No one could ever fault David Bowie for playing it safe. Even for Bowie fans, his songs, and particularly his lyrics, would often evade clear meaning. When your music moves to the edges of the avant grade, you’re often going to make as many haters as fans.
If your songs, however weird they may sound to others, stand the test of time, your fans will start to outnumber the people who are scared away by your uniqueness, and David Bowie certainly achieved that.
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With Bowie, and thinking in particular about his final album, “Blackstar” released mere days before his death, his lyrics may be a head-scratcher to many. But the review he received from Ben Greenman from The New Yorker, said this: “…his songs should be about nothing, which in turn allows them to be about everything.”
If you strive to create something unique in your own music, don’t expect those kind of accolades right away. Reviewers, and quite likely audiences as well, often have a short supply of patience with songwriters who stray from the norms of the genre they write in.
Such is the double-edged sword we call musical innovation. You may play it safe with your own songwriting and follow all the principles that have created the vast lexicon of pop hits from the past six decades or more. But that doesn’t necessarily help you to stand out from the crowd.
If you want to be unique in the music/songwriting world, remember this: uniqueness is risky business. Uniqueness requires your audience to get up out of their comfy chair and walk out in the cold with you, often without a coat of predictability for protection.
In other words, for every risk you take as a songwriter, you are also asking your listeners to take a risk: to trust you. That’s a hard sell. But to distinguish yourself from others in the business, you probably need to do that — to take risks — at least to some degree.
Of the many aspects of Bowie’s career that you can ponder, songwriters can point to his risk-taking uniqueness as his greatest legacy, and a source of courage for every up and coming songwriter out there.
Even hits that allowed listeners to stay in their comfy chair had an air of uniqueness about them. “Space Oddity”, “Changes”, “Heroes”, “Modern Love” and others, had their roots solidly in pop music, but no one could do those songs like Bowie. But the lesson we as composers of music should take from Bowie’s life is not “This is how to write great music,” but rather: “Be courageous, adventurous and unique. It’s risky, because you’ll build your audience slowly. And uniqueness is risky business.”
But if you can be resilient, patient and brave, you’re heading toward greater rewards than if you play it safe, and write the kind of songs that anyone can (and anyone usually does).
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
Gary is the author of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle – a collection of powerful and effective songwriting manuals that are being used by thousands of songwriters to improve their writing technique. The 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle includes “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base”. READ MORE.
I’d also add that a function of any art, including songwriting, is to take the risks that everyone (i.e. the audience) feels they want to take but can’t or don’t want to. So at any given time if the general mood (or zeitgeist) is to take a particular risk (e.g. going to the moon), a songwriter can describe how it feels and listeners get to experience vicariously.
Then risk taking is very useful and a songwriter can ‘speak for the people’. Bowie did this very, very well in his risk taking all through his career. Also, it reminds me of a comment that Lemmy (also RIP) made – “I take drugs, so you don’t have to”. Such is the function of risk taking in art – be relevant in the risks you take.
Great observation, Gary.
So I’d taken your advice in your e-books to “listen positively” to music in a genre I don’t like. In my case, classic country, which I grew up listening to (mom) and loathe.
Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter did just what you wrote about Bowie. She strayed with this song, which has no chorus, probably unheard of in those days. Even now, really. It’s a collection of verses that modulate up 1/2 step two times.
But she follows great principles, and I’ve come to appreciate this song as being on the level of genius. Her lyrics were very specific, yet universal in many ways (childhood gone). She doesn’t have a chorus, but her two upward key changes have the lift that a chorus would bring.
So she was avant garde for her day, in her genre, yet maintained what works. Same might be said for Bowie, yet I haven’t yet learned to appreciate his work. Maybe someday. If I can appreciate the musicality of a classic country song, I think I’m game for anything now.