Thursday, January 21, 2010

What is Good?

I haven’t seen the movie Avatar yet. I hear it’s good. The reviews have been nearly unanimous in their raves. Friends and relatives liked it. The Facebook chatter was positive. I want to see it, and I will someday.

Likewise, I have not heard the current hit song “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha. (Yes, that’s how she spells it.) That is, I haven’t heard most of it. I heard a snippet of it on an NPR story the other day. Hearing it won’t be difficult. I’ve got it up on my computer right now in another window. But I don’t want to listen to it just yet.

But, there was a line in the NPR story that got me thinking, touched a nerve, maybe. The story, by Neda Ulaby and Zoe Chace, linked the movie Avatar and the song “Tik Tok” in an interesting way: They’re both derivative. That is, the story claims, there’s nothing new or original in either of them. Avatar contains elements of many other stories and movies – The Wizard of Oz, Dances with Wolves, Lawrence of Arabia, etc. One of the reporters called it a “mash up” (a compilation of lots of other things.) “Tik Tok” is just as mashed up (I think I just misused contemporary jargon, like an old guy). It borrows from every other pop song out there, and the words don’t even make any sense, the reporters contend.

They also talk about how each of these smash hits is over produced. The images, the sounds – all layered on very thick.

As I said, I haven’t been exposed to either of them, so I’m not making a value judgment here. But the line in the story that got me was this: “Bottom line: This is not a good song. But it sounds enough like a good pop song that it's hard to tell the difference.”


OK. So, we can have the discussion about creativity and originality. We can bandy around catch phrases and buzz words. We can wax philosophic. We can quote Ecclesiastes – that there is nothing new under the sun. And, I’m sure we will. Someday. Sooner or later.

But just reread that line and think about it for a minute.

“This is not a good song. But it sounds enough like a good pop song that it's hard to tell the difference.”

There are so many directions to take this, so many lines of thought – and I’m a notoriously tangential thinker.

First, the reporter does make a value judgment: it’s not a good song. But, what is a good song. We will never agree on a definition. A couple of months ago, someone sent around an email about “the worst songs of all time,” or something to that effect. I think it contained a link to a blog or website with videos of the songs and commentary. Some of the videos were dated and funny to watch, but that didn’t make the songs “bad.” My brother David, a Pop Culture and music expert and writer on the subject, sent a reply to everyone explaining that there really is no such thing as a “bad song.”

One of the songs in that email was “MacArthur Park” by Jimmy Webb. Most of us have probably heard the song. You know, “Someone left a cake out in the rain…” David went on to explain how Jimmy Webb is a prolific and extremely successful songwriter, and how that song was an important, groundbreaking song for its time. One may or may not like Richard Harris’s performance of it, but that doesn’t make it a “bad” song.

Also, David points out, most of the songs in the article were radio hits at one point, so somebody must have liked them.

OK. So we can’t really define or agree on “good” or “bad” in terms of art (in its broadest sense.) “But it sounds enough like a good pop song that it's hard to tell the difference.” What the heck does that mean?

I gotta say, at first I agreed with that statement. And I still do in some respects, and we’ll get to that later. But, I think we need to very careful about where we tread here.

It might be a little easier (well, it might not be easier. It might just be another analogy.) if we applied that statement to comedy. Most of us can tell when a joke falls flat, either because it’s told incorrectly and/or it’s poorly delivered. We may not recognize that those are the reasons it falls flat, we just know that it does. And it’s probably harder still for most of us to understand how to write jokes or comedy material. But we do know that we laugh when we hear something that we perceive as funny. Which brings me to the term “clapter.”

“Clapter” is a compound word derived from clapping (as in applause) and laughter. You’ve heard it if you’ve ever watched late night TV, Leno or Letterman. A comic will get up to do his three minutes and start into his routine. He’s got the rhythm of a comic delivery. He’ll give you the set up, and deliver the punch line. The audience recognizes this cadence and takes the cues. The jokes really aren’t all that clever or funny, but the comedian is polished and makes the material sound enough like good jokes that it’s hard to tell the difference. So, the audience doesn’t laugh much, but as they recognize the end-of-the-joke cue – the punch line or button - they applaud. Listen for it next time. It sounds more like a political speech to a partisan crowd that a stand up act, judging by the lack of actual laughter and the presence of hearty applause at each button (as in “hit the button” or the appropriate place in the cadence - the trigger – to get a reaction).

You, watching at home, probably won’t laugh at all. You might think, “yeah, well, that was kind of funny.” (You are not part of the live audience which has a whole different dynamic.) And you hear a positive reaction. So you recognize this comic as “legitimate.” He’s made it to one of the late night shows, he’s got the delivery, he sounds like he knows what he’s doing, the audience is reacting. But, does it make him good?

