Songwriting: The Old, the New and the Ugly

Songwriting: The Old, the New and the Ugly August 21, 2012

I recently subscribed to Wayne Haun and Joel Lindsay’s new You Write Songs site [Edit, August 13: The site is now defunct and the link has been removed.] I’m excited about this and glad to see that two experienced vets of the biz are investing some time and effort in encouraging the next crop of young songwriters. As someone who’s just ventured into this field myself very recently, I figured I need all the tips I can get.

After subscribing, I watched a video that was made available to subscribers only. It was Joel Lindsay’s top five common songwriting mistakes.

I don’t want to give away all five, but I did want to discuss one point on which I definitely disagreed with Lindsay. (Hey, I didn’t have a problem criticizing John Piper’s preaching, so this is small potatoes. Anyway it’s been way too long since I wrote a post on songwriting, and I have at least one faithful reader who says they’re his favorite! So Rick, this is for you…)

One of the “mistakes” that Lindsay mentioned, alongside legitimate symptoms of new writer clumsiness, was writing music that is “outdated.” He said, “We’re all affected by great music of the past, and yet we want our music to sound current and fresh.” He stressed the importance of keeping up with the music that’s popular, that “the kids are listening to,” that’s topping charts right now. Interestingly, he then added that he wasn’t saying it’s necessary to imitate this music, it’s just good to be informed. But I think that’s misleading considering that he said it was a “mistake” to be “outdated.” Obviously he means something by telling young songwriters to “keep it fresh.” What else could it mean if not following current trends, at least to a certain extent? Perhaps he would say that boldly going where no artist has gone before would be the best thing of all, and that’s what he means by “fresh.” And yet the truth is that everything is an amalgam of its predecessors. There’s nothing really, truly “new” under the sun.

Now let me just pause and say that I think Lindsay’s intentions are good. Essentially, my guess is he’s trying to help young songwriters not to be disappointed if nobody seems interested in their stuff. He’s saying, “Nothing is stopping you from making music you like, but if you want someone to record it you can’t live in a bubble.” That’s good practical advice, and I can understand why he wants to make a point of saying it.

The problem as I see it comes when he tries to imply that “current” is by default good, while “not current” is… a mistake. That he should have specifically used that word struck me as odd. I’ll admit, my gut reaction was “I don’t want my music to be current, I want it to be good!” Let’s be honest here. There’s a simple, concise word to describe the majority of “what the kids are listening to” right now: Junk. You cannot look me in the eye and tell me that what’s charting today holds a candle to what charted thirty, forty, fifty years ago.

When it comes to how good music gets made, I’d say Paul Simon said it best:

I think good songs are all about sound. I think that’s what music is about.  And the songwriter is listening to hear whether he or she is creating a sound that has some meaning.  Unless you’re writing strictly on a commercial basis, I mean, unless you’re being a hack – even there, a good hack has to have some kind of sensitivity, but if you’re writing a song that is supposed to be a story, you’re listening to the sound and the sound is what tells you whether to stay by the rules or break the rules.

Now there’s a piece of advice that’s absolutely timeless. It’s got nothing to do with “keeping up” or being “current.” You let the music take you where it wants to go, and if you’re any good, you get something good. And if you’re Paul Simon, you get art. (Er, no pun intended. Would you believe, it took me a moment to realize…) As the interviewer pointed out in response to this quote, he wasn’t a very good hack when he was trying to write commercial stuff. It wasn’t where he belonged. And now, who remembers his 50s career?

It may be that if I ever wrote the next “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (not that I ever will, of course, but speaking hypothetically here…) nobody would want it because it’s not “Call Me Maybe.” But at least I wouldn’t feel like a hack. In my humble opinion, a little artistic pride doesn’t hurt.

