Songmine: What Else Is Commercial? by John Braheny

A John Braheny Songmine column from the archives…

Songmine: What Else Is Commercial? by John Braheny

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So What Else Is Commercial?

Last time I discussed the importance of writing lyrics that reflect the values and’experiences of a large segment of the record buying audience. This is, of course, assuming that you’re concerned about selling records and getting airplay, i.e. “being commercial.” Hopefully, those values and experiences are either ones you feel comfortable with or that reflect your own experiences. This is especially important if you’re a writer/artist. A major part of your appeal will be tha, n,,ndle will identify with your point of view. Billy Joel, Jackson Browne and Rickie Lee Jones are good examples. It doesn’t work if you take a different point of view on every record. People never really learn who you are. It’s also really tough to have a hit as an artist with a song that you’re not at home with. You may be doomed to playing it for years. If you’re a non-performing write, you’re not so restricted, and can write “for the market” or try’ the point of view of the artist you’re writing for.

Beyond the considerations we’ve just discussed, there are some stylistic considerations that affect the commerciality of a song. One of those is cleverness. Country music is the obvious home of the clever word play, the new twist on an old cliche and the lyrical “turnaround.” Some recent examples are “Lying Time Again,” “Yippi Cry Yi,” “Nothin’ Sure Looked Good On You,” and “Wishful Drinkin’.” There was also the old pop tune, “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night.” That kind of cleverness is designed to stick in the listener’s mind. The lyrical “turnaround” with the surprise ending has wide appeal. The most recent example is Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” was another in that genre that was a great crossover hit. To hardcore “heart” writers, that kind of song may seem trite and contrived. Those same people probably hate to hear a joke more than once, because once they get the punch line it’s not funny to them anymore. Because of the way they’re put together or the way they’re told, though, some jokes never seen to wear thin. I guess that’s the appeal of those songs. The appeal is probably even broader if the song illustrates some common problem or has a “moral” like Chapin’s “Taxi” or “Escape.”

The more conversational and natural the lyric feels, and the more vivid the visual imagery, the less contrived it seems. In other words, the trip should be as rewarding as the destination. “The Gambler” was a very cleverly contrived story, and even though the use of a deck of cards as an analogy for life wasn’t a new idea, it was a fresh way to do it. Its natural, rhymed, colloquial language and movie-like imagery made it great art.

While I’m on the subject of colloquial rhyme (though not necessarily great art), I was fascinated by the success of the R&B “rapper” records. By and large, my personal opinion was that they were pretty terrible. The rhyme, in most cases, was really, as we say, “cheap.” They went for the easiest rhyme, clearly at the expense of content. Even though their success was not exactly gigantic, and they were obviously records and not songs, I was surprised, and figured there was definitely a lesson involved in analyzing the phenomenon. What really got me into it, though I’d been hearing them on the radio, was stopping at a taco stand on So. Robertson and hearing one blasting out of a big stereo portable radio on a table in front of the stand. On the inside, waiting in line to order, were two black kids about 16 years, old doing every line of that rapid rap in perfect sync. That’s when I realized that the first level of appeal is that they’re fun. It was clear that memorizing all that rap wasn’t my idea of fun, but it obviously was to them. There’s also the idea that the stuff felt spontaneous and consequently we’re a little more forgiving about the bad rhyme. The spontaneity was also welcome amid the super-slick produc- tions around it on the radio. It was unquestionably a black record with limited appeal anywhere else, and I’m sure nobody had any illusions about it being a coverable tune. It’s just nice to know that with songs like the “rappers,” like Mac Davis’ “Hard To Be Humble,” and Ray Stevens’ “The Shriners’ Convention” that there’s an audience for tunes that are “just for fun.”

John Braheny is co-founder/director of the Alternative Chorus Songwriters Showcase in Los Angeles.

JUNE 2 6 — JULY 9

See all previous entries in the Songmine Series

About Songmine and Music Connection Magazine:

John Braheny met Eric Bettelli and Michael Dolan right before they were going to publish Music Connection magazine. Eric and Michael wanted to get their publication out to as many songwriters as they could. They had already heard of the LA Songwriters Showcase, and of John and his partner, Len Chandler. John’s goal was to advertise the schedule of guest speakers and performers at the weekly Showcase… so they made a deal. 

They published John’s Songmine column (he had never before written a magazine article!) in their very first edition, in November 1977. Trading out the column for advertising, this arrangement continued for many years. Plus, Eric and Michael came to the Showcase each week and distributed free copies to the songwriters!

Those articles became so popular that (book agent and editor) Ronny Schiff offered John’s articles to F&W Media, where they became the backbone of John’s textbook, The Craft and Business of Songwriting. As a follow-up, Dan Kimpel (author, songwriter, teacher), who had also worked at LASS, took on the Songwriting column at Music Connection magazine which continues to this day! You can subscribe to get either hard copies or online.

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