“The more specific she was, the more relatable it seemed.”
(Beth Laird on Taylor Swift)
What kind of crazy fucked up world do we live in where pop songs are written by committee, oftentimes excluding the performer, and country songs are written by the artist?
One in which country is personal and relatable and pop is aspirational and evanescent, all about the good times no one is living despite saying so not only in song but on social media.
That’s right, “New York” magazine has a whole section on songwriting in its latest issue, but you don’t know. That’s the story of 2018, if a tree falls amongst a million people does anybody hear it? Maybe a few.
Maybe some of these articles were posted in the endless listicles of articles that became fashionable in the wake of Jason Hirschhorn’s REDEF newsletter, everybody’s imploring you to pay attention to their curation, but the dirty little secret is the more you tell us what to read, the less we do so, we’re overwhelmed, we’re looking for filters, we’re looking for everybody to tell us to pay attention and shy of that, we don’t.
You should read these articles, especially if you’re not in the business. You could learn something, even if you are in the business.
The first article is about Charli XCX, how she hasn’t had a hit in eons but opened for Taylor Swift. I didn’t find it that riveting, Charli displayed too much attitude, I didn’t get those notes of truth I was looking for.
And the article “Why Are All the Songs of the Summer So Sad? Welcome to Pop’s Great Depression” didn’t hook me at all, because it contained little insight and I don’t believe in the Song of the Summer, it’s no different from card and toy and other industries creating fake holidays to sell stuff. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Secretaries Day, Kids Day, it’s endless. When the biggest songs of the summer were written, like “Summer In The City,” they were not constrained by that construction, they were just good music, but that was back when we we were all listening to the same music, of multiple varieties.
“How to Write a Great Rock Lyric, According to Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys” is surprisingly insightful. “Write Early or Late,” I believe in that! Those people writing according to a schedule, ignore them. You’ve got to wait for inspiration, and when it comes… And oftentimes you wake up with it, or get it when everybody else has gone to bed, when you’re living in your own mind with no distractions. Or when you’re in the shower… Few people tell the truth, and in this case Alex Turner is, unlike the posturing Charli XCX, even if you’ve got no time for the Arctic Monkeys.
Then you get Billy Joel’s advice, which is not rare, but he’s a thinker, he’s got some good points.
And then, sandwiched between all these articles is the nougat, the essence, the two essays truly worth paying attention to.
The first is about song camps. You hear the buzz all the time, but this one goes a bit deeper, you get a feeling for what goes on there, especially if you’ve never been. And reading the article you gain insight, how the artists are looking for inspiration, for nuggets, it all makes sense until…
Wait, I want to add one more thing, the fusillade of indie rockers who contribute to pop hits, that’s a big angle of this story.
And then, following that, is a story about country music. Positing that Taylor Swift changed Nashville, now it’s about being personal, laying down your truth, by yourself, or with just one or two helpers, unlike in pop and hip-hop where there can be almost twenty writers.
And then I played the recordings the article was talking about, whew!
I graduated with 86 sheep, I was the black one
If there was a reputation to be had in this town, I had one
I was born in the wrong place, in the wrong time
But sometimes the wrong way makes you the right kind
That’s right, she’s “California dreaming from the middle of the country.” She wants to get away, from all the b.s., ultimately the song is a fuck you to the people and place where she grew up, can you sympathize? I certainly can, after all that’s why I moved to California to begin with, I could relate to this number the very first time through, I knew the sentiment, especially in an era where it’s all about fitting in, I don’t, I couldn’t conform even if I tried to, and I did.
Not that you’ve heard of Kassi Ashton, who co-wrote this number with Luke Laird and Shane McAnally. “California, Missouri” doesn’t even have a million plays on Spotify, just a tad over 713,000, but if you hear it you can’t forget it, isn’t that what we’re looking for, numbers that resonate, that we’ll look back fondly on in the future, stuff that gets us through?
