The Importance (Or Not) of Song Topics

It’s not the topic that’s so important, it’s what emerges from it.


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Katy Perry - RoarA quick scan over the various chart lists on the Billboard site will reveal that of all song topics, love sells, and it has practically always been that way. Audiences never tire of hearing about someone’s love for someone else. Depending on the song, love songs make us feel warm, cold, elated, angry, broken up, lifted up, and every nuance in between.

Songwriters spend a lot of time thinking about song topics, but the truth is that all listeners instinctively dig down a bit deeper than the basic topic. To say that a song is about love is barely saying anything. That song could be a straightforward “I really love/want/need you” tune, (“Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke), a “I really love you but can’t figure you out” tune (“Holy Grail” – Jay-Z & Justin Timberlake), or a “you can’t abuse me” all-purpose song (“Roar” – Katy Perry).

So love as a song topic is not really saying anything. And if your latest tune is an “I really love you” song that doesn’t really dig down to say anything deeper, it’s risky. Love is a basic human condition that practically everyone experiences. So you’d better have more to say than a simple “I love you” if you want to engage the listener.

That’s not to say that it can’t be done, as Paul McCartney did with “Silly Love Songs” (1976), a song about the fact that we love listening to love songs.

As an overall topic, love is vague. It’s like saying you plan to write a book about lint. Your first reaction is, “What about it?”

“What about it” is the crucial question that songwriters need to deal with. I have encouraged songwriters to develop a “dig deeper” method of developing a lyric from a song topic. That method simply requires you to write song topic down (“love”), ask yourself, “What about it?”, and keep digging deeper.

When you do that, your love song goes from love to something far more engaging:

Love –> lover moves away –> lover stops calling –> lover meets up with you, gives you the cold shoulder…

As you can see, with just a bit of thought, your simple love song can become something that engages the listener, and becomes far more interesting. Which is not to say profound. But engaging will win the heart of a listener while profound may or may not make that all-important connection.

So how important is a song topic? Not very, if you don’t start digging deeper and looking for an angle – something to communicate that really gets the attention of the audience and makes a connection. To not do that means you’re simply ignoring the listeners’ all-important question, “What about it?”


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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