It’s easy to listen to current Top 40 country and pop and wonder, “Where have the great story songs gone?” And where are the songs that make you think? Are all the music fans REALLY this stupid and shallow these days?”
Well… no. They aren’t dumb. They’re something else.
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I love a good story song. I love those songs that grab you right away, then keep your attention for a killer payoff 3 (or 4) minutes later. “The Gambler,” cut by Kenny Rogers. “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and “The Legend Of Wooly Swamp,” cut by Charlie Daniels. “Where Have You Been” by Kathy Mattea. “The Thunder Rolls” and “That Summer” by Garth Brooks. Killer, killer, killer.
Where are the NEW story songs on the radio?
It’s not like writers aren’t writing quality story songs. Heck, I have several available for cutting RIGHT NOW (hint, hint- if you’re reading this, Garth). But artists aren’t cutting many story songs these days. And why aren’t listeners demanding more story songs? Are they too dumb to recognize great songs? Are they too dumb to follow stories?
Listeners aren’t dumb. They’re distracted.
Man, I remember getting a new album and cranking it up – either keeping my eyes closed or reading along with the liner lyrics. You might remember doing that, too. Heck, you might still do that. After all, we need music like most people need air and water. Music will get our full attention.
Music never gets the full attention of most people these days.
Think about it. How much can you connect with a story song while you’re texting, driving, eating, doing homework, making out, on social media, gaming on your phone, or any of the other billion things we can be doing while listening to music?
Ever try to talk to someone while they’re also checking their phone? Annoying, isn’t it? You know they’re not REALLY listening, even if they are technically hearing you.
If our own friends and family won’t give us their full attention, how can we expect strangers to give our songs their full attention?
I think that’s why a lot of songs these days don’t require much from the listener – either in thought or attention span.
In country music, production is being asked to carry more and more of the weight of the song, and there’s less reliance on ideas and lyrics. (Of course, that’s a general statement, and there are examples to the contrary.)
Many lyrics are built where the listener can zone in and out and still get the point of the song.
They won’t really be confused. After all, “Girl, get your cutoffs on my tailgate” doesn’t really need an intricate story.
Does this mean you should only write shallow songs? No. My suggestion is that you present your deep idea in a way that is easy to “get” by the short-attention-span audience. My kids never have a problem eating their sweet gummy vitamins. Why? Because they taste good. They want candy. They need vitamins.
Solution: give them vitamins that look and taste like candy. One cowriter friend of mine calls it “putting cheese on the broccoli.”
Give the listener what they NEED, wrapped in what they WANT.
Part of this can be done with tempo. If you have a “message song,” try NOT to write it as a ballad. See if you can give it some tempo. If it’s catchy, they listener might like it even if they NEVER hear the deeper message.
Another way is to wrap it in a simple story or in simple wording. Don’t use “$5 words.” Use simple words. Use simple phrases. It’s hard to explain, but don’t present your song as “this is really important, so you’d better listen closely because it will change your life.”
Of course, some ideas may NEED a serious presentation, and that’s fine. But it’s usually a good idea to see if you can wrap your vitamins in sweet gummy goodness.
Try to present a deep or positive message in a shallow way.
Still not sure what I mean? Here’s an example of a recent song I wrote with Steve Leslie and Zarni de Vette. We take a positive message (praising a woman’s inner qualities) and wrap it in fun. See what you think.
What do YOU think about this? Is this just a product of our times, or are we just dumbing down as a general population? Do you think we’ll ever get back to a lot of story songs? Leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!
If you want me to reveal more about commercial songwriting, then you should definitely check out my new, expanded and upgraded version of “Cut/able: Lessons In Market Smart Songwriting.” Its five powerful lessons will help you write songs that artists want to sing, radio wants to play, and listeners want to hear! CLICK HERE TO WRITE CUT/ABLE SONGS.
God Bless and Enjoy the Journey,
Brent Baxter is a hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady Antebellum, Joe Nichols, Gord Bamford, Ruthie Collins, Ray Stevens, and more. He’s written a top 5 hit in the US and a #1 in Canada… so far.