But Caitlyn Smith’s “This Town Is Killing Me” is a bit more palatable, a bit more ear-pleasing.
I pour my heart out, three minutes at a time
On a J45, but no one’s listening
They’re too busy drinking on the company tab
I scream my lungs out, confess my secrets, all my sins
But they don’t give a damn
‘Cause if it don’t sound like the radio? Pass
Whew! That’s the way it really is. You’re hiding in plain sight, and no one’s paying attention.
They buried my granddad without me
‘Cause I was out on the road at some one-off show
In Tupelo, and I can’t take that one back
I was in love once and I pushed him away
And the price I pay is a whole lot of lonely nights
And a whole lot of songs that never see the light
That’s it! You sacrifice everything to make it, and you don’t. That’s what people don’t realize, you think you’re sacrificing, but you’re not, you think you deserve to make it, but even those who deserve to don’t. I never wanted to get married because I didn’t want to be pulled away from the cause, my cause, to make it, and getting hitched was the worst decision of my life, but at least I didn’t have any children, although I did get into a ton of debt. And it’s only now that it’s happening, decades later.
“Nashville, you win
‘Cause I’ll wake up here tomorrow, do it all over again
Even though you’re killing me
Oh, this town is killing me
This town is killing me”
The truth is you give up on a regular basis, but then you come back, there’s nothing else you can really do. And now, more than ever before, with the barrier to entry so low, it’s harder to make it.
Don’t waste your life behind that guitar
You may get gone, but you won’t get far
You’re not the first, you won’t be the last
And you can tell us all about it when you come crawling back
The road you’re on, just winds and winds
You’re spinning your wheels and wasting your time
We hear all this testimony about support, but I didn’t have any, most people don’t, you just walk into the wilderness on hope, and a belief in your core that you’ve got something inside, something that will translate, and the irony is you believe there are others out there like you and if you just tell your story, they’ll relate.
Ashley McBryde has been around. She doesn’t look like a TV contestant.
But it gets better.
I get these calls, out on the road
Heard your song on my radio
We always said you’d make it big
And I tell all my friends, I knew you back when
So don’t forget all us little folks
And when you crash and burn
Remember we told you so
I didn’t see that coming, did you? You don’t change minds, they just want to keep you down in the hole they’re in, one of conformity, one lacking risk, one where you never move from your hometown.
Not bad for a girl goin’ nowhere. Ashley McBryde has some traction, but Caitlyn Smith and Kassi Ashton don’t. But maybe they soon will. This is what happens when you close doors, another scene develops, people want to prove to you they know better. Which is why today’s vapid pop scene is not forever. As for these country truth-tellers speaking from their heart…
We’ve seen this movie before, in rock, half a century ago. Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne became famous writing songs for others, Randy Newman too, and then their credits were too much to ignore, they harnessed their power, laid it down with desire, and they broke through, and ironically when all the pop stars of their era are playing lounges, they’re still selling thousands of tickets when they choose to go on the road, and even if they don’t, those songs are lodged deep in the heart of a generation.
I knew of Ashley McBryde, but not the other two women, I needed “New York” magazine to point me to them. And now I’ll be inundated with tracks from wannabes, but what they don’t understand is that’s not how it works, you just do the work and hope to get lucky. There are no jets to the top, no shortcuts, if you’re good at social media you’re probably bad as an artist.
This world is confusing. This world is confounding. This world is cacophonous. And despite all the disorder everyone soldiers on like they have the answers, even though they don’t. Mainstream media missed Trump. Major labels are so busy pursuing the hits of the moment that they’re missing the essence. When done right, music is life itself, it’s truth in three and a half minutes, it’s straight from the heart, it’s not always positive, it’s not necessarily hooky at first, it’s intriguing but it doesn’t always bat you over the head, you want to pay attention but it takes a while to digest its meaning.
That’s the way it used to be.
Hopefully it can be that way again.
It will be.
Led by women like these.