So you’re recording your new album in the studio, and you want it to be “good”. First, we have to talk about what “good” means. Do you want it to be the catchy and danceable kind of good? The crying and relistening kind of good? The commercial and broadly appealing kind of good? All of them are fair motivations for making music – but I want to talk about the one I personally find the most admirable: the desire to make a record that people will still want to listen to in 50 years.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict what will go over well with the rest of the world. Sometimes, records are a huge success, and then forgotten by the next summer. Sometimes, records are panned by critics and audiences, and then hailed as masterpieces years later. When we examine the records that are now considered to be the high points of music, there are a few patterns that pop up, which might be a good track to follow.
Avoiding What’s Trendy
If you want to be timeless, we have to talk about what makes some records dated. Most often, it’s a reliance on sounds that were really just a “flash in the pan” — that is, sounds that were trendy at the time, but aren’t anymore. Some good examples might include the disco drumbeat, robotic autotuned vocals, boy band harmonies… Think of the distinct sounds of any decade, and your mind will likely go to the things we now regard as silly. That’s because tastes are always changing, and when the music industry notices that something is a hit, they oversaturate the market with it to try to make as much money as possible, and it makes us all sick of the sound. Remember when you heard Livin’ La Vida Loca on the radio at Subway for the 509th time, and suddenly realized, ‘I never want to hear anything that sounds like this ever again’? That’s why you don’t pop in Ricky Martin’s self-titled album while you’re driving to work — but you will listen to Rumours again, even though it’s 22 years older.
That’s not to say that dated music is “bad” — who’s to say what’s good or bad? You’ll always have a special place in your heart for that first *NSYNC album (usually while drunk and emotional). Personally, I love a dated 80s bass tone, the sound of the TR-808 drum machine, and a chorused-out guitar line, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. But I’m also willing to admit that those things sound a little cheesy now, and a lot of you probably agree.
This doesn’t just go for sounds, either. I might argue that topical political lyrics can root an album too firmly in the time it was made. Dylan recognized this in his own music, and shifted to poetic and allegorical descriptions to avoid being stuck in the 1960s forever.
Great songs can transcend all of this! There are no real rules in music, and sometimes a record can be a pile of trendy new sounds and still go down in history as an all-time great. So what’s more important than the way the music sounds?
I’ll avoid naming names here, because if I pick on someone you like, you’ll stop taking me seriously, and we won’t be friends anymore. But, come on — you know which albums were made because the artist was trying to make something cathartic and exceptional, and which ones were hastily thrown together to capitalize on a sound, a moment, a scandal, etc.
The artist’s intentions are usually apparent in the music in some intangible way. Even if you’re making the most commercially appealing music, you should still be doing it passionately, if you want your work to be around for a while. Remember, I’m only talking about what makes a record timeless. Any and all music is valid. Except that Quizno’s Subs song.
Why do you want to make a record, anyway? If you’re hoping for a house on a hill, with a champagne jacuzzi and a peacock farm, you might want to just try for a quick cash grab, and that’s fine. We’re here for a good time, not a long time. But I’ll admit that when, after a session, an artist asks me if I think their song will be a “hit”, there’s a part of me that plays a sad trumpet tune.
Even mega-selling pop stars, who have very little to do with the music they put out, will talk in interviews about how much anguish and blood and sweat and effort they’ve put into their album — even though we all know that their team of 45 producers did the majority of the work. This is because they recognize that we all want to hear the story of the artist, struggling to articulate their experiences in a way that we all find pleasant and emotional, and the fact is, so much music wasn’t actually made like that.
If you’re up for a heartbreak, try looking up the writing credits for some of your favorite songs. How many people did it take to put it together? Probably more than you thought, right? The illusion that the artist actually thought and felt the things they are singing about is an important part of selling music.
Let’s take a look at the writing and production credits for Chris Brown’s 2012 single, Don’t Wake Me Up. I feel okay picking on Brown a little, because… well, remember?
Jean-Baptiste – songwriter
Allessandro “Alle” Benassi – songwriter, producer, instruments
Marco “Benny” Benassi – songwriter, producer, instruments
Chris Brown – lead vocals, songwriter
David Guetta – producer
Ryan Buendia – songwriter
Iain Findley – assistant recorder
Serban Ghenea – mixer
Priscilla “Priscilla Renea” Hamilton – songwriter
John Hanes – mix engineer
Brian “BK” Kennedy – songwriter, co-producer
Nick Marsh – songwriter, producer, instruments
Michael McHenry – songwriter
William Orbit – songwriter, producer
Phil Seaford – assistant mix engineer
Brian Springer – recorder
Alain Whyte – songwriter
Wow. That’s a lot of people, who came together to make a song. Now let’s take a look at the music video (which was nominated for World’s Best Video at the 2012 World Music Awards).
Oh, it’s award-winning singer and actor, Christopher Brown. Dressed to the nines.
The illusion is here in full force. Chris Brown wrote this song about you, because he loves you and cares about you, and that was his motivation for making the song. In reality, Marco and Allessandro Benassi were laying on their flamingo pool floaties, sipping virgin daiquiris (to stay sharp), when one of them said, “Hey. I’m going to take a nap for a bit. Don’t wake me up.” And his brother muttered, “Don’t… wake… me… MARCO! Throw me the cellular phone! I’m calling Jean-Baptiste, David, Ryan, Iain, Serban, Priscilla, John, Brian, Nick, Michael, William, Phil, Brian, and Alain!!”
Anyway. I kind of let my point get away from me; but you can pick up the pieces. I’m saying, the puppetmasters of the music industry know that it’s important for us to buy into the idea that the artist is passionate and motivated for the right reasons. That’s what sells songs. The image of 17 people sitting around a conference table doesn’t. But what do I know? If we’re celebrating Don’t Wake Me Up in 50 years, then I promise to rewrite this blog. Until then, be passionate, consider your own motivation, and do what makes you happy.