My Say

November 11th 2003

Short of offering a definitive figure, I would estimate that I have written maybe 400 songs since I first started fumbling around with the guitar in my mid teens. From this vast library some 50 odd have appeared on Fauves albums with perhaps another 30 to 40 finding homes as B-Sides on our numerous singles. Of these commercially released tracks I could nominate 15 to 20 that I believe to be of a high quality: a further category of a similar size exists of songs that I am at least not embarrassed by. If we were to put these songs before a jury of impartial critics, unburdened by the bias of proprietorship that colours my perceptions, we might reasonably halve the list so as to arrive at a small group of about 10 songs. Upon these we will assume that a majority of the listenership can find some general agreement as to their artistic or entertainment merit. Ten songs from 400. One in 40. Why do so many bad songs get written?

Trust me; I'm not the only person with a volley of poor music darkening the credibility of my oeuvre. As I write, songs are being born all over the world. Lonely men in bedsits strum acoustic guitars; production teams co-ordinate keystrokes before banks of computers in luxury studios; advertising men knock heads for the perfect hook - all ensuring that the flow of new compositions is unceasing. A fraction of this music will find commercial release. A few of these songs will be hits. A small percentage of these will be good songs. The overwhelming majority, however, will be little short of pure shit.

I've already highlighted the poor strike rate that informs the output of my creative endeavours. Adjuncts to the canon of finished songs, however, are the many other inchoate efforts that I abandoned midstream. I have tape after tape of unused riffs, dusty chord sequences and discarded melodies, none of which I deemed on reflection to be of sufficient merit to warrant further work. While this at least hints at some level of self-editing and quality control, it also demonstrates that there was at least a moment in the life of every one of the other 400 when I thought they were good.

How could I, and by extension anyone else who has ever penned a bad song, have got it so wrong? What blocking mechanism is at work in my psyche that has enabled me to reach the conclusion of so many doomed song writing efforts, colouring my perceptions to such an extent that my critical faculties were so grossly compromised? Whatever the mysterious process, it infects every songwriter.

Turn on the radio, watch a video clip show, attend a live performance - bad songs swamp the good in an extraordinarily unequal ratio. Like the millions of sperm expended in the fertilisation of one egg, it seems many bad songs must be written to get one good one. Even the cynic will agree that only a small percentage of bad songs are deliberately constructed that way. A few privileged songwriters have the luxury of composing for a performer who will sell almost irrespective of the quality of the material - a Kylie Minogue say - where a song may be written for a particular demographic without regard to its intrinsic merit. Novelty songs constitute a similar sub set: the writers are aware that they are creating bad music, but remain committed to their task due to the financial incentives. Most songwriters, however, are like politicians entering parliament for the first time; they embark on their journey seeking only to do the best work they can.

One reason for so many bad songs is simply that there are many more people writing them these days. Popular music was infused with an egalitarian spirit during the 20th century; affording the common man an access to the means of production hitherto denied him. Putting together a few chords on a guitar and singing a tune over the top of it is much less intensive on both time and talent than composing in a form that requires both a deep understanding of, and an aptitude for, music. Where once the rigours of formal musical education tended to weed out the untalented timewaster, it is now far easier for the dilettante to try his hand. A symphony may take years to compose whereas a pop song can take but minutes. A few very great pop songs were written in this way. Similarly, a great many other bad ones have been likewise composed. As technology provides more opportunities for the artistically limited and the creatively bereft, the net result can only be more bad songs.

Anyone can call themselves a musician in the modern deregulated world. Once the title needed to be earned; one was required to be possessed of certain minimum standards of musical proficiency. A musician was like a stonemason or a blacksmith - a craftsman who had to display his credentials before being assuming the title. This in itself did not guarantee a high level of compositional achievement but it certainly helped swing the odds in that direction. It also meant that there were fewer composers per capita. Now anyone - a bored student, an unemployed bricklayer or the keyboardist in a cover band - has the facility through which to attempt to write songs.

All this has had the effect of bringing a great many more untalented hacks into the picture. Back in Mozart's day a composer almost invariably needed patronage to survive. This in turn increased the imperative to find an audience. With no social security to fall back on, the unsuccessful composer would quickly find himself back out in the fields reaping hay. Greater material security allows more part-timers to indulge themselves, unburdened by the need to find success just to put food on the table. The imperative to find general acceptance is no longer as pressing. The advent of the computer and home recording means that people can write songs as a past time, irrespective of whether their music finds an audience. If pleasing oneself is the only imperative then quality control becomes a more nebulous concept.

The triumph of individualism teaches that no dream should be denied us. The cults of wealth and celebrity live inside exclusive compounds and we are all searching for the Bradley tank needed to breach their cyclone-fenced borders. Talent quests like JJJ's Unearthed contest are the bulbs from which bad songs shoot like weeds from untended sod. For every winner that goes on to the playlist there are the hundreds of other speculators who have been encouraged to try their hand. Why not have a go? What is there to lose? The Boys Own story of an act like Silverchair provides inspiration for thousands of less talented imitators. Not all of these unrewarded bands simply fade away. Many plug on, airing their songs of poor quality in small pubs, on community radio stations and via independently released records.

Every bad demo CD that arrives in our P.O. Box is a poignant reminder of the vainglorious folly of human desiring. As I cringe at the generally dreadful submissions, it is with the rueful realisation that I have many times fallen victim to the very same self-delusion responsible for the contents of the CD. My own early demo efforts - long before we formed The Fauves - were a similarly wrought exercise in futility. I still have the duplicate of the first one I ever mailed out. It was a tape containing upwards of 15 songs that I sent to an independent record company named Larrikin. What I possibly hoped to achieve with my endeavours can only be guessed at - but it almost certainly had more to do with self-affirmation than any serious attempt at forging a career as a 17 year old solo artist. The form letter duly arrived several months later, politely declining whatever it was I thought I had to offer. I could have been - perhaps should have been - stopped in my tracks at that point.

But no.

I fell in love with music watching Countdown. I never stopped to question whether I had talent; I just knew that I wanted to do what those people on the television were doing. No lightning bolt of inspiration has ever hit me. If I have created anything of worth it has been by rote learning and persistence. Like so many of my kind I am possessed of substantially more ego than talent.

And therein lies a source of so much bad music. Those seeking to create don't need talent as much as they need to believe they have it. Millions of people learn guitar or piano without ever once being moved to try and compose music - they simply declare themselves to be without the wherewithal and get on with their lives. A percentage of us, however, kid ourselves, stick at it and start writing bad songs. The belief in one's ability often far outstrips the ability itself. Imagine trying to start writing a novel, for instance, without a deep internal conviction that you had something worth saying.

Without this conviction The Fauves could never have come this far. Notwithstanding anything we've achieved 15 years on, we were unlistenable when we first started. So long as we were able to keep the black dogs of doubt from barking at the door, however, we could work at cultivating a longievity that few of our peers have maintained. While these contemporaries woke up one morning, admitted they had no real talent and went and got real jobs, we forged on. This suspension of disbelief is crucial to creativity. It is also, conversely, why so many bad songs get written.

Previous My Say entries

November 3rd 2002
October 9th 2002
September 4th 2002