Songwriting in the Snapchat era.
The story of songs is now written to the beat of social medias. And the fans get to be the writers.
Who can still argue with the fact that popular music doesn’t care about lyrics anymore? From the wonders of Bob Dylan, to the burr’s of Gucci Mane: something has definitely gone downhill in terms of words being used for a song. It’s not just the words — the idea of richness in music itself changed. In 1975, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody featured six distinctive parts and a complex storyline, and still charted as top 10 hit. Today, Rae Sremmurd’s Black Beatles follows the most classic song structure (intro, verse & hook x3, the end), and charts #1. And plot twist : the song isn’t even near or close about the Beatles. What’s a Black Beatle, anyway?
There’s an argument elders and people who hate rap love to use : we can’t understand a word they’re saying! If you don’t understand Young Thug, is it his fault, or yours? New music is always here to talk to new listeners, or reach new customers. A great songwriter isn’t someone with a brilliant writing, but someone with an ability to create an echo. The bubble of emotions and thoughts a line or a verse can bring, is the reverberation making art great. Connexion. The world has changed, the attention span shrunk. In the 80’s, it took 5 words for Cindy Lauper to highlight the party wishes of girls, in the 90’s, 5 words also for Kurt Cobain to sum up the discomfort of the youth. Today, Girls just wanna have fun & I feel stupid and contagious would be narrowed to an emoji or a meme — and it would be clear enough. People still care about words, but under a different light. If, at best, listeners want a quote to match their current Snapchat mood — why should they be getting more? The greatest songwriters we have, are always those in tune with their time.
Popular music has always been very codified, perhaps now more than ever. The average listener doesn’t want anything too new or different. A country song will feature the same guitar sounds or the same strings arrangements, a trap song will have the same snare and the same gliding distorted 808 bass, an R&B record will have the perfect balance of cloudy ambiance and nostalgic references to 90’s R&B or tropical music. There can be a million of reasons why a song becomes a hit (a great music video, the right use in an advertisement or a show, coming with a viral dance, ...), however, in these times where images, trends and background music tend to be unsurprising, the same average listener also want something new enough to be attracted. And the answer to stand out can come from lyrics. In an interview with 📇 The Fader earlier this year, Drake detailed his songwriting process.
“The hardest moments, the most difficult ones, in songwriting, are when you’re looking for like, four words with the right melody and the right cadence”. — Drake
Would Hotline Bling have been such a hit if it wasn’t called Hotline Bling? The name of the song itself is original, and offers an explicit concept adding a reason to care about yet-another-sad-Drake-song. There’s as much greatness and perfection in these six words to party I know when that hotline bling, as there is in the four Kendrick Lamar used in Alright. Could the feeling of the black youth in 2015 have been summed up in a better way than we gon’ be alright? By connecting the words together, naming the song Alright instead of All Right, didn’t Kendrick add personality to his choice for a title? Re-appropriating the language has always been a way to bring the words under a new light, from Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ to Outkast Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik — anything you gotta do to get noticed in the maze, right? What made Desiigner’s Panda stand out, a basic trap song? Maybe an answer lies in the lyrics. Most rappers brag about mixing codeine and Sprite. In the opener line, Desiigner affirms he’s twisting his lean with Fanta. In the very masculine “trap” world, Fetty Wap introduced a new character : the Trap Queen. Details make the girls sweat.
From the roommate back in Boulder in the Chainsmoker’s Closer to the Weeknd calling his love partners only when it’s half past five, great pop music finds life in the little details adding texture and personality to predictable emotions. Nobody is going to re-invent the concepts of love, hope, sadness, anger or joy. The artists are only here to re-brand the emotions in new ways, to connect them to new people. When Prince released Purple Rain, it wasn’t the first song ever about love — but it felt new because unsuccessful love had never been seen under lavender raindrops falling. By stressing that her and her ex were never ever getting back together, Taylor Swift added enough dimension to her break-up song to make it relevant in the days they were released in. Great lyrics can star-rocket the potential of a song: how impactful would have been Michael Jackson’s Thriller, if it remained blandly named Starlight, without the horror movie concept, and the matching music video with the zombie dancing moves?
Of course, not every charting song comes with a great concept of a fresh perspective on a topic — superstars such as Adele (Hello) or Justin Bieber (Sorry) can get away without any other specificity but themselves. There’s a very strong difference between the songwriting of yesterday and of our time lying in the fan element. Lyrics of the past had room for interpretation and contemplation, lyrics of today have room for edition, twisting, parodying. A song isn’t over when it’s released, a hook isn’t decided because it was written : the people do have the power. In Bobby Shmurda’s 2014 hit Hot Nigga, the listeners shortened a very dark line (”Just caught a body about a week ago”, meaning somebody was murdered) into about a week ago, removing any type of sense to just focus on the energy of the line, and re-use it in ofter lighter contexts. Same story for Kanye West’s use of Metro Boomin’s tag (“If young Metro don’t trust you I’m gon’ shoot you”) on Father Stretch My Hand pt. 1. You can’t just make the audience sing-a-long, you must also make them quote-a-long to keep trending. Songwriting in the Snapchat era means the fans get to be the writers too.
Music no longer is only for the ear, or the eyes. It must reach every kid’s sixth sense : social medias. To really get into a song, fans must earn something in return, or have the ability to be creative. Will quoting the lyrics make him get enough retweets? If not, can it help him trigger a parody GIF? If there’s a slang to copy or moves to learn, will they make him sound cool, and help him go viral with a dance on the song? The meaning is deeper than words. Intellectualising is useless for people using music as fashion or an Instragram filter : a way to appear under the greatest light available. The content is here to compliment the user. For many youngsters, filming yourself dancing over JuJu On That Beat gave you awesome lifestyle points and social media attention. Zay Hilfiger gave the people lyrics with dancing instructions (now slide, drop, hit dem folks, don’t stop), the people used the dance, and set it a trend. JuJu on That Beat is now a top 10 hit : your best PR is always your fans. The story of songs is now written to the beat of social medias.
I personally love great lyrics, depth, structures, words… but who can fight? Even if Top 10 hits often offer the same level of content, there’ll always be writers pushing the bounds of their own emotion through language and connect at different levels. From Weyes Blood questioning our generation on Generation Why, to Sujfan Stevens on his mother’s death on Should Have Known Better, from Kanye West reaching to his daughter and mother with the same voice on Only One, to Lady Gaga talking to her late aunt Joanne and her alter-ego at the same time. Maybe one day we’ll find a vocal equivalent to emojis and communication will be changed for ever. Whether this brings us closer to a form of newspeak like in 📘 1984, or a great new way to express concepts, our history, from cave drawings to Twitter DM’s, proved us there’ll always be something new to communicate. There’s no words in so many powerful shapes of music, and yet energy or emotion are brought through sounds as much in Crazy Frog as in Moonlight Sonata. Anyone enjoying techno, classical, ambient or any other type of instrumental music already understood : sometimes, words don’t need to get in the way of the vibe.
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