In closing, a little something I created ‘specially for this post. Hope you like:

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  • quartet-man

    This might not be totally on topic, but I get SO frustrated with the feeling today by so many that today’s music is great, that old automatically means bad or tired, and new automatically means great. It seems to be in so many churches that a song’s value is determined by the date it was written. I am not one who thinks that new ones are always bad or old are always good. I judge by the songs themselves. For instance, I prefer “Blessings” by Laura Story over some SG songs or hymns. There are others too. Sometimes I almost think that a person could take a fairly unknown song from 20 years ago, pass it off as new and get more people to like it than would otherwise. In fact, there have been times people have heard hymns and thought they were new songs. So, it can be done.

  • I can see Joel’s point; if you want to get a cut by an artist, you gotta bring something unique to the table. However, Joel also writes more than just southern gospel music, so he HAS to keep up with what’s going on in the industry. It’s about knowing your market.

  • Not at all, you’re bang on topic. I agree completely.

  • And yet there are songwriters out there, particularly in southern gospel, who’ve written great stuff and had lots of success without once subjecting themselves to a junky modern album. For that matter, I see some people having success in CCM whose music doesn’t come close to “what the kids are listening to.” For example, Audrey Assad’s stuff is very throwback, and people love her.
    So I don’t even think it’s true that in order to be SUCCESSFUL, you have to be “current.” And I think it’s really weird to call it a “mistake” to be outdated. If you’d seen the other mistakes he was listing, you would say “What is this doing in the same category?”

  • j-mo

    I’m also against new for the sake of new. But, as a counterpoint, way too many people look at the past through rose-colored glasses and choose only to remember the good stuff. When Bridge over Troubled Water was a hit so was ABC/123, Mama Told Me Not To Come, Hitchin A Ride, etc. And today there is really good music alongside Carly Rae from Radiohead, The Black Keys, Leonard Cohen, Jack White, and even people like Gotye.

  • I never said nobody was making good music today. There’s Josh Ritter, the Civil Wars, and others. But Lindsay was specifically focusing on what’s the TREND of the day, what’s popular with the youth? And to answer that question we go to Lady Gaga, Maroon 5, Rihanna, Eminem, etc. If you say “Leonard Cohen” to the average 15-year-old today he’s going to say “Who?”
    Also, “Bridge” came out in 1970 and Lord knows the 70s spawned some truly awful music. But it was still a time when something like “Bridge” even COULD become a hit. I doubt it would be a hit today. With the introduction of styles like rap, club, electro-pop, etc., something has to get edged out.

  • As for groups like Black Keys, garage rock has never been my thing, but that’s one style that has been around for a while. So my dislike of it obviously isn’t based on a disdain for the new. I just don’t like the sound. In fact there’s a lot of rock music that doesn’t float my boat, even from thirty or forty years ago. I love some flavors of rock, but not all.

  • Continuing to clarify what I mean, I don’t consider myself to be saying EITHER “If it’s old it’s must be good” OR “If it’s new it must be terrible.” Lindsay, on the other hand, was explicitly making a virtue out of “new-ness.” That’s what I’m coming down hard on here.

  • On a side note, why does “modern” automatically become “junky”? There are some very good “modern” songs and styles out there.

  • If this weren’t the internet, I’d be giving you a rather icy look right now. But I’ll try to see if I can get your question narrowed down for clarity’s sake. First of all, we need to make sure we’re using “modern” to refer to the same things. I thought I’d made it clear in the thread that I was referring to what Lindsay seemed to mean by “current.” He defined it as “what the kids are listening to” and what’s popular right now, today. By that I assume he’s referring to electro-pop, hip-hop, club and the like, all of which is junk. (Or, using specific names, Lady Gaga, Eminem, Maroon 5, Rihanna, and their ilk.) In this context, that’s how I’ve been using the word “modern.” Of course, if I were writing a broad outline history of music, I’d use “modern” to cover a way more sweeping set of decades. And when we’re talking about history in general, “modern” equals 18th century onward. But here I mean something specific by it. Which “modern” styles did you have in mind that are supposedly so artistically wonderful? Were you perhaps using it in the broad sense, say to refer to rock or pop in general?

