Yesterday I was in the car listening to a radio show all about advertising…boring you might assume, but it was actually quite interesting. That’s because a lot of what advertising people are doing, the ones who are writing and producing commercials, is continuously trying to find new ways to say the same old things. How do you advertise a car in a way that no one has done before?
The most interesting thing I heard was an interview with a top notch ad guy in the US. He said that in the beginning, his success could be attributed to his LACK of knowledge. He didn’t know what he “couldn’t” do. Beyond that, he said, once you start to learn the rules and play by them, you start to become like everybody else. And once you become like everybody else, you stop standing out.
I found this particularly interesting because it creates quite a dichotomy when you are using the rules to try to come up with something new and fresh. How can you be new and fresh if you are simply following old patterns or methods? And when you have people like me telling you how to write a song, isn’t that the same as learning the “rules”? Maybe you should stop reading my tips right now 🙂
And, if, for instance, you are hearing from publishers or record people “We want the next ________”, meaning that they want you to be a new version of someone famous who has made them a lot of money…how does that make you new and fresh? You are going to come up against this again and again if you are trying to pitch your songs or try and make your band the next big thing. You don’t want to sound like anyone else, but a lot of people will push you in that direction.
I have always been an advocate of learning the rules, and then more or less learning how to break them. But now I wonder if rules don’t just get in the creative mind’s way, period. The mind is a pretty powerful thing. You know yourself, that if you let yourself second guess every word or every note, it ruins everything! So when you are first sitting down to write something, throw all the “rules” out the window…don’t even let yourself think about them.
Beyond that, let’s look at a couple of songs and artists that more or less break the “rules” and succeed. The first one I’ll mention comes to mind because a guitar student of mine recently asked me to figure it out for her to play. It’s a song called “Something Pretty” by Patrick Park. You can hear the whole song on his website in the media section, and it was introduced to a larger audience through the television show “The OC”. What’s really interesting about this song is that it starts out sounding pretty darn traditional country. But then you realize that his singing style isn’t really “country” , and musically the song takes some very nontraditional twists and turns, for instance, suddenly modulating to another key and back again, and having a very long instrumental section after the chorus. You’d rarely find that done in a popular contemporary country song today. Today’s country, especially country/pop, is very, very formula. And Patrick’s lyrical style is a kind of a self put-down, which is more of what you would find in rock or alternative (whatever alternative is these days!) songs. And for days after I worked it out, I had it spinning around and around in my head…it has a haunting quality that sticks with you.
Sometimes what makes a stand out, obviously, is the artist. Fiest’s “1,2,3,4” is just plain quirky. Her voice is different, the production is definitely not typical…lots of banjos and trumpets. Now when is the last time you heard that in a pop song? And someone like Amy Winehouse with her ballsy, vocal style, makes R&B sound new again, the way Norah Jones made jazz and country new and appealing to a pop audience a couple of years back. It seems these days that television commercials are breaking artists more commonly than radio. That in itself, is an interesting turn of events.
Occasionally, well-established artists go out on a limb and break their own rules. The first to famously do that in the folk/rock world was Bob Dylan. There was a huge backlash when he suddenly started playing electric guitar in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival. They called him a sell-out, a traitor, even…they yelled “get rid of that electric guitar!” He was shaken from that experience, when all he was trying to do was to re-invent himself and move in a fresh direction. Another, less negatively received re-invention was Johnny Cash with that unbelievably powerful version of a Nine Inch Nails song and video “Hurt”. Who’d a thunk it…Johnny Cash and NIN? But it was a huge hit for him. The combination of that raw, seasoned voice and those equally raw and emotional lyrics, was profound.
So is the answer to re-invent yourself? Perhaps. One thing my husband likes to say to the kids is “Be bold.” And occasionally they take the bull by the horns and do something they never thought they could. I think that’s how you have to approach your songwriting (and performing, if that’s relevant to you)…I think you have to throw something completely different into the mix, and see what you come up with. If you’re looking to do something different, then pick a style you haven’t written before (even if you hate it!), or pick up an instrument you’ve never played. Use words that are not common to you. If you record your own songs, find the strangest loop you can possibly find, and write something to it. Find a trumpet player and ask him or her to invent a part for a song that doesn’t sound like it is meant for a trumpet :-). You see what I mean?
Be bold .