Thinking back to the first songs I ever wrote, many of them were satires or sweeping commentaries on all that was wrong with our society. I thought I could change the world as the Songwriter With a Message. Little did I realize at the time that there about 10 million other songwriters just like me, and that the world didn’t really care about my particular view of reality.
Many of us started writing songs in the first place because we felt we had a message that we wanted the world to hear. As we learn to write for radio, however, we are often discouraged from writing message songs because we’re told that they’re not commercial. Must we abandon what’s most important to us and “sell out” out integrity in order to have commercial success?
I don’t think so. I believe that it’s possible to write message songs that are commercially viable if we take the right approach and skillfully apply the tools of the craft. Writing commercial message songs may be one of the more difficult challenges in songwriting, but we know that such songs exist. Steve Seskin (“Don’t Laugh at Me”), for example, has practically made a career out of writing songs of this nature.
Subtlety is often a key ingredient of a successful message song. When receiving critiques of their songs, writers often hear the comment that their songs sound “too preachy”. This occurs when the writer (and hence the singer) comes across as a know-it-all standing on a soapbox claiming to know what’s good for the rest of us. Since most people don’t respond well when they’re spoken to in this manner, it’s more effective to do your “preaching” without the listener feeling as if he’s being preached to.
One way to do this is to use “I” statements. Rather than admonishing the listener, “you’re too greedy and selfish!”, it would probably be more effective to say, “I discovered that when I started giving more to others instead of hoarding material goods, I became a happier person.”
One of the most effective methods is to teach by example. A diatribe about the dangers of assault weapons and the need for more gun laws is likely to fall on deaf ears. It might work better to tell a story of a family whose lives were changed when their lovable, innocent baby was caught up in the crossfire. If the story is well-told, it might move listeners to sympathize with your cause. Use pictures to let us get to know this family and to see how they were affected by the tragedy, and allow your listeners to draw their own conclusions. Resist the temptation to instruct them on how they should react to the story.
There are examples of successful message songs that seem to violate these principles, such as “Life’s a Dance” (written by Steve Seskin). This song instructs the listener “Don’t worry ‘bout what you don’t know/life’s a dance/you learn as you go.” This song works because the message is presented in the context of a story and a lesson that the singer personally learned back in his school days. It also works because the message being presented is a very positive one. Positive messages are the easiest to get across. If your song makes people feel good about themselves, they’ll want to hear it again and again.
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Lisa Blue Fasman