There’s no real way to answer that, of course.

So, is Ke$ha a good artist or not? Actually, that’s not really the question. The question is, is the song a good song? Look, I’ll have my own opinion once I listen to it. But, the fact is, enough people like the song to have made it a smash hit. A lot of people must think it’s “good.” So, if it sounds like a hit song, and acts like a hit song, then…?

Yes, we can argue that it’s a case of “the emperor’s new clothes.” But, often, all that really is is “I wish I’d thought of that first.”

OK. I’m going to listen to the song now…

Yeah. It’s a hit song. It’s got all of the elements. I derived some pleasure from it. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. (And the lyrics aren’t totally inane – I’ve heard worse.) It’ll make the people involved (writers, producers, artists) a ton of money. And then it will go away. It likely won’t have any lasting impact on society or the industry. Not like, say, “Hey Jude” by the Beatles did, or even “MacArthur Park.”

I like all kinds of songs – folk, country, pop, rap, rock, standards, opera – but there are certain songs that stay with me. There are certain songs that have staying power within a culture throughout generations. Those are the songs that, I think, come from a deeper place. Those songs are not aimed at the bottom line (money). They may end up making money for someone, but they didn’t start there. One can be a professional songwriter – that is, expect to make money, a livelihood, from writing songs – and still write truthful songs.

I think there actually is something to the idea that something can sound (or look, or taste…) enough like the “real thing” to come close to being the “real thing” without actually being the “real thing.” In other words (and, god I hope there are other words), sometimes you can just sense that the product is lacking something. What is it? Heart? Soul? Ingenuousness?

Hostess Cupcakes are a lot like that amazing chocolate cake I had at that little place in Cleveland Heights. Your child can drip and spatter paint onto a canvas and it will look a lot like a Jackson Pollock. And I can string words together that rhyme and put some music to them and call it a song. Then, if I have the tools and technology available to me, I can produce and record that song. I can hire the best studio musicians (or in the case of “Tik Tok,” studio technicians), draw inspiration from current popular songs, find an artist who can deliver the goods, and layer it all on real thick. Boom. It sounds enough like a radio hit to be one.

I’m not saying that “real artists” are or should be tortured souls, always broke, only making art for art’s sake. I want us all to become as rich and famous as the market and our psyches will bear. I just don’t want us to lose our “realness.” Our Truth. I want us to keep writing from the kishkes. From that place deep inside of us. That place that won’t let you not write. Be genuine. Love your song. I don’t mean love your song like when you hear a song on the radio and you say, “Oh, I love that song!” I mean, treat your song lovingly. Caress it gently and hold as if it is fragile. Because, it is.

I can name some artists that are successful, famous, and probably rich, and that, I think, still write honest, emotional, heartfelt songs. I think John Mayer is a good example. Or look at (and listen to the songs of) that great Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. They cranked out hit after hit, and so many of them (the songs) just oozed with passion and honesty. They never really lost that. (Of course, it helped to have the Four Tops and Diana Ross singing them.) I think Elvis Costello fits into this group. He’s always had a real, raw honesty that really grabs me. As does the Texas songwriter Guy Clark. Just listen to his song “Desperados Waiting For a Train” if you want to hear what I’m talking about.

So, songwriters, here it is: Don’t settle for a song that sounds like a good song. Demand a song that is a good song, and then hand deliver it to each one of us as if we’re the only one who will have the privilege of hearing it. It is your gift to us, an heirloom handed down, and we, like good caretakers, will promise to cherish it and take good care of it for as long as we have memory.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Journalism 101

So, I was thinking about my guidelines comment in an earlier post: As a songwriter, I have a set of guidelines, or guideposts, in the form of questions, that I use when writing.

I wrote that line over two years ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think I have a set of guideposts. If anything, and I don’t think I’m unique here, I use the basic Journalism 101 guidelines: who, what, why, when, where and how.

In my earlier posts “Wasted Words: Parts 1 and 2” I demonstrated that I use “what” and “how” pretty extensively. What do I want to say?, and how do I want to say it? You can go back and reread those if you like. But, something else occurred to me.
Songwriting is a lot like journalism, in every sense of the word.

Historically, songs and singers have served as living newspapers and messengers. From prehistoric times to Woody Guthrie, it was a way to get news from one village to another, from town to town, union hall to union hall. Even today, songs carry messages that reflect our current events. Think of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. Protest songs in the 1960’s. Think of rap music. Ice-T’s “Cop Killer.” Pop music. John Mayer’s “Waiting On the World to Change.” I’m sure you can think of a hundred more examples.

Music (and, in many ways, the music industry) and pop culture really very accurately reflects what’s going on around us. It’s a microcosm of the larger world. Art imitates life. If you want to know what the racial climate is in this country, look to the music industry. In the 1940’s and 50’s, certain labels recorded what they called “race music,” that is, music made by black musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and Big Mama Thorton. These records were not generally sold in mainstream stores or played on “white” stations. Maybe, they were given a late night slot of their own, but certainly not mixed into the playlist with white artists. They were segregated. And, of course, black and white artists rarely, if ever, played on the same bill live. (you can look to baseball for a similar analogy, but baseball integrated a little earlier.)

What changed the music industry? In a word, Elvis.

Radio station DJs knew that the so called “race records” were hot. They liked the music. They knew that white kids were secretively listening to it, but they couldn’t get it on the air in prime time. They, and other music industry executives, knew that it could be very popular. They knew that there was money to be made, somehow. Sam Phillips knew this, too.

In a nutshell, Sam Phillips (Sun Records) knew that if he could find a white singer who could capture the feel of the black records, he’d have a hit. In walked a young truck driver named Elvis Presley, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This is not to say that the music industry became totally integrated, or even integrated at all, at this point. But, it was a beginning. Real integration wouldn’t happen for another three decades. In fact, as late as the early 1980’s all you need to look at is the success of Maurice Starr. Starr founded a black sextet of young boys called New Edition and had much success. He knew that if he could replicate this close harmony, young boy singing group with white kids, he’d be making real money. He went on to found New Kids on the Block.

It wasn’t until about 1993 that at least half of the Billboard top ten were black artists, and 2003 that all of the top ten songs were by black artists (including Black Eyed Peas, an integrated group). But this is another story for another time. This is supposed to be about songwriting as journalism.

So, as we listen to the songs, and look at the industry, we can see how it mirrors society. The industry is always, and has always been, driven by money. The songs, not always.

Our songs have the power to make history, facilitate change, empower people, and move masses or change lives one at a time. Many songs are written (or manufactured) by the industry solely aimed at the bottom line, but many come from a deeper place. (I’m not making a value judgment about the industry. There is value in, and a place for, all things artistic.) The Beatles didn’t start out aiming to become the Most Famous People In The World. The likes of what the Beatles became had never been seen before. They were playing for the love of making and playing music. Everybody wanted to make money. But nobody dreamed of that magnitude.

There are so many really, really great songwriters out there who will never “make it big.” That probably describes most of us. We write because we can. We have to. We are the journalists of our generation.

We owe it to our generation, and the generations to come, to become the best songwriters we can be. We owe it to our songs to write with clarity and honesty, whether we are journaling world events or a page in our diary. It is our responsibility to fill the world with music, whether it’s rock, pop, jazz, blues, atonal, folk, religious, or anything in between, but music with a heart and soul, music that comes from that place deep within, music that lets the world know how much we care about our music and about our world. And the world and our music will repay us in kind.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Reruns: Wasted Words, Part 1

Thank you all for your comments! It's exciting to know that people are actually reading this stuff. I welcome your comments - praise or constructive criticism - because It only helps us all grow.

In that light, I've decided to reprint some of my old posts (since the only person I know of who read them is my mother). Please - PLEASE - feel free to comment on these as well. And let other people know about this blog. I can also be friended on Facebook and followed on Twitter @noahbudin.

Here, then, is where my songwriting blog really got started, with an essay called "Wasted Words." Here's Part 1:

Just because you can pour sugar into your car’s gas line, doesn’t mean you should.

And just because you can put lipstick on the dog, doesn’t mean you should.

Just because you can put two words together that rhyme, doesn’t mean you should. Likewise, just because you are able to put a new melody to existing words or text, doesn’t mean you should do that either. (Which is why I don’t. But we’ll get into that in another essay. For now, we’ll mostly stick to lyrics).

As a songwriter, I have a set of guidelines, or guideposts, in the form of questions, that I use when writing. We’ll start with this one:

What do I want to say? I mean exactly, specifically. What is the message I want to convey to the listener? (And there is always a message.) What do I want the listener to come away with?

That being said, a little ambiguity is okay (when it’s done skillfully). That is, it’s okay if the listener doesn’t come away with your specific image in his or her head. If fact, the listener most likely won’t. Like any art, music and lyrics are for the receiver to interpret. But, the important thing is for you, the writer, to know exactly what you want to express. Don’t be vague. It’s like subtext for an actor. An actor may invent lots of background information about his or her character that the audience will never know. But it’s what makes the character whole and subtle and nuanced and layered and fully believable for the audience. So it should be with your song.

