So I have this problem. Not really a problem, it’s just…I guess…a bummer.
My girlfriend doesn’t like the new song I’ve been working on.
This tune has been milling around in my head for the past few weeks. I stumbled on a melody that I enjoyed, sang it all day in the car, and got the gumption to wrap a song around it and record it.
And now I can’t stop listening to it! But there are a couple of things I need to address before actually releasing it, which include re-recording the lead vocal.
Many who have given me feedback on my music say “John, your stuff is really good, but sometimes your lead vocal seems forced,” or “it seems like you’re trying to hit all the notes,” or “it feels like you’re concerned with being perfect instead of just singing.”
Those are tough pills to swallow, because I don’t really know when my vocal is done until someone else tells me it is. Being that I produce my work myself, I have no way of knowing if my work is truly done.
And how do I know when it’s actually good??
Yes, I want to hit all of the notes, but I also understand that feeling and emotion can sometimes get lost in the process of striving for perfection.
I’m at a point where I don’t know whether my vocal is good, or what I should even do with the tune — my queen doesn’t like the song, and her opinion matters to me.
According to her, I should not release the song under my own name, or I should try to sell it to another artist. She says she hates my new song for the same reasons that I don’t like Sia’s music. And a huge part of the reason I don’t like Sia’s music is because I have learned how today’s hit songs get made…
I just finished reading a book two weeks ago called The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook. The book explains that the majority of major label producers and writers today utilize a method Seabrook calls “track-and-hook” — a (hopefully) compelling music bed is created and vocal melodies and hooks are paired to match, or vice-versa. There are teams of writers who work on songs together, trying to add the best beats, melodies, and “top lines” (the vocal hooks that are the most memorable).
The most successful top-liners generally sing the lead vocal on the demo versions of the songs they are attempting to sell to a recording artist. In many cases, their performance is, in fact, better than that of the artist who ultimately records and releases the song. But, these top-liners are kept in their place by the powers that be in the music industry (not pretty enough, skinny enough, buff enough, young enough, and on and on and on).
And then all of a sudden, came Sia, swinging from her chandelier.
Sia cut her teeth in Australia, but her bands failed to break through to the mainstream. So she moved to NYC and became a top-liner, crafting hits for today’s biggest stars before creating her worldwide solo success. Her writing credits include “Pretty Hurts” for Beyoncé, “Perfume” for Britney Spears, “Boy Problems” for Carly Rae Jepsen, and “Double Rainbow” for Katy Perry. She’s fantastically talented, has a gift with words, and her voice is powerful.
I hear potential in Sia’s work in the same fashion as I did Lady Gaga’s music when I first heard it. I thought, “Okay, you’re obviously talented. And now that you’ve hooked everyone with your catchy pop stuff, the next album had better be the real deal.”
The issue I have with Sia is that, to me, her music sounds like a bunch of top-lined demos, waiting to find an artist to re-record them. Much of the time it sounds like she’s mumbling words so the artist can put their own inflection on them later, or pretending to sound like Rihanna…which is incredibly ironic, since Rihanna probably had to figure out how to sound like Sia when she recorded “Diamonds”, since Sia wrote it!
One successful top-liner has a particular way of working: she goes into a recording studio and listens to several beats and music beds pre-produced for the session by the rest of the writing and production team; once she hears something that moves her, she enter the vocal booth and makes noises along with the music, trying to find the right emotional impact; then, after the basic pattern and melody are established, she improvises different lyrics on the spot, or reads from her notes of one-liners and couplets, trying to find The One.
This top-liner’s name is Ester Dean. You may have heard of some of her songs: Ciara’s “Drop It Low”; Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”, “Only Girl (In the World)”, “What’s My Name”, and “S&M”; Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” and “Turn Me On”; and “Firework” for Katy Perry.
They figured out the formula. They figured out how to craft a song in such a way that after repeat listens, you actually like it. At first you may hate it, but after you hear it a bunch of times, you may like it.
Then again, the opposite is true in the case of my queen and my newest song.
When the person who loves you the most and supports you in your endeavors doesn’t like the work you’re doing, does that mean you shouldn’t share it with the rest of the world??
Frankly, I feel as though I need to release it, simply because she hates it. I’m not sure about you, but I hate most pop music that comes out.
But they keep playing it, and people keep streaming it. Some people — not nearly as many as who stream it, but some people — keep buying it. And both go to the concerts.
So if I hate most of the songs on the radio, but they’re incredibly popular with millions of others…and if there are many unsung heroes behind the scenes, writing songs, and creating today’s hits…why can’t I follow my muse from time to time and create a pure pop song for the sheer enjoyment of it??
