About Cam

gribbly.org* is the online home of Cameron Brown. Creative director, designer, musician, mediocre programmer, caffeine addict. Seattle

This is where I accumulate interesting links... If you're looking for coherence or context, you're in the wrong place!


Writing a Hit Love Song

Tonight I went to an event hosted by the Los Angeles Songwriter's Guild (warning: crappy website). This is Step 1 in my plan is to sell one of my many songs to Avril Lavigne (or at least The Matrix), and thereby become rich beyond my wildest imaginings. Wish me luck! In all honestly, I do have a "pure" motivation as well - I am genuinely interested in the craft of songwriting. It's fascinating to me to talk to other people about it, to see and hear how they approach it.

The LA Songwriter's Guild is on the seventh floor of the CNN building, which is on Sunset and Cahuenga in Hollywood. It's a 15 minute drive from work - which meant 45 minutes at peak hour.

The clinic (it's actual title was "Free Songwriter's Rewrite Workshop") was hosted by Michael Allen. Who is he? I don't know either, but he certainly spoke with a convincing air of authority, and had an impressive knack for naming songs that are thematically identical to other songs: "Hmm, you're writing an I WANT YOU BACK song. What's the ultimate I WANT YOU BACK song? That's right, 'I Want You Back' by the Jackson 5."

Turns out the focus of the clinic was "writing a hit love song", with more of an emphasis on lyrics than music. OK. Avril can roll with that. The basic format was that each attendee (there was about 10) got 10-15 minutes to distribute their lyric sheets, play their song to the group, and then hear people's comments and suggestions.

First we did this to something that Michael alleged was a "country hit". The song was called "I Let Her Lie" - I googled it when I got home (since I never heard of it, and was dubious of it's "hit" status) and the top result was from "cowboylyrics.com". Authenticity established!

Anyway, it's kind of an awful country song - the lyric is basically a string of inanities. Yet to hear Michael Allen pick it apart... I don't know... it somehow became an artifact of human effort worthy of my respect. Like a handtooled leather cowboy belt. Awful to behold, but you have to admit there's genuine craft in the construction.

The first thing Michael did was reveal the "golden rule", which is "start with the title". Apparently 99% of all hit songwriters get a great title, then write the chorus (which of course must feature the title), then the first verse. And so on.

What's makes a title great? Well it should pass the "SEMI" test:
  • Story - the title should imply a story. "I Let Her Lie" - why? Who is she? What was she lying about?
  • Emotion - the title should hint at an emotion. I guess in this case "lie" is an emotionally charged word, especially when it's "her" doing it. Cheatin' and fussin' and such, I reckon.
  • Mood - the title should evoke a specific mood. Michael admitted that "I Let Her Lie" doesn't really achieve this, and that this was the least important requirement. But a great title should hit it.
  • Identification - this is the big one. The title should invite you to identify with the singer. Well, actually at this point Michael was blurring the line between applying SEMI to the title, and applying it to the lyric as a whole. Rational-Cam was chafing at this, but I restrained myself in view of the mixed company. Anyway, the point is that the you should want to identify with the singer. This brought up a crucial corollary:
    • "Don't Be a Victim!" - you can't write a song where you're a whiner or a pussy. You have to have something in there that proves you're strong and in control, especially if you're writing a "you're cheating on me!" song (like this one).
According to Michael, one of the best ever hit-love-song titles is "You've Lost That Loving Feeling". Applying the SEMI rules, you can see why. It's got the works! It's also got another very important feature - pronouns in the title. I, you, we, she. Very important, apparently.

With the worthiness of "I Let Her Lie" as a title established, we moved on to the lyrics. Here the magic of "rhyming ideas" was revealed. Any clod can rhyme a couple of lines ("moon", "june", and so forth). The real voodoo is in rhyming ideas. This basically means applied free-association of concepts, so:

HOT "rhymes" with COLD
LOVE rhymes with HEART
SUN rhymes with MOON, STARS, HOT, etc.

Viewed through this lens, "I Let Her Lie" was transformed. Let's look at just the first verse:
  1. She'd come home six AM
  2. Tell me she'd been out with friends
  3. And I let her lie, I let her lie
  4. And in the glare of the morning sun
  5. She swore I was her only one
  6. And I let her lie, I let her lie
So here we see:
  • "Six AM" rhyming with "morning" in lines 1 and 4.
  • "Out" rhymes with "in" in lines 2 and 4.
  • "Friends" rhymes with "only one" in lines 2 and 5. This is a kind of contrasting style of idea rhyming - "friends" implying a group of people, a concept that contrasts with the single person implied by "only one".
...and so on. We analysed the whole lyric in this way. Suffice to say that "rhyming ideas" is a pretty broad concept, and I felt that Michael was stretching on numerous occasions. But there's something to this. There is a crude magic in creating internal connections that leverage pre-existing conceptual links in the listener's brain. It's credible that it creates a sense of coherence that is perceptible - if only subconsciously - by the listener.

Then we moved onto the original songs of the attendees. We got through all ten, and overall they were pretty good! I don't want to go into an in-depth critique here, because the vibe of the clinic was quite initimate. People were sharing unfinished creations, clearly not expecting to have them broadcast in any form. So I'll honor that.

I will talk about my song, though. I'm quite proud of "Met the Moon", but when the rules of hit-love-song writing are applied it is a failure! Here were the big notes I got:
  1. "Met the Moon" is a poor title. Michael suggested "'Till I Met You".
  2. "'Till I Met You" is the strongest melodic hook. He didn't really get the rest of the melody. He suggested simplifying it and repeating this hook at the end of the chorus.
  3. No-one could really understand what I was talking about. Someone said "what's a whelp?" (in reference to the line: "A whelp that yelps to say the sun is at meridian now"). I found I coudn't really explain the song concisely in way that made anyone care. I saw, and really understood, that my propensity for writing "clever" songs and lyrics is genuinely offputting and uninteresting for a "mainstream" audience. Huh. I always assumed you could kind of smuggle it in under the cover of a catchy melody. And maybe you can (I can think of many "clever" pop hits). But "Met the Moon" certainly doesn't achieve it.
  4. People suggested describing the girl I'm meeting, rather than the purely abstract "met the moon" idea. No-one really got that the chorus implied that the singer stops traveling because he's met his soul mate.
  5. People wanted to know what the singer did. Michael suggested that in the first verse I make it clear that I'm a "player in a band", or similar.
It was truly weird and cool to have one of my precious creations mercilessly dissected by this diverse group.

So what did I learn? That there really are people who apply a formulaic approach to pop songs, without shame. I've always suspected that people did stuff like this, but I've never witnessed it before. It's quite interesting, and I don't mind it from a "craft" point of view. But Artistic-Cam finds it all a bit cynical and calculating.

Nevertheless, I state plainly here and now: I am going to attempt to write a hit love song that nails every one of the "rules". I will sell it to Avril Lavigne. And I will become rich! RICH! (how's that for "cynical and calculating"?)