Good vs Bad – Fashion in Songwriting

Joan Jett - Rebel
Joan Jett – Rebel

I know a fellow who is writing songs that sound like good 70’s Folk Rock but problem is all that is being played on the charts these days is heavily produced, Electro/Glitch/anti-Pop, whatever that stuff is called.

As a songwriter/band/musician is it challenging to know how to pitch your work when all around you people are saying what is good and what is bad. It seems as if what is good can be presented and what is bad is denied space in the playlist. I have had my work cut from a playlist after less than a minute simply because it didn’t match what the kids expected. It hurts. An artist can change himself or change the world – which should an artist do?

Initially this article may seem an old-guy rant. Well some of that, but like all my articles I explain the background theory too to help you understand it better. If you don’t want to know that then skip to the bits you want to read (just don’t call the bits you don’t want to read bad).

What is a good song? I dunno. Why don’t you tell me what a good song is

As a music fan I have spent my whole life having people telling me what the good songs are. In the 80’s I was told A Flock of Seagulls wrote good songs. In the 90’s I was told A Flock of Seagulls were rubbish and that Nirvana wrote good songs. In the 00’s I was told the kids off Idol (and an animated Dancing Frog) were great. People also kept trying to tell me Coldplay were great. When I questioned that I was told sure they are dull, but not the new record, that is great. By the 2010’s I let myself realize what I instinctively knew all along:

A good song is a good song

Now we do need to define “Good”. Most people will say a song they like is “good” and ones they don’t are “bad”. That is not useful for our purposes as songwriters and artists. Personal preference cannot define validity. Right now Media Center is playing me “A Ray of Sunshine” from Wham’s “Fantastic” album (1983). That was a good name for that record as it was fantastic, whatever you may think of Wham personally. I write this as I want you to have the reaction you are having right now. Hold it for a while so you can question it as this is a perfect example.

So let’s first look at who is telling you what to think about Wham and why. Marketers believe in “Scarcity” and “Tribes” so they manipulate perception of good and bad. Marketers wanted you to identify with being either “a Soul Boy, a Dole Boy, a Hip Hop guy with a jet black vibe” or part of the “Metal Militia” tribe. Metal marketers trained fans to think of Wham as homosexual* wimps so the limited amount of money a fan had to spend on music went to Metallica’s “Kill Em All” instead of the Wham record. I won’t say that is bad as that is part of what it takes to sell stuff that people don’t know yet. Downside is that type of marketing ends up defining a lot of what we think is good or bad music, which in turn makes it hard to be authentic when we want to step up as an artist to present our own story.

Turns out “Fantastic” and “Kill Em All” are both good records. I own two records each from both bands and all four get about as much play as each other.

Don’t Believe The Tripe

Now to really put the cat among the pigeons: ELP’s 1994 “In The Hot Seat” may not be as cool as the 1970 self-titled “Emerson, Lake & Palmer” but I like it. The songs are nice and the performances are solid (if a little safe). However, “In The Hot Seat” seems to have mortally offended every reviewer I have read, with at least one critic going so far as to say ELP should never have made the record. I’m glad that guy doesn’t rule the world as I still enjoy listening to “Hot Seat” as I’m sure many other fans do – generally quietly so they don’t get accused of having no taste by everyone trying to line their own cred.

Don’t believe too much in critics and other self-appointed advisers. Most critics in the papers, forums, or at concerts are just trying to be accepted in the cool tribe. Adam Ant was panned as a no-talent by many of the same critics who lauded him after he became huge.

Do what you do!

Fashion defines art no matter what you want to think. You can’t fight it and win as you are one dude and they (the marketers, reviewers and general population) are many. Use fashion instead like a sailor uses the wind. A sailor can make headway no matter which way the wind is blowing.

Run with the wind: Some people are naturally doing this so they shouldn’t alter a thing. For everyone else you need to alter your music and style so that you are making exactly what everyone else is. Take your song, remove everything currently un-fashionable. Add only what everyone on the charts is doing. Deny that you ever even liked anything else** and live in the middle of the bell curve in hope…

Close Haul against the wind: However if, like me, the current in-thing makes no sense to you, causes you pain even, then Tack. Tacking is deciding that you are going where you are going despite the winds and using the wind to push you left-right, left-right till you get there. Be so incredibly true to your story, the traditions of your style, that you are a pioneer or neo-traditionalist. Let your marketers rail against how crappy and corrupt the status-quo is so that you become the alternative. The alternative is always either the next fashion in-waiting or traditional product for the people who can’t take moving on. Either way there is enough audience for you on the edges of the bell curve and when the winds shift you might just be the next big thing.

There are plenty of examples of bands who have done each of these things so there is no right or wrong as such. In 1983 Wham had the wind behind them and Metallica were tacking. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that either will be easy. Wham & Metallica both worked really hard and had to write good songs. Wham had to be consistently Whamtastic and Metallica had to be consistently high-tensile (which makes little sense in terms of head-banging). Poison moved to LA to join the Glam Metal scene and got huge; till the wind changed (in favor of Metallica). The wind came back and now they tour again doing the Poison thing for fans happy to see them again. The common thing here is to be consistent.

Folk of the 80’s 2015’s

So my advice to you, my friend the Folk Rock singer is: look at what is happening in fashion and decide if that is you, or if in-fact what you are writing already is your authentic story. If you are the latter then be exactly that, learn from the masters who went before and do what they did (except do it on YouTube too) and get out there and build a set of people who like your songs.

Set your course and head for it. Be authentic. I can’t promise you will get fame or fortune but at least you are making good art and ultimately good art lasts. Even better, good art tends to get multiple chances to be in the sun.

Declare yourself a neo-Traditionalist

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* double standard seeing Rob Halford of Judas Priest was gay and none of the Metal marketers were questioning Priest’s right to be selling lots of copies of “Screaming for Vengeance” in1983.

** I once saw Richard Marx on TV denying that he wrote a song sung by Kenny Rogers even after the interviewer held up the record with the credit. Kenny was considered un-cool to the Rock audiences at the time. I have never forgotten. I thought that was un-cool as Kenny gave Richard a start and put money in his pocket as he was on his way up.

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