Writing Songs of Social Commentary

U2No matter what song genre you’re writing in, at some point you’re likely to find yourself wanting to express your thoughts about your generation, your community, society, or the state of the world in general. Given the unsettled times we’re living in, it’s not surprising that songwriters are turning toward their art to express feelings of solidarity, uncertainty, pride, indignation, or hope for the future. Whatever your thoughts or feelings are about the world, a song is a great way to express them.

What are songs of social commentary?

The words “social commentary” are not, in themselves, either positive or negative. These songs are a means of expressing an opinion, observation, or message, the way you see and feel about things, especially things you feel strongly about. For example, one person might look at a community and see the good that comes from a sense of belonging, while another might see a close-minded group banding together to keep outsiders at a distance. What’s your view? What’s your experience? Your observations may be lauded or they may be unpopular, but it’s still up to you – and no one else – to say what you want to say, to make your opinion heard.

Songs of social commentary are not limited to politics or protest. They can help us define a sense of purpose and place, identify with those who are like us and not like us, chastise and forgive, identify our strengths and our failings, and help us work our way through an ever-changing world.

Most importantly, a song of social commentary seeks to persuade, to convey the songwriter’s observations, beliefs, or experiences in a way that allows the listener to see and understand the world as the songwriter does. In doing so, the hope is that through songs we can understand each other a little better.

THEMES
This list includes a few of the most popular themes that come up in commentary songs. Each theme can be expressed in individual terms: its effect on one person or on the singer. Or painted with a broader brush: its effect on a whole society or the world. I’m sure you’ll think of more themes, so feel free to add your own, ones that have meaning and energy for you. Continue reading

Hold Back the River – James Bay

James Bay“Hold Back the River” became a huge international hit soon after its release in late 2014. Universal themes of nostalgia, regret, and lost innocence are conveyed in conversational yet evocative language. The chorus melody is memorable and has a folksy authenticity that adds to the singer’s credibility.

There are many simple songwriting techniques here that you can use in songs of your own: a family of related images, words that have emotional associations, varied phrase lengths in the melody, and an easy trick for catching the listener’s attention with your chorus. Let’s take a look at how these work together to create a hit song.

TECHNIQUES TO HEAR AND TRY:

• Use images to intensify emotion.

• Create contrast between sections with phrase lengths.

• Add an octave to lift the energy.

Read the lyrics here: Hold Back the River – James Bay

Buy it now or listen on your preferred music site (Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, etc.)

Watch on YouTube.

Recorded by James Bay
Writers: James Bay & Iain Archer

GENRE/STYLE  (What is a genre?)
I’m going with Folk/Rock on this one. The lyric palette features images of nature and rural life. The melody is fairly straight ahead, closer to the Indie Folk style of “Gone Gone Gone” by Phillip Phillips than to the quirky, unpredictable melodies of Alt Pop or Alt Rock, where it is sometimes classified. The track relies on acoustic guitar-style melody lines and strumming (although played on electric guitar), there’s not a whiff of synthesizer or electro anywhere around. The drums are live (and great). Folk/Rock has made a very successful comeback after being out of fashion for the last few decades.

SONG STRUCTURE
This structure looks complicated but sounds cohesive and natural when you listen to the track. The verse melody functions as both an instrumental and vocal hook. The bridge reappears at the end of the song as a tag, after which we hear the hook one more time. Every melody is used and reused. There are, in fact, only three different melodies: 1) verse and hook, 2) chorus, and 3) bridge. Continue reading

Beautiful Day – Joshua Radin

Joshua RadinI usually feature a hit song from the music charts in this section, but this time out I want to take a look at an artist who has built an extremely successful career on Film & TV placements, Joshua Radin. More than 40 of Radin’s songs have appeared in top TV series, including Bones, Parenthood, Grey’s Anatomy, Beauty and the Beast, Hart of Dixie, 90210, and the list goes on. You won’t find his songs on the mainstream music charts, nevertheless, he has sold over 2.5 million singles and 700,000 albums.

Radin’s songs are atmospheric, mood-based, and emotionally evocative rather than attention grabbing radio hits. They tend to feature refrains instead of big, over-the-top choruses, as radio singles do. The production is simple but carefully thought out, with chiseled performances that lock into a groove.

