Last year at the Austin Songwriters annual Symposium I was struck by one comment from a very successful songwriter from Nashville. When asked about the formulaic approach to songwriting that seems to pervade country and pop music he said that he had helped write hit songs he didn’t really care for, but that his job was to make the song work, and he was happy when he did that. That got me thinking about what it means to say that a song works.
There’s a great Guy Clark song, “Stuff that Works” in which he sings about common place things that he likes because they work. They aren’t all pretty, and they include “an old guitar, it won’t ever stay in tune.” But they work, and that makes them valuable. Songs should be the same way.
What does it mean to say a song works? Well, if you’re a professional songwriter with a mortgage and a car payment it means the song sounds like a radio hit. You can argue about whether hit songs are mostly good songs or bad songs, but if a song gets cut and gets played and earns royalties then it is a song that works for the songwriter and performer and for a lot of people who enjoy listening to it.
At one time I aspired to write songs that work exactly that way. Then I realized that it was hard to do, and that since it was unlikely I would ever pay off my kids college loans writing songs for money it made a lot more sense for me to write songs that it gives me pleasure to write. Most of my early songs “worked” only by giving me pleasure – I had a good time writing them and singing them for my friends and family.
A little further down the road I realized that my songs didn’t work very well because they really only spoke to me and few people I knew. I geared up, buckled down, and wrote some songs that made people laugh when I played at open mic nights. I thought that was all I needed for a while. Then I remembered hearing Dave Letterman talk about why he moved from doing standup comedy to TV. He said he had mastered the skill of making drunk people laugh, and wanted to move on to something harder. Songwriting is the same, and there’s a difference between writing songs that appeal to drunks in a bar and songs that will speak to a sober man driving to work. If you’re playing in a bar, a song that makes the crowd hoot and holler works, but that doesn’t mean it will work on the radio.
Now I’ve figured out (I think) that you don’t know whether a song “works” until you decide what its job is. Am I pouring out my soul after a couple of shots of whiskey in order to ease my own pain? I can write a song that does that job pretty well. Will it ease your pain? That’s a lot harder to do, even if we both have the same kind of pain. And if your pain is the loss of a job, while my is the loss of a lover, then it starts to get really tricky.
With all that in mind I’ve started thinking of the Nashville formulas in a different way. They are certainly tools for making money, but they are also tools for communicating and making a song work as a way of telling the world what I want to tell the world. Using the techniques of hit songwriting isn’t the only way to write songs that work, but they are techniques that make songs communicate effectively. It’s worth mastering them for the same reason it is worth learning more music theory or improving your technique on your instrument — the more tools you have the more easily you can write songs that work the way you want them to work. What you want to say may not be anything that will make your song a hit, but that doesn’t mean the song that says it shouldn’t work.
A final note on the definition of a song that works. Several different hit songwriters have said the same thing – a song should make people laugh, cry, or get up and dance, not smile, frown, or just tap their feet. Of course your particular aim may be a cool and ironic look at the world — a lot of post punk popular music comes from that attitude, which appeals to teenagers. If so, maybe smiles or frowns is what makes your song work. I’m not trying to write radio hits anymore (though I wouldn’t mind selling a song and getting rich). But I do aspire to write a song like the woman Guy Clark talks about in “Stuff that Works.” “I got a tattoo with her name right through my soul.” For me a song that works goes straight to the heart and makes the listener laugh, or cry, or get up and dance. I’m still working on it, but I’m not confused anymore by the notion that only a song with the potential to be a radio hit can “work.”