Several years ago, I played a new song I’d written and recorded to my dad. The song was about John Hodgman’s version of the Apocalypse as he had outlined in his Netflix special, Ragnarok. My song was called, “I Survived the Dogstorm.” It was obviously weird. My dad’s response, in total dad fashion, was along the lines of, “why can’t you write nice songs?”
My dad backed up to say that he thought it was a crafty song. He called it a “ballad” — meaning it told a story, the most important criterion in my father’s judgement of a song. But he just didn’t understand why I couldn’t write a nice pop song. In my dad’s mind, if I can put some chords together and come up with a catchy melody, all that’s standing between me and going platinum are the weird words I write.
I can no more write “Hey Jude” than Paul McCartney can write “I Survived the Dogstorm.” You write the songs you’re meant to write.
The entire point of creative expression is that whatever is true to your values flows out of your instrument. To think that but for some lyrical changes, I could write a hit song does a terrible disservice to people whose honest expression produces hit songs.
Paul McCartney writes lovely songs. I doubt when he sits down to write a song, he thinks, “I really want to write about the Apocalypse but instead, I’m going to go against all my values and write another sell-out love song.” He’s just writing the songs he was meant to write. It has probably never occurred to Sir Paul to try to turn a story about blood waves, survival bunkers, super cars, and jars of mayonnaise into a singable song. That just isn’t true to him.
(Pro tip: if you’re looking for a rhyme with “mayonnaise,” “end of days” will work nicely.)
There is lyric of Jay Z’s that always bothered me from “Moment of Clarity”:
I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla”
If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill’ — I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
I always thought, no, man, you weren’t lyrically Talib and you wouldn’t rhyme like Common: you write what you were meant to write. It bummed me out that Jay would claim he “dumbed down” for his audience and try to boast that he could be Talib or Common. He seemed to be reacting to criticisms of his style. He seemed to be fighting against his own strengths, bragging that hecould be something that he isn’t.
But a moment later, he pulls it all into focus:
When your cents got that much in common
And you been hustling since your inception
Fuck perception! Go with what makes sense
Jay acknowledges the validity of his own point of view. He’s saying that he couldn’t be anything other than who he is. He’s been hustling since birth so of course his creative expression reflects that same hustling mindset.
You can’t let a desire for critical approval shape your music just like you can’t let a lack of popular appeal shape it. (I mean, who do you think you are? Renowned classical composer Billy Joel?) This doesn’t mean you write the same kind of songs forever. You can keep pushing your limits of technique and stretching your musical imagination. But you can also lay back in the cut. It’s not really a choice. You’re going to write the songs you were meant to write no matter what.
When you try to write a hit, there isn’t much chance that you’ll end up writing a beautiful, pure expression of yourself that somehow taps into millions of souls. But there is a great chance that you’ll sound just like all the other people trying to write hits.
For a great example of this, watch this mashup of six hit country songs that are so identical that an editor simply mixed and matched parts in ProTools to create a super hit song.
So I say it’s best to stick with writing what is true to you. Don’t stop yourself from writing about the things that resonate to you. You can’t second-guess yourself into writing the most perfect popular song.
Fuck perception. Go with what makes sense.
Because you’re curious, here is my song about John Hodgman’s version of the end of times, “I Survived the Dogstorm.”