  • I will concede that the examples you gave are indeed junky. But when I hear the words “current” or “modern,” I think the last 5 years, across all genres. Sure, there’s some junk, but there will always be junk across all genres and all eras.
    One thing that Joel doesn’t seem to take into account is that southern gospel music, like it or not, is as much about nostalgia as it is about ministry. It’s a throwback. Sure, there are some groups who will experiment, but at the end of the day, the biggest names in SG are the ones who play it safe and stick with a formula.
    Why do you think reunion shows are so big in SG? Or projects like Jubilee? Or even tributes? Because they’re nostalgic. And that’s what SG fans like. That’s why so many groups will release projects full of cover songs; they know that a new song has a fifty-fifty shot of winning, but “Beulah Land” and “I’ll Fly Away” will ALWAYS sell. Why? Nostalgia.
    So, in defense of Joel Lindsey, I agree that songwriters should be willing to capitalize on modern/current trends (even songwriters have bills to pay). In your defense, SG is not the genres to be doing it in.

  • I realize there has always been junk, even popular junk. But I’m looking at proportions and chances. Proportions of junk to non-junk, and the chance that non-junk has of getting accepted vs. the chance junk has. I think also that part of it goes back to the rise of “music” forms like hip-hop that weren’t even around until very recently. That’s been a huge corrupting influence.
    On the flip side, you can always find good music, but the question is, how deep do you have to dig? How likely is it that everyone will have heard of a given good artist?
    I can tell you with absolute confidence that the quality of CCM has dropped steeply over the last ten or fifteen years, because I’ve studied its history thoroughly. Plus I have a local radio station that I used to like to listen to at one point, then started turning off more and more frequently. Because I’ve spent less time researching the evolution of pop music in general (in no small part because that would take WAY longer to master than a young genre like CCM), I can’t be quite as confident when I say it ain’t what it used to be, but the more I learn about it, the more I do get that impression.
    As to your comment about southern gospel, I wondered if someone was going to bring that up or if I was going to have to bring it up. I had the very same thought. If this website is meant to be geared mainly towards GOSPEL songwriters, this may not even be good practical advice, even aside from the fact that it’s generally shallow. SG is different from other genres, because like you said, its market appeal is largely built on nostalgia. That’s part of what the music’s artists and fans pride themselves on.

  • I can appreciate a good old hymn, and still love to hear The News Boys sing, Shine. I am glad you posted this and would love to see more on song writing. Ive been into gospel song writing for several years now; I think I can maybe reach someone one day…gonna take some help though!! More of these articles would be appreciated!!

  • I’ve got some really awesome material for the Questions and Answers series, so I’m excited about that, but it takes a while to put one of those together. Stay tuned!

  • Well now you’ve made me an offer that I cant refuse!

  • I thought these couple of paragraphs from a review of a popular band’s new album were interesting. It confirms what I’ve been saying:
    “Maroon 5 no longer really exists. They are no longer creating their own music. They recognized that all of the current hit music falls under categories like ‘disco-flavored dance-floor filler’ or ‘dance-pop glitz,’ and they knew to sell songs they’d need to hire outside help. Who’d they hire? Look up names like Max Martin, Ryan Tedder, Shellback, and Benny Blanco–these people are the new ‘Maroon 5,’ and they are also Pink and Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson and Usher and Britney Spears and Taio Cruz and Adele and OneRepublic and Gym Class Heroes and Sean Paul and Avril Lavigne and Justin Bieber and Ke$ha and Flo Rida and Pitbull. I’m not making this up–it is a fact that almost all of the music we hear on the radio is created by the same few guys whose names you probably haven’t heard.
    I think it would be fair to say that the Billboard 100 has never been in such a sad, homogenous state, and I think it would also be fair to say that the release of this album confirms that modern hit music is vapid and soulless–it is little more than brand names selling catchy hooks created by anonymous dance-pop gurus.”

