Many areas of modern pop songwriting are extremely innovative, historically speaking. A lot of songwriting elements have been radically changing and evolving in recent years; it’s an exciting time to be writing songs (not counting the financial part!). The word that comes to my mind most here is Freedom.
However, if you mostly listen to songs from the 20th Century you might be having a hard time discovering these new elements in what may sound to you like a audio blur (but is really just the sound of contemporary pop music).
Try listening in to the songs; past the recordings (though they’re often interesting too) and inside the songs. Try looking past the chassis; check out the motor under the hood – the songwriting. You might find the sound of modern pop recordings off-putting overall. You may need to work a little to discover the songwriting wheat inside what sounds (to you) like production chaff.
What to listen for:
1) Melody. Melodies now are in almost constant motion; no pauses. Again, this may sound like a blur to you but, when it’s done well, it’s no blur.
That said… you no longer get the pauses after every phrase that were a hallmark of almost all 20th Century songwriting. It’s not like football anymore – a play (a line/2 bars) followed by instant replays (2 more bars of waiting for the next line while thinking about the last one). Now it’s like basketball or soccer – non-stop action. Get used to it!
You’ll have to train your ears to speed up (similar to how when bebop came along, it moved at a faster velocity than the jazz that had come before). You’ll have to learn to listen faster.
2) Rhyme. Rhyme is now both looser and tighter. There’s more freedom now in what’s accepted as rhyme than there has ever been. This has of course led to some laziness but it’s also led to an explosion of creativity. Lyricists are putting word sounds together that would’ve been unimaginable a decade ago. Literally things pro lyricists and publishers ’”said (it) couldn’t be done” are being done every day. This is not your father’s Songmobile!
Also, just as with melody, the velocity of rhyming has increased, mostly stemming from the influence of rap. The amount of inner rhymes and near rhymes, all rolling out nonstop, can take getting used to.
3) Form. Although most songs still adhere to the Verse/Chorus (or Verse/Pre-Chorus/Chorus) form, this has gotten much more elastic recently. Song-savvy listeners don’t need as much ‘hand-holding’ as they used to, so sometimes connective sections and repetitions that traditionally helped orient the listener are dispensed with or developed in ways that may be unfamiliar to some.
And, as I’ve written before, don’t underestimate the influence of search engines like Google or apps like Shazam in this. In the 20th Century, certain elements of a song had to be repeated a lot, especially the Title, so people knew what to ask for at the record store. Well guess what… no more record store.
If the listener likes some aspect of what they hear, they google or shazam it… it’s a completely different orientation towards taking in a song… leading to different kinds of songs. (Read here for more on this.)
4) Content. Anything goes. Like in all parts of our culture, this has led to an emphasis on sex, some of it very graphic. But just because something’s about sex doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing – or writing. And this same freedom has allowed songwriters (including you) to explore all kinds of other topics that have previously been considered unusual or off-limits.
It’s also opened the door to a lot of bullshit, misogynistic and otherwise, that thankfully seems to be receding in recent times. But there’s always been, and will always be, a lot of stupidity out there. And not infrequently powerful art can seem offensive at the time it’s made – and sometimes it is offensive – but artists need the freedom to explore… and overdo (what at the time is considered ‘overdoing it’ is sometimes, with hindsight, considered a breakthrough). A lot of pandering and posing in the name of artistic expression will always come along with this.
So if you’re used to 20th Century songs and and are puzzled, alienated, or just plain disgusted by modern pop music, I suggest that, as a songwriter, you keep listening. Just because songs were written ‘a certain way’ (usually whatever you listened to in your teens and 20s, your formative years), and because the best stuff that you love that was written that way is great, doesn’t mean things don’t need to change. They will change.
This doesn’t take anything away from the greatness of the past… but there’s songwriting greatness in the present too. And the future.
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