Each song is a gem filled with insight, fresh twists, and beautiful payoff lines that are perfect for film and TV uses. If you’re a singer-songwriter looking at the Film & TV market, here’s an artist who’s worth studying.

TECHNIQUES TO HEAR AND TRY:
Turn a simple idea into a compelling lyric.
Add interest to a melody with unpredictable phrasing.
Create an arrangement that supports your lyric concept.

Read the lyrics here: Beautiful Day – Joshua Radin

Buy it now or listen on your preferred music site (Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, etc.) or watch on YouTube

Recorded by Joshua Radin
Writers: Joshua Radin & Kenneth A Pattengale

GENRE/STYLE  (What is a genre?)
The song’s genre is Contemporary Folk/Rock. It fits right in with songs by Passenger, Phillip Phillips, Ed Sheeran, American Authors, and Iron & Wine. “Beautiful Day” has been featured in three primetime TV series and a Subaru commercial. Radin recently released a second version of this song featuring Sheryl Crow. You can reference either one since they’re essentially the same. I like his solo version better.

In many of his songs, Radin pays his respects to the Singer-Songwriters of the 1960s. The relaxed, conversational vocal style and harmonies, image-filled lyric language, and strummed acoustic guitar track are reminiscent of Folk Singer-Songwriters like Simon and Garfunkel. Yet Radin’s songs fit right into today’s Indie Folk renaissance. If you’re a fan of the ’60s Folk scene but want to pitch your songs to current projects, listen to Joshua Radin for techniques that will help you update your sound without losing heart and soul. Continue reading

Let Her Go – Passenger

Until recently you would only have heard a thoughtful, acoustic-based folk song like this on college radio stations or eclectic NPR shows. Certainly not among Billboard’s Top 10 Pop hits. But there it is, right there with Katy Perry, One Direction, and Pitbull. Wha? If you haven’t heard this song on the radio then you’ve probably heard it on a national TV commercial or featured in series like “Elementary” or “The Vampire Diaries.”

Take a look at the official video on YouTube and then let’s dive deeper into this song to see what makes it work so well and how you can use some of these techniques in your own songs.

Official video on YouTube.

Read the lyric here.
The Shortcut numbers below refer to specific chapters in my books “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” (“Hit”) and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” (“Film & TV”).

GENRE/STYLE: Folk / Singer-Songwriter  (What is a genre?)
The lyric, melody, and structure of this song are all reminiscent of the folk genre, with a nod to both authentic English ballads and the folk songs of the 1960s. If you still love to sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” then this song is for you! There’s even a subtle group sing-along on the chorus, almost as if everyone is gathered round the ol’ campfire.

But even though the retro underpinnings are clearly there, the melody has interesting twists that give it a modern edge. If you’ve got a few old fashioned folk songs tucked away (and I know some of you do) consider giving them a facelift with these tricks. Continue reading

All My Days – Alexi Murdoch

Alexi+MurdochHere’s a successful singer-songwriter song with simple production and an honest, moving lyric. Alexi Murdoch has sold over 50,000 CDs through CD Baby making him one of their biggest sellers of all time. He self-releases his music and has turned down several offers from major labels. Most of his sales came as a result of the film & TV uses of his songs.

You’ve probably heard his song “All My Days” without realizing it. It’s featured in a commercial for Sprint and has also been used in several TV series, including CSI, Scrubs, and The OC.


Recorded by ALEXI MURDOCH
Writer: Alexi Murdoch

Lyrics are available online.
Shortcut # refers to my book “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV.”

GENRE
The genre is Indie Singer-Songwriter, a style the film and TV market absolutely loves!

 There are many similarities to English folk revival and folk/rock artists such as Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, and John Martyn. The simplicity of the recording and intimate vocal style both owe much to the work of Nick Drake, an artist Murdoch has cited as an influence. Drake is another artist whose work was introduced to a broad audience through TV commercials and films.

SONG STRUCTURE
The structure is: VERSE / VERSE / VERSE / VERSE / TAG out.

This is a traditional folk song structure. The song doesn’t have a fully-developed chorus. Instead, it relies on a memorable, repeated refrain line – “All of my days” – after the first and third lines of each verse to provide the hook. Continue reading