Songwriting advice is no different from other advice: most of it is simplistic, a lot of it is ungenerous, and the worst of it is discouraging and just plain mean. Still, I can’t resist reading it, and now that I’m 35 and feeling a little bit of momentary confidence in my own writing, I can’t resist giving my own advice. Hopefully, though, this advice is going to be a little different.
If your goal is to write songs that sound like the ones you hear on the radio, this advice may not help you that much. If your goal is to write songs that are more interesting, more powerful, more true to life – songs that do more than the songs on the radio – then, hopefully, you’ll be able to relate to this advice. So that’s the first songwriting tip: songs can do more.
Just a quick example – a recent song that floored me when I first heard it is Vince Staples’ “Blue Suede”:
Staples blue suede sneakers are more than just an allusion to Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” – Staples’ song is a thorough rewrite of the rock and roll hit. The speaker of “Blue Suede Shoes” is a swaggering nihilist, unconcerned for his own physical safety, except as it affects his exceptional shoe game. Perkins plays this character for laughs, but this combination of themes – the cheapness of life, in contrast to the high cost of fashion – is also the subject of the many versions of “Stagger Lee”, where Billy Lyons gets killed for a five-dollar Stetson hat.
In Staples’ reimagining of “Blue Suede Shoes” the violence is no longer cartoonish, and the consequences are outlined in the song’s second line; here “young graves get the bouquets”. The verses outline a laundry list of hip hop clichés, complete with frequent allusions which make it clear that Staples, like Perkins, is constructing a character. Unlike the happy-go-lucky speaker of “Blue Suede Shoes”, Staples’ alter ego fears for his own life, and his bravado feels empty, undercut with a deep ambivalence.
In addition to creating a compelling and complex character in two verses and a chorus, “Blue Suede” convincingly connects the “killed for Jordans” motif to older song traditions that dealt with the same stories and themes. It’s a packed three minutes, but it’s not unique. Lots of songs do this much, even if they do it in more subtle ways.