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.