  • There’s a pretty major thing you are leaving out when drawing comparisons with that picture. Those two songs were written for two completely different target audiences. Call Me Maybe is intended for teens and young adults, Bridge Over Troubled Water was probably written for an audience that is much more mature.
    I also think you are making too big a deal over him saying to keep up with what the kids are listening to. There is more that you can take from a song than just words. There’s rhyme schemes, musical riffs, and so much more.
    Also, he is not saying that the old music is bad either, as much as you want to believe he is. But there are ways that you can make old songs sound fresh without compromising the integrity of the song itself.
    Here’s an example of how you can make an old song sound fresh, without compromising the song’s integrity:
    (and no, the “how great you are” part cannot be categorized as compromising the integrity of the song)

  • What we have here is a failure to communicate. Allow me to elucidate. 🙂 (Hey, there’s the embryo of a hip-hop song in there…)
    Point #1: I was simply looking at what was on top of the Billboard chart in 1970 and comparing to what’s on top now. “Call Me Maybe” spent nine consecutive weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100. That’s the chart for mainstream pop music, not a special chart just for kiddos. “Bridge” did top the adult contemporary chart, but it also topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six weeks. So, like it or not, it seems that “Call Me Maybe” and its ilk has a lock on the pop charts in general, not just kiddie charts, and it seems that this wasn’t always so.
    But, Point #2: Okay, I’ll pick a currently hot Billboard song written for adults. How about Maroon 5’s “Payphone?” Whoops, let’s not go there, multiple profanities in the “adult” version… ummm, okay how ’bout Flo Rida’s “Whistle?” Wait, that looks pretty obscene. Gee, you know maybe I should just give up trying to find anything worthwhile on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, you think?
    But, Point #3: Yes, and there are so many brilliant rhyme schemes and riffs in that new Justin Bieber album. I’m stunned by the dazzling complexity of the poetry and musicianship. Who knows what I could glean from such a rich treasure trove?
    Point #4: Nope, I carefully gave him an exact quote in which he said “We’re all influenced by great music of the past.” My intent was not to say that Joel Lindsay hates old music. In fact, I was surprised to hear him give this piece of advice given that so much of his material sounds old-fashioned. It feels like a disconnect. (Then again, he is writing gospel music, and as we discussed this tip seems irrelevant to that genre, which makes it doubly odd.) However, I gave another exact quote where he said that writing “outdated” music was a “mistake.” Indeed, that was the whole focus of the tip. Outdated = mistake. So actually I was trying to say something much more nuanced than “Joel Lindsay hates old stuff.” You might want to go back and read a little more closely to see what I actually said.
    Point #5: Your point would probably have been better served by something like Chris Tomlin’s “My Chains Are Gone.” This version of “How Great Thou Art” is kind of flat-line and annoying. It may partly be a vocal issue (never liked that lead singer, always sounds like he’s belting out a beer commercial), but also, when the arrangement gets “exciting,” it’s just the guitar and drums pounding away on the same few chords. The only moments of respite come when the piano and cello are allowed to do something pretty. So actually, some of the beauty and interest of the original hymn HAS been compromised to make it fit the contemporary worship genre where music just isn’t as interesting. But this isn’t the worst example, I’ll grant you. Incidentally, while it’s not as bad as actually REPLACING “How Great Thou Art” with “How Great You Are” (confession, I heard Chris Tomlin do it too once), the extra modernized repeat wasn’t necessary.

  • When it comes to modern versions of “How Great Thou Art,” I like Chris Rice. In fact Chris has done lots of classy things with old hymns. I daresay it’s, well, tasteful and old-fashioned:

  • One more thing—I might not have gone right for “Call Me Maybe” had Lindsay not explicitly used the phrase “what the kids are listening to.” He really walked right into it with that phrase. That means that Carly Rae, Justin Bieber, etc. all become fair game when evaluating the usefulness of his comment.
    Also, Simon & Garfunkel WAS what the kids of the 60s were listening to. It was the folkie movement. They were cutting-edge. Teenagers glommed onto their stuff because it was new and different, and the lyrics had that slight hippie angstiness that kids could relate to. Do your research and you’ll see I’m right.
    Observe, Simon & Garfunkel sitting in a circle surrounded by young people, strumming the quintessential 60s hit “The Sounds of Silence”: