This Article Originally Published July 1999

by John Braheny

The question comes up constantly. We hear 40-80 year-olds talking about how they're not writing songs like they used to. As an interested observer for many years, my view is that there has never been a shortage of "dumb" songs and less than well-crafted, original songs on the charts (the charts being a reflection of both sales and airplay). At the same time, there have always been exceptional songs out there. There are several factors that affect our reactions and judgement about what we hear.

  1. What you think is good is not necessarily what I think is good and vice-versa. We each also have stylistic preferences that influence us even when we make every effort to appreciate an unfamiliar style. Some love country, some don't. You may have loved Black Sabbath and can't stand Pearl Jam or vice/versa.

  2. Most music fans traditionally consider their favorites to be the music that was popular among their peers when they were going through their most emotionally significant changes (traumatic times). For most, that's when they're in their teens and early twenties. I have to remind myself that songs I thought were great when I was 16 don't always fare so well now that I'm a much more discriminating listener.

    As musicians and songwriters we're much more discriminating than the general public. Maybe the song they were playing when my 11th grade girlfriend left me for a jock was not the most powerful song ever written. It only worked that way for me, and only then.

  3. Musicians also tend to favor and fixate on the style that first inspired them to become musicians. Many also maintain a genre prejudice that keeps them from learning to appreciate other types of music.

  4. A lyric is not a song is not a record. If you're a lyricist you'll scrutinize the lyric and if you're a melody writer or groovemeister and the melody or groove doesn't measure up to your creative standards, you may ignore a great lyric. Basically, when you're a hammer, you just look for a nail.

Two examples of songs that we specifically heard our members mention recently are Cake's "Never There" and Lenny Kravitz's "Fly Away." They couldn't figure out what was appealing about these songs. So being someone who has always tried to answer that question for myself, I'll wade into this for you. Remember that the artists wrote these songs and consequently, have a lot more creative leeway than writers who need to convince other artists to record their songs.

Words 3+, Music 4+

Cake is a California group known for its eclecticism, musical adventurousness and its lyrical humor and sarcasm. Those qualities alone are enough to make me predisposed to like them. "Never There" is musically fresh. I don't hear anything else out there like it. A spare, melodic funk bassline, tight live rhythm section, unusual melody, lots of dynamics, a simple trumpet solo (Yes, there's a real trumpet in the group.) and basically a variation of an *ABCABC structure with the added interest of a spoken lyric (in "A"). I asked the students in my "Anatomy of A Hit" class at Musician's Institute for their reaction to the song. Most didn't like it overall though they liked the groove. Comments ranged from "Not my kind of thing" to "I didn't like the vocal" to "lack of passion." It isn't the words themselves that work, they're somewhat on the cliche side. What's appealing is the way they're performed, phrased, varied, inflected.

Words 3, Music 3+

I've never been a big Kravitz fan. I felt his early work was too derivative for my personal taste. I do think he's a talented artist though, who is still growing. So what makes this song "work." More to the point, "What makes this "record" work. Pretty straight ahead predictable ABABAB with the 3rd "A" being only 4 bars with no changes except a little different vocal treatment. It was crying for a bridge that lifted it out of the predictability of the groove. On the predictability/surprise scale there's way too much predictability for me. Lyrics are predictable, cliched and over-rhymed. What makes them work is the vocal phrasing and lyric density change going from those short choppy phrases in the verse to that stretched-out "fly away" and the Beatlesque "ahhhs" of the chorus. He's also an established artist with an identifiable vocal sound and style which gives him a few points on the familiarity scale and he sings those average lyrics like he means them. He wrote the song to an existing track which can be problematic if the person who did the track just basically looped a groove and didn't build in any changes of chord progression or groove variation.

A note about familiarity. Once an artist with an instantly recognizable vocal style and sound gets success, they have a lot of creative leeway because fans like to hear what they already know and recognize. The toughest thing to market is a new artist with a new song.

Dynamics are extremely important. The chart below shows a breakdown of the types of dynamics used in the two songs.

Kravitz Cake
Change/Contrast Groove No Great
Change/Contrast Melody Yes Many
Change/Contrast Chord progressions No Yes
Change/Contrast Lyric Meter Yes Exceptional
Change/Contrast Lyric Density Yes Yes

John Braheny is the author of "The Craft and Business of Songwriting" (Writers Digest Books) a TAXI screener and a valued member of the TAXI A&R staff.