Now I’ve written that title I’ll have NWA stuck in my head all day. Now you can too! Let’s all be unproductive together.
So. Lyrics. Lyrics are hard. There’s a hefty set of basic criteria – they should be easy to relate to, they should be meaningful to you (otherwise you’ll probably struggle to perform them convincingly) but they also shouldn’t reveal so much about yourself that nobody can look you in the eye after your set. Some things should remain a mystery. While I was writing my latest EP I struggled quite a bit with lyrics, and spent a lot of time trying to find the middle ground between being a ‘stream of consciousness’ writer, and a ‘hide behind cliches’ writer. Sorry the names aren’t catchy. I’m tired.
‘Stream of consciousness’ writers
These kinds of writers are really good at writing honestly and authentically, so that’s a huge tick in the plus column. However they sometimes have a tendency to try to cram too much in one song. For example, a couple of months ago I was at an open mic night and there was a really talented guitarist who had just penned his first song. It lasted 5 minutes. There was no chorus. There was just verse after verse of SO MUCH INFORMATION. I learned about his parents’ divorce, his nan dying, his break-up from a few years earlier…. all in a lot of detail. The combination of the song being so long, and the fact the structure was so repetitive made me as an audience member feel pretty awkward and bored, in a way that I wouldn’t have if he had used three different songs to write about the same things.
Don’t get it twisted, I didn’t start this blog to make fun of other people’s music – that guy got up on stage in front of a room full of strangers and bared his soul, which is more than a lot of people could do. Also, I’m definitely not an expert on song-writing. His performance just resonated with me because I recognised the style of writing that had been one of my hurdles when writing my EP. The way I dealt with it was to compose a loose structure and the melody line first. That way I had to be strict when it came to fitting the lyrics to the melody and there was less opportunity to ramble on. It forced me to focus on one thing in particular to write about and be inventive with fewer lyrics. This was especially challenging with ‘Villain’ which actually has a narrative…
Now for the opposite end of the spectrum:
‘Hide behind cliches’ writers
Other people go the exact opposite way, and find it difficult to write anything meaningful about their own personal experiences whatsoever. It usually results in some well-crafted tunes, but with lyrics that are pretty vague and generic. You know, things like ‘falling from grace’ and being ‘frozen’ in every way possible.
This is my main problem This was one of my main difficulties, but hopefully I’ve managed to break the habit now… It was one of my tutors who pointed it out to me, and I remember feeling really surprised and miserable. He said that my songs (and by extension, my performances) always felt like I was holding back and not being honest, and that this was a turn off for the audience. It’s not like I’ve ever thought I was King of songwriting or anything, but I had thought of writing lyrics as one of my strengths; it was a way for me to deal with some of the anxiety and depression I had whirling round my head. I was grumpy for a few days (I take criticism REALLY badly) but when I eventually looked back at some of my earlier songs, I actually couldn’t tell you what some of the lyrics mean, they’re so vague. Point taken… (Oh, and for those of you wondering, yes this is the same tutor from the What Makes You So Fucking Special blog. He’s like the caterpillar from Alice and Wonderland but with more sass. He would straight up murder me if he ever read this. Good).
Anyhoo. I had no idea what to do with this info. As a proud music geek, my first instinct was to read a book about it. The book I read was Censoring Culture by Svetlana Mintcheva. There’s a chapter in it about artists of all kinds self-censoring their work and why they do it. Each artist had different reasons for holding back but they all said they regretted it. Mintcheva had no time for their shit excuses:
‘Self-censorship masquerades as a search for political balance, respect for one’s audience, consideration for the feelings of others, or adherence to the standards of the art world’
That was a joke. The author was of course respectful about the artists they interviewed. However it did get me thinking about why I’d held back in my own songs, and I realised I had a lot in common with the artists in the chapter. I’ve definitely held back out of consideration for my family and other people I love… I didn’t want them to think I was sad or angry about things in the past, even if I actually was. I especially wouldn’t want them worried about my mental state.
Ann Powers wrote in Crazy is as crazy does’ that in rock circles having a mental illness is seen almost as an indicator of authenticity and honesty: ‘the filter-free directness of many mentally troubled people can also produce an air of honesty, both within lyrics…and through music.’ Interestingly, she goes on to say that whereas men in this position are often worshiped as heroes or prophets (Syd Barrett, for example), women artists, such as Courtney Love or Barbara Manning performing or writing in a similar way cause people to feel uncomfortable by ‘raising the spectre of uncontrolled sexuality, irresponsible motherhood [or] violence done to or by the sacred “gentler sex.”
More recently, the Guardian noted a key difference in how women song writers are spoken about in comparison to men. If men write about their personal experiences they are honest and brave – taking on big issues of human existence. When women do, their lyrics are described as ‘confessional.’ You know, like we’re a criminal with a light shining in our eyes as we finally blurt out the truth – desperately seeking atonement for our wicked ways.
I think the urge to self-censor is a something a lot of women struggle with, both artistically and in our every day lives. I guess this is probably to do with the fact that there’s huge pressure on us to act/think in certain (often contradictory) ways and to fulfill a lot of roles at once, and this idea is planted in our heads as young children. We have to be smart, but not too smart because that’s intimidating. We have to be sexy but not too much because that makes you a slut. We have to be really fucking good at what we do to be noticed, but we shouldn’t be too ambitious. We need to take the lead in our projects, but not too much because then we’re too bossy.
These worries had caused caution in my song-writing too: Are my songs too sexually explicit? Or not enough? Did I allocate too many songs to relationships with men? Am I always playing the victim? Once I stepped back and realised how many limitations I’d imposed on my song-writing, I knew that I needed to change these thinking habits in order to write meaningful and personal songs.
Even knowing all this information made trying to force honest lyrics really difficult. In the end I decided on a compromise – I invented a character called Molly Anna, and planned 6 songs around a narrative I wrote for her based on my own experiences, but with added drama (nobody wants to hear the ‘I’m so sad, very very sad’ song). I felt a lot more able to pin the shit I was going through on someone else and write from her perspective. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a step in the right direction.
This blog was much longer than I anticipated. Thanks for reading to the end. As a reward, why not scroll back to the top and listen to NWA again?