How to write a good song: Part Three: ‘Content’

pagan wanderer luPerforming and recording as Pagan Wanderer Lu, Andy Regan combines his electro-indie-pop music with clever, wry and sometimes political lyrics. Andy also writes at paganwandererlu.wordpress.com and has done a turn as a guest blogger for the Independent. Here he provides the exception that proves FFS’s no band-bashing rule with a look at some Editors’ lyrics…


What should a song be about?

Reader: Come now, Lu! A song can be about anything! It’s down to the writer to decide what a song should be about. A talented songwriter can turn any subject matter into a bona fide hit. Right?

Pffft.

I humbly invite you to consider whether the following are suitable subject matter for a pop song:

–       Renewing your car insurance

–       The conductive properties of various base metals

–       The correct way to make an omelette*

–       Your concerns about the fact it hurts when you pee

–       How unfair it is that people are mean about the songs you have written

The point is ‘a song can be about anything’ clearly doesn’t wash when we’re talking about writing a good song. Why is car insurance less interesting than New Band With Haircut #32,567b’s new song describing their desire to bump unmentionables with a non-specific object of desire? Well perhaps it isn’t. But just as the way that a given phrase is sung can make half arsed lyrics sound amazing, so most people just want the lyrics of music they like to reflect their own lives, and particularly their hopes and desires.

Bo-ring!

People don’t go to the cinema to watch films about people going to the cinema, they want dinosaurs and explosions and spaceships and sex and political intrigue and talking rabbits and time travel – preferably all at the same time. People admire imagination in films (and books – remember those?), so why are most pop lyrics so dull? “Woah yeah, I like making cups of tea too – just like this famous singer!”.

Music’s capable of more – yes it can sell you cereal with a catchy tune, sell you underage sex with a suggestive beat. But why shouldn’t it also try and broaden your horizons? Get you thinking? Teach you something?

If I was going to try and argue for why a song should be about something profound this is how I’d do it:

People love music. Songs remind you of events in your life. Bands shape what you wear. They influence the kind of person you want to be and the people you’re friends with. A specific song can become part of who person is – so isn’t it a shame if that song is shallow nonsense?

A song can have layers. The music is the bait on the hook of the lyrics, if it’s tasty enough you happily swallow the whole thing (no I’m not going to say ‘hook line and sinker’). When you’re on the dancefloor shimmying to the latest hits you’ll be shouting out the lyrics with a passion – is it too much to expect that they have the content to back that up? Isn’t a song that sounds and feels profound but is actually nonsense a little… dishonest?

Case Study: ‘Papillon’ by Editors.

[I didn’t want to use this column to slag off specific people’s songs but… well, it is a pretty awful song.]

The main chorus refrain is ‘it kicks like a sleep twitch’. On its own that’s a perfectly good line, though it suffers from the way Editors drop the music out each of the many times it’s sung, lest you should miss it.

Let’s examine the simile: A ‘sleep twitch’ is a small involuntary spasm in the night. It can wake you abruptly from a dream. It implies restlessness in the brain. It sounds a note of anxiety in what should be a peaceful state.

So you could see it working depending on what the ‘it’ in question is. But here’s the answer: ‘it’ isn’t anything. The rest of the song is disjointed waffle. So that one good line which could’ve been a nice ingredient becomes the only flavour – because the rest of the song is just stodge.

It contains the line ‘We’ll find our own way home somehow’. Now here’s a tried and tested rule for good lyrics, which I just made up. You know a line is mediocre if it’s unpatentable – if someone else could use the exact same line in another song and you wouldn’t be able to sue them.

‘It kicks like a sleep twitch’ will belong to Editors forever, ‘We’ll find our own way home somehow’ is what you say when the sat-nav breaks.

Other examples include: ‘You will choke, choke on the air you try to breathe’.

As opposed to choking on the air I’m not trying to breathe? Why will this happen? Will this happen as a result of the sleep twitch?

‘The world turns too fast, feel love before it’s gone’.

Before what’s gone? The world? The love? You don’t know do you? But yes, I see what you’re saying. It’s important to experience the emotion known as ‘love’ because our time on earth is shorter than you think. An unoriginal sentiment, which you have just fudged.

Or are you suggesting that now you’ve woken us both up by twitching in your sleep we might as well get down to some rumpy pumpy, just in case the world starts spinning wildly faster and faster until it flies off into space and is engulfed by the sun? You charmer.

For what it’s worth the meter of the song is also horrible. It’s crammed with joining words, and verbosity – it neither reflects the rhythms of every day speech, nor does it manage to be poetry. It is, in short, a song which isn’t about anything. So the passion that song is capable of harnessing is being channelled into… nothing.

Reader: “Egad, Lu! What about authorial intention? I heard that ‘Papillon’ is actually about [EditorsMan’s dog** dying/similar story]!”

‘Bimble bomble bumble boo

I like chops and you like fruit

Dangly dingly singly song

We’ll leave this town before too long’

^This is a poem I just wrote about my wife.

What do you mean it’s bollocks!? It’s about my wife, you shameless twat. Stop reading my column right now!

Authorial intention is very nice, and every now and again it’s good to know about it. It is not, however, a substitute for successfully communicating your intention in the first place. I’m all for songs that need a bit of unravelling, or use ambiguity. There are enough songs out there that condescend to their listeners and spell everything out, just in case they aren’t smart enough to understand. Spare me.

A song shouldn’t mean nothing. It’s shouldn’t be a string of half arsed pseudo poetic metaphors cobbled together in isolation because they just sound good, padded out with truisms, clichés, trite observations, gossip and blank ‘Facebook status update’ style affirmations of the writer’s mood.

But then it’s all subjective, isn’t it? So perhaps if Editors were writing this column they’d say the opposite.

Next time: Breaking the fourth wall – the ultimate songwriting no-no.

*I realised when typing this article that this is the first time in my life I have ever had to spell the word ‘omelette’. Who knew it had three E’s?

**Funnily enough whilst the word ‘Papillon’ is French for butterfly it is also a poncey breed of dog, so for all I know this is actually true.


Pagan Wanderer Lu’s new album European Monsoon is out now on Brainlove Records.

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