Friday, February 08, 2008

late pass on Lily Allen, random thoughts on songwriting

So i have this habit of avoiding acts who get a lot of buzz, only to rediscover them later, after everyone else has already gotten sick of them.

This Lily Allen album is great. She's not a strong singer, the production isn't all that revolutionary (though the bubble-dub approach is pretty catchy), and her personality might be an acquired taste, but this album has the one element missing from SO MUCH music (of all genres) these days: interesting, memorable songwriting.

That isn't to say that it's great songwriting-- just that it's memorable. Which to me, is HIGH praise.

Like Pharrell Williams, Amy Winehouse, Martin Luther, Ani DiFranco and a handful of others, Allen consistently writes songs that break from the formula. And whether those songs are good or bad, i think we should respect any artist willing to do that. Pharrell, for instance, sometimes writes some ridiculously weird and metaphorical stuff (see: all of N.E.R.D.'s catalog), but it makes his music all the more interesting. Winehouse might get attention for the sex and cursing and drugs in her music, but her songwriting goes beyond that-- her lyrics are thoughtful and complex without being artsy nonsense.

And none of these artists are perfect; not all their songs are good. But in today's climate, i'm thankful for them.

Songwriting these days in melodic popular music (read: everything on the radio that isn't hip hop or folk) usually breaks down into three categories:

1. Elementary-school love poetry ("hey girl i wanna be with you/ forever and a day, it's truuuue"). From pop music to country to R&B, this is everywhere. Simple AABBCC rhymes, straightforward emotions (either "i love you" or "i used to love you"), lyrics that 12-year old girls consider romantic.

2. Melodramatic gibberish ("it's a wall of presumption i can't climb/ falling forever and i'm falling behind"). This is the default lyric style for most rock music, from emo to metal to Nickelback. It sounds poetic, and some of it is, but most of it will wash right over you. Of the three, this is probably the most palatable for me; it's not wack, it's just easily forgettable. Like a lot of indie hip hop actually, the emphasis is more on impressionism, creating a vibe rather than making a statement or telling a story. I get it, i just think it's boring.

3. Corporate boardroom focus group sex talk ("you're lookin' fly girl are you here alone?/ i wanna talk to you, i wanna take you home"). Even though i just made that up, it's probably a real Justin Timerberlake lyric-- i can hear him singing it. This is the default lyric style for club-pop and, increasingly, R&B.

Occasionally you'll get some cutesy/quirky indie rock, some R. Kelly insanity, a country song about supporting the troops-- there are certainly songs here and there that don't fit into the above. But they're exceptions. Lyric-writing is a dead art form...

But hey, i'm trying to be more positive what with my album coming out soon and big things, generally, popping. So while i could write on and on about wack songwriting, maybe it'd be better to talk about songwriters i DO like.

David Bazan of Pedro the Lion is good. I like Regina Spektor. The five people i already mentioned. Haley Bonar. Erykah Badu! There ARE quite a few... it's just that they're so overshadowed by the mountains of crap out there. Such simple things can make huge differences: showing vs. telling, concrete vs. abstract language, storytelling vs. exposition... it's middle school creative writing class stuff.

But i guess the target audience for most music these days isn't yet in middle school. It makes sense. It's just a shame that music that IS marketed to adults (indie rock, neo-soul, etc.) is ALSO so full of platitudes and cliches and lazy songwriting. I can understand why Fergie would want to avoid getting too complex, but what excuse do all these pretentious art-rock bands and bohemian slam poet singer/songwriters have?

So i failed at being positive. Oh well.

I guess my advice to anyone out there who is in a band or trying to do the singer/songwriter thing is this: just because two lines happen to rhyme doesn't mean they belong together. Don't settle for mediocrity-- constantly revise and try to make your work better. Break the molds, push the boundaries, write lyrics that stand by themselves and don't use the pretty melody or your dashing good looks as a crutch. Anyone can write a song. How can you create a meaningful piece of art that people are going to remember?

I could do a whole 'nother post on how all this applies to hip hop too, but i've been talking about hip hop a lot lately. Thought this would be a nice break.

Any other good songwriters out there i'm forgetting?


Jeff said...

Will Sheff from Okkervil River. "John Allyn Smith Sails" from the new record is a great example of taking what could be overwrought subject matter and making it emotionally compelling.

Educated Fool said...

Very interesting read... I have shared this view also, as a musican myself I create music with layers... When I was 16 I met Roots Manuva and we had a very interesting conversation about song writing, he gave me the best advise about making music where a listener will hear something new upon every listen and with Hip-Hop esp it needs to be done... if you make something catchy and predictable, it can be striking but bores quickly... I'd like to send you a copy of my EP and have you review it... would you do that?