Thursday, October 9, 2014

Rocktober: What IS "Good Songwriting"?

“Good songwriting.” I’m not sure I really know what that means. As a phrase. As the adjective and noun music critics and fans use to describe an essential quality in most music they identify as “good,” as “worthy” of their attention and listening ears.

Many music lovers carry this assumption that popular music cannot have “good songwriting.” Oftentimes I find music critics who call out one verse as brilliant songwriting, another verse as trite or derivative or bad, and I swear to God half the time I can’t tell the difference.

Let’s take a song from the latest Ryan Adams eponymous album, an album that I love as much as my blog partner. “Feels Like Fire” is the catchiest (and maybe best) song on the album for me. It encapsulates, to me, the panicky feeling of loss, a kind of pain that doesn’t translate to the epidermis, but rather feels like someone using a pickaxe on your soul, some deep internal recess that has no nerve endings but still somehow seems akin to searing agony.

But I don’t believe it’s a particularly well-written song, lyrically. Take the second verse:
Feel the sunlight
The sunlight on my face
It’s cold out here
Lost in outer space
I mean no disrespect to Ryan Adams, but if this verse were in a Miley Cyrus song, people would mock it. They’d be flat-out brutal about how awful it is. But Adams is considered by many to be an excellent and mature songwriter and churns out song like Stephen King does books, so he generally gets a pass.

As much as I love the chorus, as much as the line “driving past your church and all the houses in a row” feels deep and meaningful to me -- it reminds me of driving away from my high school girlfriend’s house night after night in high school -- it’s difficult for me to proclaim that it’s proof of genius.

So, do I love the song because of the songwriting or despite it?

What makes “good songwriting”? Is it the turn of each phrase in a song or the feel of the whole? The poetry of the collected lines rather than the occasional predictability of a couplet or rhyme? Is “good songwriting” entirely about how the instrumentation of the piece breathes additional life into mere words?

Lyrically, is “Sweet Child O’ Mine” even a fraction as brilliant a song without the music? Does that make it “good songwriting” or entirely the opposite? Is it the song or the writing or their inextricable interconnectedness?

I’m not being flippant here, or smart-alecky. These are genuine questions to which others seem to have a confident answer while I barely know where to start.

One of the things I immediately notice and frequently appreciate in songs are the use of barbaric yawps and primitive utterings, the heys and yeahs and oohs and boo-bop-gowl-do-wop-kachow moments that aren’t lyrics. Those moments are the rare moment when I believe maybe there’s something to churches that speak in tongues, because when Steven Tyler goes into ki-ki-ki-ki-kow mode, I know what he’s saying, sorta, and I love him for doing it so damn well. The only thing that cushioned the fall of my disappointment discovering how many songs Aerosmith had written for them by others was the realization that the gutterals and nonsensicals Tyler injects into songs are not things anyone could write for him. They are his. That’s his best songwriting (again, I'm not being sarcastic or cruel here).

But does that make Steven Tyler a good songwriter? Dunno. How much is "good songwriting" in the ear of the beholder?

Anyone care to help me out? Is there a definable criteria for “good songwriting,” or is it just a safe way for people who don’t like an artist or song to criticize or celebrate while sounding intellectual?


troutking said...

I can think of a few personal definitions of good song writing:

1. Great music---hooks, melody, structure, etc---with lyrics that serve the music. Something like Twist and Shout perhaps.

2. Lyrics that work on more than one level. For example, much of The Rising and Magic have a 9/11 or Bush level of meaning but also a personal/relationship level. Empty Sky, for example, could be about the end of a relationship or 9/11. Girls in the Summer Clothes could be about Bruce (or anyone) aging or America being past its prime.

3. Lyrics that are open enough to interpretation that the reader can adapt them to his own life, but specific enough to offer insight. For example, Dylan's My Back Pages is probably about his abandonment of folk music but could relate to anyone's growing up and gaining maturity of thought.

4. Lyrics with phrases worthy of quoting that provide flashes of insight and truth. Elvis Costello's Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes is one---I used to be disgusted. Now I try to be amused. Dylan: He not busy bein' born is busy dyin'.

I'm sure I have more definitions but those are some that come to mind right now before I go back to work.

Anonymous said...

Trout's definitions work for me.

Not sure Ryan Adams is the greatest wordsmith, but his combination of music, lyrics, and how he sings those lyrics seems to lead to songs that have integrity.

G. B. Miller said...

Personally, if the lyrics tell a good story, no matter what kind of emotional outlet is ultimately achieved, that usually does it for me. IMO, certain genres lend themselves more to good songwriting than others do (pop after Michael Jackson usually is an epic fail), so I've grown to appreciate those genres (i.e.Americana, singer/songwriter, bluegrass) as an adult as opposed to when I was my son's age.

Robert Berman said...

Image makes it almost impossible for us to fairly analyze song lyrics on their own merits, as your Ryan Adams/Miley Cyrus example shows. The whole "pretentious poetry readings" reminds us how rare are song lyrics which stand on their own. That's true across genres, Americana no less than EDM. I agree with G.B. Miller's observation that what's important to us in music changes with age. On the new U2 album, I'm much more interested in the words than the music, though I like the music fine too.