One of the lessons that takes songwriters a while to learn is an extension of the old adage, ‘You are what you eat’. It’s very important to remember that everything you put in your body is either serving you or aiding in your destruction, to varying extents. Maybe this is a little heavy for a songwriting tip, but it’s applicable here, just like anywhere else in life.
Am I going to tell you not to listen to the new Katy Perry record? Of course not. Listen to the crap out of that thing. But like a good dessert, make sure it’s just one part of a nutritionally balanced diet.
It’s easy to get sucked into a routine of eating nothing but McDonald’s. It’s fast, cheap, tastes fine, and it’s brightly colored. It has a fun mascot, and seasonal additions to the menu. It’s important, though, to remember the people who spend time crafting a croque-monsieur that could make your knees weak.
That guy’s only got one shop, though, and it’s so far out of your way — can’t you just grab a McRib on your way to work? Yes, you can. And you’ll feel that McRib in your stomach all day. Your taste buds will develop to salivate at the smell of McRib, and dry up at the smell of a fresh apple. The McRib isn’t evil — but you know it’s junk, I know it’s junk, and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can get to writing good music.
Are You Saying Pop Music Can’t Be Good?
“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” – Ewan Kenobi
Look, there is some great music in every genre, regardless of what cool kids say. There is always some merit in any creation. I have been known to spend entire days in bed, listening to Taylor Swift’s Red on repeat. I think it’s a great record. But as a songwriter, I see it show up in my own work soon after. Hey, why are all of my bridges starting to sound like cheerleader chants? It’s a simple rule: you can’t write like Steinbeck if you only read Cosmopolitan. That’s why that Great American Novel you tried to write had all of those weird sex tip sidebars. You’ve been eating McRibs, bro! I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed.
What If My Goal Is To Just Make Money-Grabbing Pop Music?
Awesome. Do that, and burn an effigy of me next to your first big paycheck.
There are many X-factors in the pop music world that I can’t speak to. I hope you’re universally attractive, politically hip, all on top of being able to write a catchy hook. If not, you’ll be relegated to the back rooms of record label buildings, where you’ll write cool on-brand songs for artists like Beyoncé to win awards for. If that’s the life you want, there’s nothing wrong with that — I just can’t help you get there. Back to my lesson.
Expand Your Vocabulary
As a songwriter, I think it’s your responsibility to sample a little bit of everything that’s being created, just to keep your finger on the pulse of the music world. Grab a divided plate, and load up each compartment with big helpings of Classical, Country, Metal, and Opera (the Brussels sprouts of the music world). Try to eat what you can, and even throw a McRib in there, if you want.
If you don’t enjoy it, treat it like homework: something that just needs to get done so you can advance. Set aside a time to listen to new songs. Sign up for Spotify and stream things by genre. Peruse the Top 40. Every once in a while, you’ll find a song that makes you want to make your own — WRITE THOSE DOWN! Save them! Buy them! This is the goal, after all — to get you writing.
Bonus Tip: I always find that reading reviews of music gives me a boost of inspiration. Publications like Rolling Stone and SPIN will describe the new Demi Lovato single as a “powerful summertime anthem, with staccato horn blasts, marching drums that accent the chorus, and a funk bass supporting the verse” — and they’re usually very different in my head than they are once I sit down and listen to them. Read a review of a song or album, and then try to make a song that sounds like the description. Then listen to the real song, and if it’s different from what you created, you just got a brand new song out of the deal! Thanks, hyperbolic journalists!