Song Critique – Rolling In The Deep by Adele

My exposure to new songs often comes from my guitar students requesting them for their lessons.  And that was how I first heard Adele’s song “Rolling In The Deep” which is off her latest album “21”. Listen to clips and/or purchase here:

I first wanted to understand the phrase “rolling in the deep” so I did some research online to see if that might be an idiom or local expression, perhaps in the UK where Adele is from. What I found was a reference in Rolling Stone from an interview where she describes what she meant by it:

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Inhale, Exhale

News Bulletin:  I have been working on a song.  You might think “big deal, you write songs”, but this is the first time in a long time that I have really focused on my own songwriting.  I found a little piece of a guitar progression that I had recorded maybe a year or two ago on my handy dandy mp3 recorder, and it struck me as interesting so I decided to go further with it.  That sounds easy enough, but it hasn’t been.

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I realize that I am very distracted by many things during the day whether it’s reading emails, checking on stocks, prepping for my students, teaching, making calls;  and the list goes on.  The majority of my songwriting “life”, I didn’t have the same distractions.  I used to just sit in my bedroom on my bed and write.  So I decided that in order to really give it the attention it needs, I was going to turn everything off for an hour a day including the tv, phones, computers, etc. and just sit with my guitar in front of a piece of paper.  I’ve done this a few times now and have had mediocre results.

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Song Censorship

Recently in Canada, a non-governmental organization called the CBSC (Canadian Broadcast Standards Commission) received a complaint from a person in Eastern Canada about the 1985 Dire Straits hit “Money For Nothing”.  The complaint was in regards to the use of the word faggot which appears three times in the lyric:

See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup
Yeah buddy that’s his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he’s a millionaire

Of course, if you had never heard the song or read the lyrics before, taking the lyric out of context like that might lead you to agree with the complaint.  In my opinion, the listener had absolutely no understanding of the song’s story or meaning and simply heard that word repeated, and so decided to drag the whole song through the mud, and the CBSC through months of unnecessary committee meetings.  How silly.

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This reminds me somewhat of the decision made by Clear Channel in the aftermath of 9/11 to ban a list of songs from its stations, including the John Lennon song “Imagine” apparently because of this line in the lyric:  “Imagine no religion”.  Absolute silliness.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of songs I’d like to see banned from the radio.  How about this lyric by Ice Cube from the song “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It“:

Ain’t nothing like man on that you knew on the corner
See ’em come up and fuck up the owner
See ’em throw up Westside California
Nigga I’m hot as Phoenix Arizona

I’m Utah I got multiple bitches
It’s a new law keep a hold of yo riches
Dumb nigga don’t spend it as soon as you get it
And recognize I’m a captain and you a lieutenant

…as far as Gangsta Rap is concerned, there are many, many offensive lyrics.  And how about some of those blatantly sexual music videos where scantily clad girls are basically mimicking sexual acts for all the little kids to see?  Yep, there are plenty of things out there I don’t want to hear or see.

But that is the whole point; I have a choice.  I certainly don’t want small children to be exposed to that garbage, but I am an adult and I can choose what I do or don’t listen to or watch.  I don’t want someone else making that decision for me and that’s why I don’t like censorship of any kind.

The CBSC has its purpose.  It was created by Canada’s private broadcasters to administer standards that were also created by those broadcasters.   I think it’s important to have oversight and to have a body to complain to when it comes to what is being broadcast.  For example, radio and television stations have to be careful about their graphic content.  If, for instance, a television station is airing news footage of a particularly violent crime scene, they have to be careful about what they show the general public, and it’s important to have standards in place to know where to draw the line.

Censorship has always been a contentious issue, and popular music has had its fair share of arguments.  When Elvis Presley made his third appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in January of 1957 (if you don’t know about the Ed Sullivan Show, you are much younger than me 🙂 ), he was shot only from the waist up because of complaints in earlier appearances where he “suggestively” gyrated his hips while singing.

On the same show and ten years later, Rolling StonesMick Jagger was forced to change his lyrics from Let’s Spend the Night Together to “let’s spend some time together.”  Jagger rolled his eyes as he sang the newly censored lyrics and everyone had a good laugh.  And we laugh now at the idea that lyrics suggesting spending the night together would somehow induce some kind of wild teenage behaviour, but popular music continues to push the boundaries when it comes to sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

In the end, it is to an artist’s and record label’s financial delight when a song creates controversy because it only draws more attention to it.  However, in this case, because “Money For Nothing” has been on the radio airwaves for 25 years, the CBSC has only made itself out to be foolish.  And whimpish.  All because one person didn’t really understand the lyrics.


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Five Deadly Songwriter Sins

No matter how many times the same points are brought up when it comes to common problems that arise for newer songwriters, they bear repeating as a kind of checklist to go through once you feel you’ve finished a song and you want to send it out there.  Of course, a song can never really feel “finished” if you’re the type who likes to tweak a lot, but what I’m going to list here are more obvious problems that come up again and again when I’m listening to newer songwriters.

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1. INTRO TOO LONG –  I’ve seen this brought up by many songwriting instructors or critiques again and again, but somehow it doesn’t seem to sink in for many writers.  If you are pitching your songs to publishers or artists, you are going to lose them so quickly if your intro is long and self-indulgent.  They want to get to the meat of it, so don’t serve so much salad!  Keep your intro as short as you can, and you can even try no intro at all!  Now of course, you’re going to find lots of examples of pro recordings out there with long intros, but these are often by artists or bands who have long since established some kind of following and they can get away with it.  You can’t.

