It has long been my conviction that every true songwriter is somewhat of a philosopher at heart. We tend to be sensitive and idealistic creatures who feel deeply about social-moral-political issues that affect us all. In fact, throughout history songwriters have been present to memorialize each epoch with songs that live on far beyond the social issues that inspired them. I like to call these tunesmiths, “musicianaries”—musicians with a message and a mission.
During times of war songs such as Yankee Doodle, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and When Johnny Comes Marching Home, have actually kept the infantry marching to their military cadences. In more contemporary history songs have been the soundtrack for many great social movements of the 20th Century. The Peace Movement of the Sixties, for example, inspired songs like Where Have All the Flowers Gone and Blowin’ in the Wind. The Civil Rights Movement is forever remembered by the plaintive anthem, We Shall Overcome; and we can all remember how the song, We Are the World, so effectively raised millions for world famine relief with its inspiring and convicting message. Songs such as these are wonderful examples of the songwriter’s very privileged position in the social scheme of things to step on to his/her soapbox and express with music a sensitive and often politically charged issue that would be difficult to say with words alone. If done with skill, a well-crafted issue song can literally change the perspective of an entire nation.
Not every philosophical, issue-driven song, however, is effective. In fact, to skillfully communicate a deeply held conviction is one of the most challenging tasks for the songwriter. What are some things to consider if you feel deeply about a difficult subject?
1) My first suggestion is thatyou should not tackle too deep a subject until you really learn the general skills of good songwriting. To write a serious-issue song and not to do it well, cheapens the issue and does not accomplish the objective. I have adjudicated many songwriting competitions where aspiring songwriters attempt to tackle deep issues of race, religion, animal rights, abortion rights etc., but their basic songwriting skills are so lacking that the point they are trying to make actually becomes lost in their badly written song. Learn the fundamentals of songwriting with less volatile subjects before you attempt something weighty and substantive.
2) Secondly, remember that songwriting is first and foremost an art form – NOT a platform. Our objective as songwriters is always to move people’s hearts and inspire them to action by touching universal emotions with our songs. Too often well-meaning songwriters get so caught up in their passionate message that they overstep the aesthetic boundaries of art and begin preaching to the listener or using graphic and even grizzly images that are not only artistically distasteful but genuinely uncomfortable to hear.
It is very important to remember that in writing issue songs, usually less is more.Our mission is to trigger the listener’s own imagination and emotions with words and music that simply suggest our point of view. Creative rhymes, well-chosen metaphors and great music will pull listeners into the song and sustain interest. Their imagination will then begin to “connect the dots” emotionally to make the song personal. Resist the urge to spell out everything in agonizing detail. Listeners are intelligent people with active imaginations. If you craft your song with enough musical and lyrical clues, you can trust the listener to get the message without over-preaching it to them. In fact, it is far more effective if they “get it” on their own – even if they have to think about it a while!
3) Third, I am of the firm opinion that, wherever possible, it is far more effective to approach a controversial issue from the positive – rather than from the negative – side. As my husband always says: “Give your life to being FOR something, rather than being AGAINST something. Far too many songwriters attempt to write issue-oriented songs by “pointing the finger” or laying a guilt trip on their listeners rather inspiring and motivating them to take action. Remember, it is not our job to make listeners feel uncomfortable or guilty. Instead we should have as our goal the positive application we want the listener to make after hearing our song.
Think back to some of the great Issue Songs of the past – perhaps those mentioned above. The anthem, We Shall Overcome, for example became the hymn of the Civil Rights Movement more than four decades ago and is still known today. It is interesting to note, however, that its simple message did not focus on the seemingly insurmountable tensions of racism. Instead, it inspired those who heard and sang it to rise above the tensions of the past and “overcome” them. Leave it to preachers and mothers to lay guilt trips on people – the songwriter must instill, inspire and motivate!
Another very effective way to approach hot topics or issues is by using the Story Approach. Tell a story about yourself or someone else using the first (I) or third (he,she) person – rather than writing the song in the second person (you). “You” songs point the finger and tend to alienate the listener while stories about other people draw them in because they are less direct and not so uncomfortable. Think about it….that’s how support groups for weight loss or recovery from addictions attract new members. There is nothing so powerful as hearing someone else’s story of difficulty and triumph over it. Use that same chemistry in your songs.
Several years ago a young woman I knew suffered the indescribable horror of being raped and becoming pregnant by the rapist. As I watched her struggle with the agonizing decisions she had to make and saw the way her courage and her simple faith were rewarded, I knew I had to write her story in a song.Of course, I couldn’t tell the story without treading into the very controversial issue of abortion, and yet I didn’t want to be offensive. I was aware that many future listeners to this song may have just had an abortion and would be dealing with all the very difficult questions it raises. Others may be considering an abortion. Still others may not be personally affected by abortion at all. My goal was to tell her story and share her decisions but to allow each listener to make the application that is personally appropriate. The song may simply be a story – or it may be food for thought. The lyric follows….you decide whether I handled the issue successfully or not.
Some say unlucky circumstance
Caused the outrageous violence
When two men stole the innocence
Of a teenager named Dawn
And when she found that she’d conceived
Her heart was desolate with grief
She questioned all that she believed
Concerning right and wrong
Her friends said they would understand
If she decided she must end
That tiny life that grew unplanned
Right beneath her breast
Doubts and confusion raged until
She knelt in prayer to seek God’s will
His Spirit whispered, “Peace, be still!
My grace will meet this test”
CHORUS: With childlike faith Dawn clung to Jesus
With childlike faith she just obeyed
And God exchanged beauty for ashes
And matchless grace for childlike faith
The waiting months were often rough
But Dawn learned much about God’s love
And each day found His strength enough
To see her through
And then at last the day arrived
When she delivered her sweet child
She held her baby and she smiled
Because she knew…
CHORUS 2: With childlike faith we must cling to Jesus
With childlike faith we must obey
God will exchange beauty for ashes
And matchless grace for childlike faith
TAG: Some saw a victim of our times
But God’s redeeming love still shines
He still draws straight with crooked lines
Just like He did through a teenager named Dawn
Words and Music by Mary Dawson and Bruce Greer
For further study on this matter, I would suggest that you analyze the following songs which, in my opinion, very successfully deal with difficult and sensitive issues:
SONG TITLE ARTIST ISSUE WRITERS
She Thinks His Reba McIntyre Sex/Aids Sandy Knox & Steve Rosen
Name Was John
All Of This Love Pam Tillis Premarital Sex J. Daniel, C. Hartford & J. Medders
Streets of Bruce Springsteen Aids Bruce Springsteen
Sand and Water Beth Neilsen-Chapman Death Beth Neilsen-Chapman
The Man in the Mirror Michael Jackson Poverty/Homelessness G.Ballard & S. Garrett
She Can’t Save Him Lisa Brokop Alcoholism L. Hengber & B. Regan
She’s Gonna Fly Colin Raye Alzheimers & Aging K. Taylor-Good & J. Blume
In summary, I would encourage all songwriters to use their songwriter’s soapbox from time to time and become “musicianaries.” It is one of our greatest privileges as writers to speak to the issues of our day. Be careful, though, that you use good songcrafting techniques and that you handle the topics artistically rather than didactically. Stay away from guilt trips and pointed fingers and tell stories about yourself or other people. Don’t preach the punchline of your song. Let your listeners think about your message and “get it” for themselves. Your song may touch one heart or a whole generation! Either way it will be a success!