by Harriet Schock
In my opinion, bad song critiquing has gotten more writers in trouble than bad songwriting. A bad song is simply a bad song. But bad song critiquing can hurt a good song. It’s frequently done by publishers, A&R people, music supervisors, song pluggers…in short, business people. It’s even done routinely by songwriters who don’t write as well as you can, who’ve never had a cut. I don’t understand that practice, but it’s out there. Even professional songwriters will critique in a dangerous way, crippling the requesting writer in an attempt to help him, by pointing out weaknesses at the exclusion of the strengths of the song. I will frequently inherit the victim of some sort of brutal or idiotic critique. I will invariably hear from a new student, “So-and-so said such-and-such about this song and I don’t know what to do about it.”
I frequently get asked to critique songs and it is a frustrating process. It was so frustrating, in fact, that when I started teaching years ago, I came up a step-by-step method of starting from scratch that streamlines the process and helps create better songwriters.
Someone recently sent me a song to critique. He lives in Nashville and he has excellent taste in songs. He knew the difference between good and great and he wanted to be great. In my head I kept hearing the lyric from “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” which says “You can’t fix an egg when it ain’t quite good and you can’t fix a man when he’s wrong…”
Well, I wouldn’t say you can’t fix a song when it’s wrong, but I will say you can fix a song only up to a point. I’m constantly being asked, however, to “fix” songs that should have simply been started differently, developed differently and crafted better. Here’s the analogy that springs to mind and I shared it with the songwriter from Nashville: You are at sea level. You’re building a house. Your house will be built at sea level. But when it’s done, you go to the builder and say “I’d like that house to be at 1000-ft. elevation.” His answer is, “No, but I can take you to another town which is 1000 feet above sea level and build that house there.”
All the years that I was asked to critique songs brought me two things: heartbreak and a realization. Heartbreak came when I had to tell the person there was a serious problem with a song he had demoed for a thousand dollars. The realization was that if you give the person a way to write songs in the first place, he will not have to “fix” every song he writes. The sad truth is that he will not be able to “fix” many of them. He took too many wrong turns and ended up with a song that is simply not his best effort.
Imagine you’re in a shopping mall. You’re trying to get to Bloomingdale’s but you don’t have a map that says “you are here.” So you take one corridor and then another and you may end up in the food court, or at Macy’s but you will not end up at Bloomingdale’s every time. Maybe every once in a while you’ll happen upon it. But your song took a wrong turn at the title, then you took a wrong turn at the first picture or plot point you used to tell the story, then you decided on an ending for THAT story, which wasn’t the story you should have told in the first place. Melodically, you settled for a melody that came easily but that doesn’t move anyone and “fixing” a melody is even harder than “fixing” a lyric. You can make it stronger by changing some steps to some leaps or going to some less predictable chords. You can even change the rhythmic groove it sits on. But why do all that? Why not just get the best song in the first place?
Now don’t get me wrong. Some songs are a perfect face with a big wart on the end of the nose. Everyone can see the wart except the writer and it’s easy to say “remove the wart” and the song is great. At other times, there’s an unexpressed great idea jumping from the page to any experienced songwriter and simply giving the author that suggestion is all that’s needed to take the song to the next level. Tweaking is a way of life for songwriters and I’m certainly not saying it’s ill-advised or impossible. What I’m referring to is trying to make a song that’s a 5 into a song that’s is a 10.
I used to have a mentor who said he could tell the minute someone walked into the room if he had talent. I used to be suspicious of that comment. But now I know what he meant. Even though this is a bit different from what he said, I can tell immediately, at an open mike, if the writer has the goods. I don’t need to wait until the third song, or the third measure, for that matter, although I usually do. Sure, there may be a hole in the second verse you could drive an SUV through, but that song is still sitting on solid ground and can be rebuilt.
Sometimes a writer will confess to me that his songs are not made of the same stuff as the great songs–the ones you listen to and say “I wish I’d written that.” There’s a kind of depth to a great song that a good song just doesn’t have. If you aspire to write great songs that will live on after you have no more teeth to gnash over your bridge (no pun intended), then stop asking people to “fix” your songs. Simply become a better songwriter by either studying the work of great songwriters or finding a mentor or book. Then you won’t have to put up with all the inane critiquing on the part of “industry guests” who are not songwriters and should restrict their comments to “I can use it” or “I can’t use it.” Even car dealerships don’t let the salesmen work under the hood.
Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit, “Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady” plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films and starred in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s recent film, “The M Word,” features Harriet’s song “Bein’ a Girl,” performed on camera at the end of the film. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. In 2007, Los Angeles Women in Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and a popular online course by private email.