Let’s agree that the most basic job of the songwriter is to make the listener feel something. But let’s say you’re writing about your own feelings—how do you tell someone your heart is “broken” and have them actually care?
Well, another job of the songwriter is to make the familiar fresh so that we may yet again feel something real about time-worn subjects like love and loss, victory and triumph, betrayal and disappointment, joy and happiness, loneliness and connection.
Great songs do this, seemingly effortlessly. But how do you and I do it? It’s a problem we should consider every time we sit down to write a song.
Here are some strategies: try deliberately staying away from old habits and defaults. To do this, sometimes songwriters juxtapose genres (“This is my Klezmer/Inuit song”) or they experiment with unfamiliar chord changes. Do you often write in the same key? Change it! Do you often write slow songs? Speed it up! Do you always write about your own feelings? Try painting a picture using objects or places to show the feelings you’re trying to convey. Do you often write from your own point-of-view? Imagine yourself in another’s position and write as if you were that person.
John Lennon, after he met the artist Yoko Ono, became convinced that the best art is self-referential. He derided Paul McCartney as writing “stories about boring people doing boring things—being postmen and secretaries and writing home.” Lennon went on to say, “I’m not interested in writing third-party songs. I like to write about me, ‘cause I know me.”
I think Lennon misses the point: McCartney’s songs are about him; they are about his view of the world. They are about the feeling that McCartney wants you to share. Think of “Eleanor Rigby”, a song that paints a vivid, though impressionistic, picture of a set of people (Father McKenzie; Eleanor Rigby herself) who never “meet” in the song, who never interact, and yet they are somehow connected, adding to the picture of desolation McCartney is painting. “Ahhh, look at all the lonely people!” is the song’s lamenting chorus, asking “Where do they all come from?” and—interestingly—never attempting to answer that question, never trying to “solve” the issue of loneliness but just allowing the listener to feel it. “Eleanor Rigby” is clearly an expression of McCartney’s view of the human disconnect, something I’m certain that even he, with all his fame and fortune, has felt.
Sometimes I hear a song—a moving, thoughtful, well-constructed and, hopefully, catchy concoction—that leaves me wonderstruck. “Message In A Bottle,” by the Police, for example, tells the story of a guy stranded on a desert island. Simple, right? But wait! What’s it really about? What’s it mean? Look closer: it’s about the universality of loneliness, and ultimately about the narrator making a connection, in this case with “a hundred billion castaways” like him. (Sting had already written a song on the debut Police album, where he sings “So Lonely” more than 35 times, so he pretty much had to find a new way to write about loneliness.)
The guy-stranded-on-a-desert-island is a great metaphor for disconnection and alienation. And it very likely is a metaphor; I doubt Sting was ever a castaway himself. Extrapolate and the message-in-a-bottle ends up illustrating the narrator’s attempt to reach out, to connect. The ending, where the narrator finds out he really isn’t alone in his feelings, feels triumphant: the narrator, lost and alone, finds, through his own effort of sending out “an S.O.S. to the world,” that everyone feels the same way. (Now if they could only get him off that damn island!). So this seemingly very specific song reveals itself, with a little examination, to be as universal as can be, arguably more universal than if Sting had written a more literal song about his feelings of loneliness. (“Message In A Bottle” was a far more successful song in every way than the tiresome, overly-simple harangue of “So Lonely”.)
How else to make the familiar fresh? Try turning a cliché on its head, using its very familiarity to make it new again. That “broken heart” mentioned earlier? It’s probably the most overused image in popular song. But Diane Warren turned it on its head with “Unbreak My Heart”, a massive hit for Toni Braxton, making listeners everywhere feelsomething fresh about an old cliché.
A songwriter might even use numbers as a jumping-off point for a song’s premise (a phone number, like “867-5309” by Tommy Tutone; a year, like “1979” by Smashing Pumpkins, “54-46”, which was Toots’ of Toots & the Maytals prisoner number, or whatever “TVC15” by David Bowie is about).
Sometimes songwriters make up characters and have them do stuff, like actors in a play (McCartney again, in “Penny Lane”). There’s less of the literal “me” in such songs, and yet they can be just as revealing as the most confessional songwriting.
Sometimes great songwriters deliberately take an unpopular, maybe even unpleasant point-of-view, or feature a “narrator” that is unreliable, untrustworthy, unlikable. This is a very brave thing to do. In a post-Beatles/Dylan world, song lyrics are almost always perceived as being autobiographical, so it was a huge risk for Randy Newman (who does this a lot) to take on the voice of the Southern racist (“Rednecks”) or the person advocating nuclear annihilation of every country except America (“Political Science”). It’d be pretty easy to write a simple, one-dimensional (and very likely terrible) song called “Racism is Bad!” or “Nuclear War is Bad!” but Randy Newman chooses to go about dealing with those very heavy topics in a way that is utterly fresh.
Great songs that seem very specific are almost always, at their root, about something far more universal: a feeling, an emotion, that those circumstances or characters illustrate. Your listener doesn’t have to be told about your feelings, you can show them. As a songwriter, it is your job to make other human beings feel things. One way to do that is to use your imagination, stretch out, and make the familiar fresh.