Question your relationship to genre

Genre is critical to songwriting! To my ears, no songwriter is truly above genre – no songwriter I’ve heard is so unique that a critical listener can’t place the genre or genres that gives the songs context. Performers can transplant songs from one genre of music to another, but this is often an interesting move because the song retains the flavor of its original setting. Moving the song to another genre produces an interesting musical moment because of the tension between the song and its setting.

As a songwriter, genre is one of your most powerful tools, but harnessing that power will require a sophisticated view of the genres you work in. The ways genre works musically – the characteristic chord progressions, melodic turns, and rhythms that define musical genres – are often discussed. What is often left out are the ways that a song’s lyrics and lyrical themes are equally a part of its relationship to genre. Genres of music carry characteristic lyrical concerns. These are not rules – your country songs don’t have to be about trucks, and your ballads don’t have to be about love. One way to think of these characteristics is as audience expectations: if you start to play a certain type of song, listeners will immediately have their guesses as to what the song will be about. But you aren’t trapped by those expectations – understanding genre allows you to fake left and go right. You can do this gently, delighting your audience by tweaking their expectations, or take it a step further to really shake them up.

One reason this kind of writing can be difficult is that we are deeply invested in the genres we write in, and it can feel awkward or even painful to look at them with a critical eye – it’s a little like hearing your speaking voice recorded or seeing a candid photo of yourself. Take folk music – a genre I feel a certain commitment to. What does it mean, in 2015, for someone who lives in an urban setting to profess a commitment to folk music? What’s the connection between various related sub-genres, between coffee house singer-songwriter fare and ballads passed down through an oral tradition? Can I write the songs I want to within the expectations set by a specific genre, or do I need to bend and twist the boundaries to get where I need to go?

Chances are that, whatever genre of music you write, your relationship to that genre is complicated. To borrow a phrase, musical genres are often copies with no original. You might see a performer who deeply inhabits the persona and culture of a particular genre and say, “that’s the real deal, for sure,” only to have the illusion broken when you find out where the person grew up, or where he lives now, or what her politics are, or any detail that reminds you the performer is a whole person and not just a stage persona. But that is as real as it gets.

What this means for songwriting is that the most interesting and authentic moments may come when you break your own chosen genre’s rules of authenticity. In order to say the things you have to say, you may need to develop a deep and idiosyncratic relationship to the genres you write in.