The Who - My Generation

Your Song and Its Message

Songwriters like to talk about a song’s message — the backstory we pick up from the lyrics. There’s a common belief that the best songs are the ones that present a cogent, powerful (even if subtle) message.

But message is a tricky concept, because in fact, history shows that the best songs — the ones, for example, that you might find on the Rolling Stone “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list — don’t necessarily have a powerful message to communicate.

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Many songs on that list describe important social issues: #14 “Blowin’ In the Wind, #12 “A Change Is Gonna Come”, and #11 “My Generation”.

But many more simply describe relationship issues: #22 “Be My Baby”, #13 “Yesterday”, #6 “Good Vibrations.” And those songs have stood the test of time as well, and those songs will be talked about in 100 years as being every bit as important as the songs with the social justice lyrics.

So what do we mean by message, then? Does every song have a message, even if it’s simply about some frivolous aspect of love?

The fact is that I don’t actually think that every song has or needs a message, at least not one that goes any deeper than the surface. When the Bee Gees sang “How Deep Is Your Love,” there wasn’t much of a message. They weren’t trying to change our minds about anything. It was simply an attempt to affect the emotional base of the listener.

So when they sang

we’re living in a world of fools
Breaking us down
When they all should let us be
We belong to you and me

…it was more about resonance than it was about message. They were counting on the fact that everyone would have a strong emotional reaction to the concept of loving someone when others might not approve.

And you might say, perhaps that’s the message: “Leave us alone.”

In my opinion, some songs have a message — perhaps I should say a strong message — while the purpose of other song lyrics is to affect us emotionally, and message isn’t necessarily the word we’d use in that case.

For any successful song, resonance is always a vital aspect of that success. No song will succeed without drawing us in and making us feel something, and that something is what I’d call resonance. That something might be a lyric with a strong message:

I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around
(“A Change is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke)

..or that something might be more in the “warm & fuzzy” category:

She says she loves you
And you know that can’t be bad.
Yes, she loves you
And you know you should be glad. Ooh!
(“She Loves You” – Lennon & McCartney)

So your song might have a strong message, in which you hope you change the way others think on an issue, or it might simply be a tribute to someone you love. But in any case, all songs need to resonate with the listener.

For every song lyric you finish, the question should be, “Have I made my audience care?”, not “Have I presented a strong message.”

Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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