Brent Ryan

Good Songwriting? Umm, maybe?

Posted on January 10, 2018 in music, Music Business, Musical Inspiration, Opinions

I find songwriting to be a fascinating art.  Think of the elements involved. There is prose. There is poetry. There is arrangement and composition. There is musical theory. There is catchiness.  A songwriter can put together the most beautiful poetry imagineable, and shipwreck the song within a flaming catastrophic tragedy of bad music. Or the vice versa, as is often the case in pop music, the lyrical content of a six-year-old is inserted into a catchy musical arrangement, and the song goes to Billboard Top 100. Take this little snipet from the song that is currently #2 on Billboard:

Havana, ooh na-na (ay)
Half of my heart is in Havana, ooh-na-na (ay, ay)
He took me back to East Atlanta, na-na-na
Oh, but my heart is in Havana (ay)
There’s somethin’ ’bout his manners (uh huh)
Havana, ooh na-na (uh)

WTF (uh huh, ay ay)???

The same is true for Country Music these days. I could jump on current commentary bandwagons and oversimplify by saying that Nashville produces lyrically-weak but catchiness-strong music, and that Texas tends to offer the opposite. Although, I would confidently argue that Texas country tends to offer the benefits of a catchy hook plus good songwriting, and then my biases are worn on my sleeve. But, it’s not true in every case.

I tend to really zone in on songs with a nice lyrical prose. What drew me into the music of Robert Earl Keen, Guy Clark, and Willie Nelson was the ability to tell a nice story. But my wife won’t really listen to Robert Earl Keen music. Why? Because the songs that I adore are simply not catchy enough for her. One of my favorite songs performed by Mr. Keen is a song called Sonora’s Death Row (note: Keen didn’t write the song but he popularized it). The song has a really cool story that might make a nice little novella.  But, there is no chorus in the song structure at all. It’s merely five consecutive verses of storytelling. Yet, I can hardly listen to main stream radio because I judge the music to be so bad, it actually makes me feel a fist-clenching anger at times. And yet, these are songs that enough people have downloaded and streamed that the music  has jumped to the top of the charts. So, who is right, and who is wrong? Who gets the right to be the final authority on what makes a good song?

Sometimes I have to check my arrogance when it comes to judging these things myself.  Truthfully, it is best if I don’t get involved in the judgement of it at all.  The world likes what the world likes.  I also like to grind fresh coffee beans every morning and make coffee in a press. A lot of people just drink Folgers from a can. Shouldn’t they know better? I think Rompers look ridiculous on girls. Most girls don’t seem to think so.

That is why I see my role as a songwriter primarily as that of an evangelist.  Dictionary.com offers this definition of an “evangelist” outside of its religious context:

I realize that there will most likely always be a big market for dumb songs.  A lot of people just don’t have the time, energy, or interest in evaluating lyrical content like a critic. They just want to sing to something and bob their heads. But, every time I perform. Every time I write a song. Every time I record. I think about the fact that a person who listents to “bad” music, might hear one of my songs, and think “Hmmm, maybe that’s what a song is supposed to sound like.”  Who knows?  Rather than judging the songwriting world around me, and the listener that I need in order to survive financially in this business, why not do my best to change the musical landscape?  Music is a beautiful capitalist system, even in countries where capitalism is dead. As a musician, I can always offer a better product than the one being offered by someone else. And then competition works itself out and more and more people might take an interest in my product over the other options.  And slowly, overtime, more and more people might raise their standard for what makes a good song for them. Instead of judging, I’ll try to offer something better. Let them choose.