How to Write a Good Song: Part Four — Breaking the Fourth Wall

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 and has done a turn as a guest blogger for the Independent. After last week’s column on what a song should be about, PWL realised that there was a one kind of content which deserved a column all its own…

What was the first song that really got to you lyrically? The one that made you feel like the singer was speaking to you directly, articulating something you had felt or experienced, and was expressing it back to you in a way which felt more real and powerful than plain speech could ever do.

Do actually think about this question. Stop reading for 30 seconds and think of the song. Remember we want the first such song. If you’ve picked correctly you will instantly want to listen to this song. You’ll go slightly gooey inside thinking of all the good times you’ve had together. You will subconsciously end up putting it on your next mix CD.

Now think of what, in a nutshell, that song was about. I’ll wager it’s covered by one of these:

  • Being in Love/Not being loved back
  • Being Sad/Tragedy
  • Politics/Injustice
  • Having Fun/Summer
  • Being a creep and weirdo

I’ll bet what it wasn’t about was one of the following:

  • Being in a band
  • How much the singer of the song likes another band
  • Doing gigs
  • No one understanding your genius
  • How all the other bands are not as good as you

Most people who really get hooked by music end up buying a guitar and having a go at being in a band. It is brilliant fun. Some people are good at it, some aren’t. Being in a shit band is more fun than not being in any band. It’s a short step from loving music to loving making it. So like moths to a flame songwriters who write about their personal experiences will tend to cluster around the theme of music itself. I’ve fallen foul of this too. I’ve tried to avoid talking about my own music, but I’ll own up now and say I’ve probably broken every ‘rule’ I invent for this column.

In doing so songwriters forget about that first hook. What made them love music in the first place was not its ability to recount tales of being in a band, but its ability to add a transcendent sheen to everday experiences, or open your mind to strange feelings.

But writing about being in a band puts a barrier between yourself and anyone who could enjoy your music as something transcendent or universal. There’s nothing transcendent about watching a band play a song about being in a band – you can’t lose yourself in it, it just reminds you you’re watching a band. And the experience is only universal if you want your band to play its songs about being in a band to large crowds of people who are also in a band.

You see how that paragraph was hard to read because it contained the word ‘band’ so many times? That’s what it’s like for someone who isn’t in a band listening to your band sing about being in a band. Band, band, band, fucking band. The scene that talks about itself. The circle jerk.

It ‘breaks the fourth wall’. This is a term from cinema which means that the characters in the film acknowledge that they’re in a film. Not inherently bad as a device, but it should be used with care as it breaks the cinematic ‘spell’. You can’t immerse yourself in something and forget your troubles if you’re being explicitly reminded of the artifice involved in any kind of art. Remember ‘A song is a beautiful lie’.

I think this is why so much of rap just leaves me cold. I confess to vast chasms of ignorance about this music, but the amount of stuff I hear where the big name rapper’s new single merely announces the fact that he or she is back with a new album. However sharply they rhyme about this, it’s pretty banal. At this extreme it’s using your music to portray yourself as a person to be admired by sheer force. Like a man trying to make you fancy him by waving his cock in your face.

A song should not be explicitly about ‘you’ the writer unless you have a particularly interesting life. Odds are you probably don’t, especially if your life mostly revolves around being in bands. This is why it’s good to look beyond yourself for inspiration. If you can scribble a couplet that sums up your recent breakup so others can relate to it then you’re roughly 99% of the way to having a good song. But there is literally nothing to say about being in a band which is interesting in and of itself.

It’s like car insurance, you’ll be interested in hearing about it if you’re in the market for a new policy. If not it’s like hearing zombified beings being puppeted through a conversation on autopilot by some malevolent spirit. ‘Oh I went to to get mine, I saved four pounds’. ‘Oh really? My band played there and the sound guy was a dick’.

Also on the naughty step are songs which say ‘This song…’. As in ‘I wrote this song about you/because I feel so blue’. That’s taking the circle jerk and giving it a circumference of one person. ‘I am a songwriter writing a song about myself writing a song’. Inspirational.

Of course there are exceptions to all rules. One that springs to mind here is ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out Of Denton’ by the Mountain Goats. The reason this is a good song is because it approaches ‘being in a band’ with a novelist’s eye. It broadens the characters’ experiences into something universal, ‘When you punish a person for dreaming his dream/ don’t expect him to thank or forgive you’. At a pinch anyone could transpose the ‘being in a death metal band’ angle into whatever their own dream is. Sadly most songwriters don’t have John Darnielle’s gift for detail and nuance.

Then we come to the final category… Songs about your own genius, and the lack of recognition thereof. Aside from the abject egocentricity of this choice of subject, what are the other reasons this does not make for a good song?

Firstly emotion. If we’ve established anything so far it’s that a good song should connect emotionally. Whether it be via happiness, sadness, anger, love, confusion, curiosity…. the best songs ‘just work’. What feelings are you expressing when you bemoan a lack of recognition? Bitterness, condescension, superiority, egotism, and jealousy. Emotions which it’s a pretty good idea to try and rid your mind of entirely, yet here you are immortalising them in vinyl/plastic/binary?

Secondly, it just plain old makes you look like a dick. Remember what attracted you to music in the first place? Odds are it wasn’t some pampered arsehole whining about how no one appreciates his greatness. One way to approach writing a song is to think ‘what if this is the only song I write a particular person ever hears?’ By whinging about your recognition you pass up on the chance to say something worth being recognised for.

Make your songs good first, then maybe people will want to hear you talk about your band – but please save it for interviews.

Next time: ‘The Music: is originality the enemy of emotion?’

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