A song succeeds when listeners can place themselves inside the story and feel something.
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When Titanic the musical opened on Broadway in 1997, it closed a couple of years later after running for 804 shows. It lost money, even though it picked up 5 Tony awards. It wasn’t a huge hit, getting some positive but mostly negative reviews.
When Titanic the movie opened later in 1997, it was a smash box office hit. People couldn’t get enough of the story. It eventually earned 2.18 billion dollars.
There’s a big reason why when you say “Titanic”, people are likely to think about the movie first, then the actual disaster. And almost no one talks about the musical.
It has to do with people.
To put it succinctly, Titanic the musical was about the Titanic. The writers told the story by focusing in on various characters, but few of the personal stories were compelling or at all powerful.Their story was about the ship, and it was a story that everyone who had even just a shallow knowledge of history already knew.
But Titanic the movie was primarily about an intense, over-the-top love affair between Jack and Rose. It focused on those two characters as the main story. Yes, it was taking place on the Titanic, and everyone knew what was going to happen to the ship.
But they didn’t know what was going to happen to Jack and Rose. In the telling of that story, audiences experienced every possible emotion that comes from that kind intense love affair: love, hatred, jealously, tenderness, abandonment, and sadness.
Oh right… and a ship sank as well.
And now, songwriting: If you’re planning to write a song where the main focus of your attention doesn’t place people front and centre, you’re going to have the same problem that the makers of Titanic the musical had.
Many songwriters write about love, and so it’s easy to keep an emotional leash on listeners. But if you’re writing about the following, your listeners may appreciate your writing, but lose interest:
- Social justice (e.g., rights and freedoms)
- Climate change
- The poor and homeless (particularly if we sing about the homeless as objects as opposed to people)
- Grand buildings and other edifices
- The beauty of nature
These are all great topics, but will fail to make a connection unless listeners have people to whom they can relate. Everyone can get comfy with the sentiment of a song message that calls for universal freedom, but you need to do more if you’re going to really make a connection.
So if you plan to write a song that addresses one of the above topics, you have to immediately place a person, couple or group at the front of that story:
- Social justice: Who is being wronged? What pain are they feeling? What rights are they being denied? What is their story?
- Climate change: Who is this song about? Is there possibility of a personal story to focus on? Instead of singing about clouds that won’t give rain, sing instead about someone, and the pain and anxiety they are facing when the clouds won’t give rain.
- The poor and homeless: Tell someone’s story. Create a name. Where did they come from? Where is their family? What happened to get them out on the street? Show a tender side, a loving side, a sad side… tap into your listeners’ emotions.
- Grand buildings and other edifices. So you want to do a story about the beauty of the Statue of Liberty? Give her a name. Tell her story. Invent thoughts and feelings. Or describe a relationship between a visiting child and the statue in which they actually communicate with each other. Pull emotion out of the story.
- The beauty of nature: Nature is beautiful because people see its beauty. So a song about nature will succeed if it’s a song about a person, and their relationship with someone else in nature. Make nature, and the nice things you say about it, a poignant backdrop for a more powerful story.
Show me a list of the best songs ever written, and I’ll show you a list of songs about people and their personal interactions with others, and then the results of those actions.
Remember, it’s always about people.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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