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

If I Were a Boy – Beyoncé

BeyonceThis beautiful hit ballad has a compelling title and a simple but very effective melody trick you’ll definitely want to try in a song of your own.

While record labels tend to shy away from ballads when it comes to releasing and marketing the big lead single from an album, in this case the label released “If I Were a Boy” as a co-lead single right along with the smash R&B/Pop Dance track “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” Both songs climbed to the Top 5 on the Pop charts and have continued to be listener favorites.

So, how does a slow, thoughtful ballad compete with one of those monster uptempo dance tracks? Watch the song video then read on to find out.


Writers: Toby Gad / Britney Carlson (BC Jean)
Recorded by Beyoncé

Shortcut numbers refer to my book “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting.”

GENRE/STYLE What is a genre?
This is a power ballad in the Pop/R&B style. Power ballads generally start out with an intimate, personal sound and build to a big, anthemic ending. The tempo can range from slow to medium but should never feel rushed. The BPM (Beats per Minute) is usually – though not always – 100 or below. Continue reading

Royals – Lorde

LordeSometimes a single, unlikely word can spark a hit. Lorde describes seeing the word “Royals” written on the uniform of a Kansas City Royals baseball player. It triggered a response – not to the baseball team, but to the word itself. 

”Royals” is a word that’s loaded with associations – wealth, luxury, power, and privilege. It evokes stories of legendary kings and queens, as well as today’s celebrities. And it stirs up interest in just about everyone, which makes it a perfect word on which to build a song. Let’s take a look at Lorde’s mega-hit and find out how to create a hit song from a single word. 


Here’s the official video on YouTube.

“Royals” recorded by Lorde
Writers: Ella Yelich-O’Connor (Lorde), Joel Little
You can 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: Singer-Songwriter (What is a genre?)
This song has sold triple Platinum and made it to #1 on Pop charts around the world.  It doesn’t sound like most Pop hits, though. Definitely not Katy Perry or Kelly Clarkson. Instead it blends a singer-songwriter style lyric and melody with a groove and tempo that owe a lot to Hip Hop, giving the song a cool Urban edge.

When blending genres like this, be sure you’re familiar with both of the styles you’re working in. Your song and/or production need to draw on authentic elements from each source rather than being an accidental mish-mash that may or may not really capture a genre. Listen to your favorite artists in each style as you write. Draw on those elements that appeal to you, or study an artist who is already blending those styles. Continue reading

Hands Tied – Toni Braxton

This is a great example of a current Urban AC (Adult Contemporary) song. Toni Braxton needed something to put her back on the charts – something with a current sound after her mega-hits of the 1990s. This song has a melody with loads of rhythmic interest and a fresh approach to the lyric theme. Take a listen and then we’ll discover what made this song so appealing to today’s listeners.


Recorded by Toni Braxton
Writers: Heather Bright, Warren Felder, and Harvey Mason, Jr.

Lyrics are available on the internet.
Shortcut # refers to my book “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting.”

STRUCTURE
Here’s a perfect example of the VERSE / CHORUS / VERSE / CHORUS / BRIDGE / CHORUS hit song structure! The repetitive verse builds rapidly to a HUGE chorus with tons of catchy hooks and a wonderful payoff line at the end that keeps going and going and going… only to fall immediately into the start of the second verse.

Try this trick in a song of your own: extend the last line (the payoff line) with repetition or by stretching out the words until it leads right into the next section.  Continue reading