I recently experienced a few days of more concentrated pop-music exposure, and at the tail end of it I had a realization I found a little surprising. Subconsciously, I’ve been holding the music that makes it to places like the radio and the grocery-store background soundtrack to certain minimum standards.
Understand that I think of the Music Industry as being as much about music as agribusiness is about a nice meal. In the end, the music (or the meal) is what the end-user consumes, but the business of it is all about generating massive revenue from people’s need for the end-product. Not a good environment for fostering the production of the highest-quality food (neither music), but it’s here and it’s in our faces and we have to figure out what to do with it. (Topic for another day, perhaps.)
My point is, I don’t expect really profound music from the Music Industry. But it does have musicians in it. Instrumentalists (including singers), composers, arrangers. There’s somebody in the machine that’s responsible for producing the commodity on offer.
Music is such a force, such a power. It can mean so much for people; in cases, it can actually change their lives. So if you’re lucky enough to be in a position where your music is being—dare I say foisted—on a mass audience by the Music Industrial Complex, I don’t think it’s too much for me to ask that you try to meet these minimum criteria:
- Surprise me a little
- Be non-trivial: mean something, sing something that matters in some way
- Take me, the listener, on just a bit of a journey, and, include a reasonably impactful climax in your song
Some brief clarifications on each point:
Surprise Me, a Little
I’m not saying to hang the moon. I’m not saying to stun me with a chord progression or a rhythmic twist that’s never been done before in history. But do something in your songwriting or arranging that throws me a little twist. Just some little touch that isn’t so straight-out-of-the-playbook that I’m coming up with it myself as I’m listening to your song for the first time. Make me go “hmm, yeah, that, I wasn’t expecting quite that—nice touch there.”
As a listener, I don’t need every song to be about ending injustice everywhere or saving our planet. Those are worthy topics, as is bringing joy and solace to people everywhere. But it would get draining after a while, wouldn’t it, if every song were a protest song of some kind. That’s not what I mean by “sing something that matters.”
But sing something that has some relevance to something. How free dancing makes you feel. How your significant other (or your crush) makes you feel. Something with a touch of emotional resonance to it, something that somebody somewhere would be capable of caring about.
As a counterexample, I can’t for the life of me figure out what the meaningful content of Tik Tok may be. Maybe you can explain it to me. By contrast, similarly light-themed Play at least conveys to me that the singer really wants to hear a particular song so she can enjoy the abandon of dancing. Somehow, that counts (to me).
Take Me On a Journey
Something should evolve over the course of any musical event. Again, in keeping with the general theme here, I’m not asking that you transform a theme like the guy did in Pictures at an Exhibition (which, by the way, wow). But over the course of your 3:30 pop song, you should start me someplace and, through a logical progression of some kind, bring me someplace else. Construct a melody (or other musical details) that feels like it has a beginning that’s different from the middle, which then leads to an end… and they should somehow make sense together.
Similarly, somewhere toward the end of the journey it should be possible for you to devise a peak, or a pivotal moment. There are tried-and-true ways to do this—key changes, dramatic pauses, deft recapitulations of the chorus after a suitably contrasting solo section—try one. Or two. (But don’t forget to surprise me a little; you can see this one coming from miles away.)
Use Your Super-Power for Awesome
If you’re a major-label musician and you happen to be reading this, first of all wow, and also thank you very much for taking the time to check out the two-bit opinions of an independent (read: not-employed-enough) musician. But more importantly: understand that I’m not hatin’. Quite the opposite: I’m rooting for you. You’re a human being with something to say; that should be valued in everyone, and I value it in you.
And I know that you’re caught up in a vast machine that’s packaging you—your image, your message, and your music—for mass-consumption on the market. You’ve got pressures coming at you from all sides in ways that I probably can’t even imagine.
But please. You’ve got an opportunity that so many people will never have—the chance to reach millions with your music. Seems to me it doesn’t take very much to raise a piece of music above the banality that is so prevalent on the radio.
I’ll be so presumptuous as to say: you owe us that much.