charts right now. Interestingly, he then added that he wasn’t saying it’s necessary to imitate this music, it’s just good to be informed. But I think that’s misleading considering that he said it was a “mistake” to be “outdated.” Obviously he means something by telling young songwriters to “keep it fresh.” What else could it mean if not following current trends, at least to a certain extent? Perhaps he would say that boldly going where no artist has gone before would be the best thing of all, and that’s what he means by “fresh.” And yet the truth is that everything is an amalgam of its predecessors. There’s nothing really, truly “new” under the sun.
Now let me just pause and say that I think Lindsay’s intentions are good. Essentially, my guess is he’s trying to help young songwriters not to be disappointed if nobody seems interested in their stuff. He’s saying, “Nothing is stopping you from making music you like, but if you want someone to record it you can’t live in a bubble.” That’s good practical advice, and I can understand why he wants to make a point of saying it.
The problem as I see it comes when he tries to imply that “current” is by default good, while “not current” is… a mistake. That he should have specifically used that word struck me as odd. I’ll admit, my gut reaction was “I don’t want my music to be current, I want it to be good!” Let’s be honest here. There’s a simple, concise word to describe the majority of “what the kids are listening to” right now: Junk. You cannot look me in the eye and tell me that what’s charting today holds a candle to what charted thirty, forty, fifty years ago.
When it comes to how good music gets made, I’d say Paul Simon said it best:
I think good songs are all about sound. I think that’s what music is about. And the songwriter is listening to hear whether he or she is creating a sound that has some meaning. Unless you’re writing strictly on a commercial basis, I mean, unless you’re being a hack – even there, a good hack has to have some kind of sensitivity, but if you’re writing a song that is supposed to be a story, you’re listening to the sound and the sound is what tells you whether to stay by the rules or break the rules.
Now there’s a piece of advice that’s absolutely timeless. It’s got nothing to do with “keeping up” or being “current.” You let the music take you where it wants to go, and if you’re any good, you get something good. And if you’re Paul Simon, you get art. (Er, no pun intended. Would you believe, it took me a moment to realize…) As the interviewer pointed out in response to this quote, he wasn’t a very good hack when he was trying to write commercial stuff. It wasn’t where he belonged. And now, who remembers his 50s career?
It may be that if I ever wrote the next “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (not that I ever will, of course, but speaking hypothetically here…) nobody would want it because it’s not “Call Me Maybe.” But at least I wouldn’t feel like a hack. In my humble opinion, a little artistic pride doesn’t hurt.
In closing, a little something I created ‘specially for this post. Hope you like: