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.


Anonymous said...

i don't know if you check up on past posts of yours, but im part way through your song writing mechanics in 2007, its a great help. i've recently gotten my band back together and i need to brush up on my writing skills and this is very intuitive and insightful. i will surely keep reading until ive finished and will check back for more updates when i've caught up. keep up the good work!

Noah said...

Thanks for your comment! Always appreciated!