In fact, lyrically, I often try to stay away from being too specific. And here is a dichotomy (maybe you thought I was going to say “contradiction” or “hypocrisy”): specificity and ambiguity. Remember: lyrics are poetry. This means you have to make careful choices. You only have so many lines, so many beats, in which to get your message across. You don’t have room for wasted words. The ideas expressed in the song need to be fully developed, fully understood – very specific – for you. The lyrics of the song need to be, evocative, image laden, able to draw the listener in. In other words: listenable. The listener should be able to identify with the lyrics on some level. He should feel like you are speaking to him personally, as if you’re sharing secrets or telling a story and you’re right in the room with him and he’s thinking, “Yeah, yeah! Something like that happened to me once,” or “I know someone like that,” or “Wow, I never thought of it that way, but that’s a really cool way to say it!”

For instance, in my song “She Knows God,” I could have written, “I know a remarkable woman who’s very spiritual and deep and she told me this really cool story about how she came to find her faith at a very young age and she has some physical impairments and…” Anybody could have written that. It might even make a good story, but it’s not a song. I could have even rhymed it:

I know a woman
She’s remarkable and deep
When she was very young
Her faith it took a leap
She found God to keep

or…any other number of rhymes. But they are empty rhymes, not interesting, wasted words. Also, those words don’t really have the imagery, or even mystery, that will draw a listener in. I did write:

She Knows God
She knows God like the sun on her tears
She knows God
She knows God will not always be near
But she always breathes the air that surrounds her
And it fills he with more than just breath
It’s the fragile space that bridges the distance
Between living life and not fearing death
She knows God

The first line, “She knows God,” draws the listener in for several reasons. First, it’s incomplete. (This also has to do with the melody and the choice to sing it a capella). The listener wants to know what’s coming next. It also makes a statement, a strong yet intimate statement. I could have said it any of those ways in the above examples, or any number of other ways, but this is intriguing. There is very little question about its implication. But who is she? How does she know God?

The next line offers a bit more, but in a poetic image:

She knows God like the sun on her tears

There are several things at work here. I’ve got some linguistic and illustrative tension going on. You can’t get much more intimate with someone than to share their tears. And you can’t get much bigger in the scope of our known physical and spiritual universe than the sun. Also, tears usually connote sadness, sunshine happiness. So now the listener has a lovely image in her mind and is brought just a little closer to the subject and is even more intrigued.

Then, “She knows God will not always be near.” This where we get personal, we can begin to relate to this person. I think everyone who has any kind of relationship with any kind of God has experienced moments of extreme closeness and moments of “where are you when I need you?” God is always here, but not always near (and maybe it’s not God who’s built the distance, but us).

Going on, I could have said, “but she goes on with life anyway.” Instead, I used an image with which we can all relate and then elevated it to an almost mystical place:

But she always breathes the air that surrounds her
And it fills her with more than just breath

Now the listener wants to know, “What do you mean? With what does if fill her?” And the answer:

It’s the fragile space that bridges the distance
Between living life and not fearing death

And again, I’ve taken an element that is immeasurably large and seemingly endless, air, and broken it down to its most intimate aspect, breathing it into the body, and aided the listener in remembering that even the most mundane and automatic acts, the ones we probably take for granted, are holy.

And that's the climax of the verse, a sort of tension and release (both lyrically and musically) that pulls the listener in, satisfies him and leaves him wanting more. And, yes, you do understand the metaphor I’m using here because that’s what good music should be like.

And in all of that (and throughout the rest of the lyrics) are the simple messages that I get out of the song: God is always with us, even in our lowest moments, and every act that we do on this earth is, or has the potential to be, holy.

People always want to know who the woman is, her true identity. But, it doesn’t matter

Monday, January 04, 2010


I’ve been reading a book called “Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity” by Hugh McLeod. (It was recommended by Derek Sivers on his blog.) It’s a bright little book with short, easily digestible chapters, each with one piece of advice about creating creative, and possible financial, success. (The emphasis is on the creative and not the financial. And that’s the point of the book…but that’s not what this is about right now.)

I’ve just read, and reread, the chapter headed “The More Talented Somebody Is, The Less They Need the Props.” McLeod calls these props “pillars.” Pillars are things we hide behind. He states that fancy tools do not make one better at one does. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. The less capable one is at one’s job, or desired job, the fancier the equipment seems to get, the bigger the pillar to hide behind. He points out that there are many second rate photographers with expensive digital cameras.