2. FILLER LYRICS – Even if you have one really good hook in your song, don’t ignore the rest of it!  The sound of boring old phrases  will put even the most enthusiastic of your listeners right to sleep.  Your job is to take every one of those old, boring lines and make them remarkable.  There is not one syllable’s worth of room for boring!  Don’t get lazy or impatient, keep going over every line and make it better.

3.  UNREMARKABLE MELODIES – in some cases the problem can be one of two things:  either the melody is too repetitive, or it’s not repetitive enough!  Work on your melodic phrasing, listen to popular songs or songs you like and notice how often the same melody is repeated within a verse and then within a chorus.  The human brain can remember a sequence of up to 7 digits easily, then it starts to lose track.  This is not to say you should only put 7 notes in your melodic phrasing, but just keep in mind that people who are listening to your songs fresh can only remember and retain so much.  On the flip side if you keep throwing the same melody at them over and over, they’ll drift off to sleep.  Too much or lack of repetition is probably the most common problem I hear in songwriter’s melodies.

4. POOR PERFORMANCE – if you’re not a singer, don’t sing on your own demos.  For the purpose of getting a demo made, of course you’ll probably need to give them a rough version of the melody.  The same goes for your accompaniment.  If you can’t play very well, get somebody else to do it.  A poor performance of even a great song will often be a distraction for those who are listening with a critical ear.  Your mom will love it, your publisher won’t :-).

5. LACK OF A THEME AND CONTINUITY – what is your song about?  If you can’t tell me in one phrase, then you haven’t got the chorus down yet.  And don’t tell me it’s a love song, that’s going to lose me too!  There are a gazillion love songs out there, what makes yours different?  Then look at the continuity of your lyrics, is the first verse tied to the next one?  Can you describe the “story” as it unfolds in each verse and does it make sense as a whole?  A common problem is disjointed lyrics where one part of a song doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the next part and it’s difficult to really know what the song is about.  It’s like walking into an extremely cluttered living room, where your eyes don’t know what to look at first.  In a song with no continuity, your ears can’t figure out what to listen to either.  Get rid of all the furniture and pictures, pare it down and start again!

The above problems are not insurmountable, and yet they will stand out immediately to someone who is used to listening to a lot of songs, like a publisher.  You don’t want to give anyone the excuse to hit stop too soon!  Take your time to fix them and it will pay off, I promise :-).

Happy 2011!


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Help! I’ve Never Written A Song Before…

…what do I do?? I see this question often on message boards and blogs all over the web.  If you’re one of those out there asking this question, then let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start ;-)).

First of all, you might want to begin with an instrument like a piano or guitar.  The majority of songs are written on either of these two instruments, so if you know a few chords, you’re already ahead of the game! Sit down and play around with a few progressions (a series of chords) and see what you can come up with.  Don’t worry about writing a WHOLE song, just see if you can find a nice chord progression that pleases your ear, and then try humming something on top of it.  Again, don’t worry about where it’s going to go or what it means or if it’s any good!  The most important thing is to start the process.  The “finessing” comes later.  I’ll get back to the music part in a minute.

Some songwriters like to begin by writing down some lyrics.   If you decide to start this way and then find yourself sitting there for an hour in front of a blank page, then don’t push it.  It’s more handy to keep a pad of paper and a pen with you wherever you go, and/or a digital voice recorder (even smart phones come equipped with audio recording capabilities these days!).  That way, when a line or phrase comes to you, you can write it down or record it for use later.  However, you might find yourself writing lyrics at your first sitting.  It’s REALLY important not to judge what you’re writing too much at the start, so if there is something there, let it flow out of you without editing yourself.  The editing comes later!

Another question that comes up all the time is “what should I write about?”.  The truth is you have a whole lifetime of experiences to write from, so that’s a good place to get some ideas.  I’ve written two articles that relate to songwriting topics, one called the Songwriting Topics Poll and another called Nothing To Write About?, which is a little exercise to help you come up with some ideas.

Ideas are everywhere if you’re looking for them.  You might hear a bit of conversation from someone, or read a line in a book that just jumps out at you.   You might have had a particularly interesting experience, or just want to express your own view of something. Once you start getting some ideas out, you might start thinking about different parts, like putting in a chorus or a bridge. I’ve got an article called Song Forms And Terms that is a quick study on what these are and what their purpose is.  In more in depth articles, I tell you more about the chorus in Don’t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus and the verse in The Verse’s Purpose, and even about The Bridge.  Understanding the different parts of a song will help you to shape it and make it work.

If you are trying to create a melody for your song and struggling somewhat, I have an article on The Magic of Melody and  another article on Putting Music to Lyrics which might help you if you’ve written lyrics, but don’t know where to do from there. The fact is that there are many, many articles on this site, but just start with the ones I have given you, and later on you might find the need to read some others!

A lot of people find it easy to start a song but not so easy to finish it.  This is going to happen from time to time, so don’t worry if you lose steam part way through.  Put it away and look at it again later.  That is not to say that you can’t “finish” a song in one sitting, that happens too.  Maybe you’re just chomping at the bit to write something and it all comes spilling out in one session.  It’s exhilarating when this happens, so bask in the glow of your new found creative self!  Then walk away from it for awhile and come back to it again. That’s why I put quotations around the word “finish” because there is no such thing as a song coming out perfect the first time.  Unless you are Beethoven or some other musical genius (I know, I know…SURE you are :-)), the real work is going to come when you sit down and revisit and revise it.

Why would you bother?  Because this, my new songwriting friend, is the mark of a good songwriter!  A great painter doesn’t just slop some paint on a canvas and consider it done.  There are always little spots that need re-doing, little touch ups that have do be tended to.  So once you have complete song, teach yourself early to look for and fix the “bits” that don’t work.    And that is for another blog!

Good luck with your new songwriting venture 🙂 IJ