No, this particular tune doesn’t have a whole lot of substance to it. It doesn’t have a whole lot of depth and meaning. But why is that a problem, considering that most of the songs I’ve written throughout my 20+ years of songwriting do have depth and meaning? Why is it a problem for me to make one pure pop song?
Hell, maybe I’ll make ten more! Do ten pure pop songs outweigh the value (or take away from the value) of the hundreds of other songs in my songwriting catalog which have depth and meaning, and interesting chord changes, and intricate melodies, and multiple vocal harmonies, and an orchestra’s worth of tracks and instruments??
Sometimes it’s okay to just like a pure and simple pop song.
Unless of course, you’re a rock and roller, in which case you may be called a faggot or a sellout for liking something that doesn’t fit the mold of what’s “acceptable” in the rock scene. A scene which rails against the use of computers and digital technology in the creation of music.
Maybe the reason I’m so fearful to create and release a pure pop song is…I fear that it will alienate people who enjoy my other music. I don’t want that to happen. I want to be able to create music whenever I want, based on the inspiration I get from my muse.
And my muse speaks to me randomly. It happens all the time. It doesn’t even have to relate to music. It could be an interaction with a person, a news article I read online, a book I am reading or have read, a movie; it could be anything.
For example, the sound of an ambulance siren in Budapest, Hungary that I heard as I was strolling through the city on a day off while on tour last year. Noticing the rhythm and the melody, I immediately opened up my voice memo app and captured them, so that when I got somewhere I could create music again, I could take that sound I heard and put it in a song, or rearrange it.
Or whatever I want, because while there are some rules when it comes to making music, there really are no rules when it comes to making music. No limits.
That’s how the world works for me: anything and everything can be an inspiration to create. So I’m not making this pure pop song as a way of selling out (or buying in). I’m not making it so that I can get clicks and likes and shares all that stuff. Those things are nice, but I would like to believe that they are a byproduct of making quality art.
But “quality art” is subjective, and the subject of this particular song is about going out to the club with your friends, catching a stranger’s glance from across the dance floor, and falling in love at first sight. Can’t get more cliché than that, can you??
(“You’re going to be 35 next week. When have your friends ever picked you up to go to the club??” my lady says.)
AND, the song only has four chords — D, E, F# minor, and A; and they cycle over and over for the entire song. The chord progression does not change, and yet the song builds and builds, as do most of my songs.
(“You say Sia’s songs are the same thing over and over, but so is this song. Don’t be a hypocrite.” she elaborates.)
With my music, I try to take you somewhere. I try to transport you through time, over the course of a few minutes, and escort you on a journey. Music is the only art form that can do that.
Visual art, as stunning and amazing as it can be…once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. You see a tattoo or you see a painting, and you’ve seen it. It’s over. But a piece of music, it takes time to unfold. You have to sit there — have to pay attention — if you really want to get the depth and meaning.
Or don’t. Either way’s fine. Some music is just there for background noise. Many artists even pride themselves on being essentially background noise for the party.
Most of my songs, I don’t want them to just be background noise. I want them to be the songs that you spin when times are tough, to remind you to keep going, to persevere, to never give up, and to believe in yourself and believe in your dreams and achieve something.
But this particular song, the purest pop song I’ve ever written, is simply ear candy. It may get stuck in your head, because the melody is memorable and you can sing it and sing it and sing it, and not get bored with it.
I speak from experience: though the song hasn’t yet spent a month in the universe, it’s one of those that I can’t stop singing. It is physically gratifying to me to sing this melody and the words the way they are. It feels good on my tongue, in my throat, in my chest, and in my stomach when I vocalize the sounds which make up the words and melody for this tune.
So I’m going to recut the vocal. I’m going to mix this song, and I’m going to do it as quickly as possible and get it on Spotify. Because I think that there are going to be a lot more people that simply enjoy the song for what it is, rather than hate it for what it is.
Because what is it at the end of the day? It’s just a song. Just another song out there in the ether.
But it could become a party anthem. It may make you sing. It could be a song that gets the club jumping. It could be a song that makes two strangers fall in love and become best friends. Who knows? Maybe it’ll just lead to a couple of one-night stands or random hook-ups.
Understand: if it affects you — if it causes a reaction — it’s done its job.
This song moved my girlfriend to hate it and call me a hypocrite. I wonder what everyone else is going to think of it…
But first I have to sing it again, better than last time.
P.S. My new album has finally been mastered, and is currently being prepared for release on Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Play, Tidal, BandCamp, and iTunes. It’s all happening. 🙂
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