It reminded me of a couple of things.

When I was in high school, there was a Jazz Band. The Jazz Band was made up of very talented high school players. The drummer was really cool. And he was really good. But, he had, like, a 37 piece drum kit. I’m not kidding. And I remember half-joking at the time that all he had to do was reach out and hit something and it would sound pretty good. He couldn’t miss. It was clear that he had the chops, and he was entertaining. But I couldn’t really tell exactly how skillful he was. Watch this clip of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa on the Sammy Davis, Jr. Show. The kits are pretty basic, but the chops are truly amazing.

The other thing I thought of was a single panel cartoon I had clipped and saved many years ago. I don’t have it anymore and can’t properly cite it, but it was a picture of an artist holding a brush in his fancy studio, wearing a fancy smock and beret, with a giant easel, and a pallet full of paints and colors, and on the canvas was a crudely painted stick figure. The artist was saying, “The only thing standing between me and greatness is this lousy brush.”

In some ways, our pillars make us feel safe. We don’t have to accept responsibility. It’s a great life lesson and there are a lot of things to be learned from the “pillars” chapter in McLeod’s book. But, let’s talk about songwriting.
We put up pillars there, too.

Take them down. Or, at least, get out from behind them.

We could extend the physical analogy: There are a lot of second rate songwriters with expensive Taylor guitars, home recording studios, etc. And that may be true. But, I’m not here to judge anyone as second rate. I’m just offering ideas and insights that I’ve collected over the years so that we can both become better at our crafts. And, really, it doesn’t hurt to have those things. But they won’t, in and of themselves, make one better.

The only way to get better is to practice. (Yeah, I know. How do you get to Carnegie Hall…?) You just have to keep doing what you love, and PAY ATTENTION TO IT. It doesn’t matter if you have 27 new and vintage guitars, each with its own sound and personality, or one very old Guild or Yamaha. Your job is play a lot, write a lot, and listen to what you’re doing. And listen to what other people are doing. Emulation is OK. It can make you better.

But let’s apply a different metaphor to those pillars. Let’s think about the actual songwriting process; the putting pen to paper (or fingers to computer keyboard), and fingers to strings (or fingers to piano keyboard, or a capella voice to music. Whatever.) Let’s get out from behind the pillars.

(By the way, I don’t want to take the pillars down. Some pillars are actually structurally important. Leave those in place. Just don’t hide behind them.)

Not only should we get out from behind the pillars, but we should get naked. Strip away every extraneous thing in your musical little brain. More is not always better. Strip the song down to its barest elements. Don’t hide behind fancy rhymes and difficult chords or riffs. Stay focused on your intent, lyrically and musically. Stand naked before your naked song. It’s as hard to do as the literal meaning of that might be for most of us.

I’m asking you to do two seemingly opposite things: Stop thinking, and start thinking; Get naked and be self conscious and awkward, and get really comfortable and intimate.

First, get out from behind the “I’m a SONGWRITER” pillar. Don’t write for fame or money. Don’t act like a songwriter. Just be one. Do the writing, the work. Put in the hours. Write crap. Throw it away. Start over. Learn new words. Understand structures. Say what you want to say. (Isn’t that a song?) Do it for love, the love of writing, because you have to, because you can’t not do it. Strip away all of that other stuff. Stop thinking about being a songwriter, and just write songs.

Now, think about what you’re writing. Really get inside of your song. Get to know it. Let it get to know you. Sit with it for a while. Take it for a ride. Take it for a walk. Be patient with it. Let it reveal itself to you. Strip it bare. Don’t force clothes onto it that don’t fit. Peel away the layers. Break it down to single words, single chords, single notes. Now put it back together and listen to it for the first time, over and over again.

Here’s and old acting class maxim: Less is More. Apply that lesson to your song. It all comes back to my main songwriting philosophy about “wasted words.” You can’t have any. You can’t afford them. That goes for the entire structure of the song, lyrically and musically.

Many of the greatest songs are written with only three or four chords. And there are only seven notes to use in a basic scale. And there are a limited amount of words in anyone’s vocabulary. It’s how you use and organize them.

And now that you’ve stripped everything away, you can start adding things back. But you have to start with the truth, and you have to stick to the truth. Find the song’s soul and feed that soul. Being fancy is OK; using new and complex constructions is OK; Complicated chords, riffs, patterns, rhymes…all OK. If you know how, when and where to use them. Don’t let those things be your pillars to hide behind. Let them be pillars to support your structure.

One of my favorite poems is one called “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. Here’s the link: