Excellence is something every keen student of anything strives for, but in creative arts like songwriting, excellence is either difficult or impossible to define.
For some activities excellence is relatively easy to identify and assess. For example, a baseball team that rarely loses could be said to be excellent because we have a clear way to assess the team’s efforts: if they win most of their games, they’re excellent.
But what about songwriting? Excellence becomes a much more difficult term because when something is unique, like a new song, it necessarily needs to be different enough from all other songs (to avoid plagiarism), but enough like other songs that we can measure its success.
There are songs and albums today that we think of as excellent, but when they were first released the professional opinion was that they were failures. Nik Cohn of the New York Times wrote that The Beatles “Abbey Road” album was “an unmitigated disaster.”
Of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Gregg Mitchell of The Rolling Stone said “…nearly all of [the] songs [are] hopelessly mediocre.”
What do we make of songs that were originally thought of as being garbage, but have since been reassessed and are now thought of as the best examples of good songwriting? What causes that change of heart and opinion?
The Reassessment of Songs
Part of the reassessment of songs and albums to something more positive is the avoidance of embarrassment: it’s a bit embarrassing to continue to assert that Abbey Road is horrible when everyone else is saying how much they like it.
But the part that’s most relevant to you as a songwriter is dealing with those initial evaluations, because when you write and then present a new song, you’ll have an audience in front of you that doesn’t have the benefit of time to assess your song fairly.
Everyone wants a good review because we tend to think of a good review as an affirmation of songwriting/musical excellence. In all of the classic songs and albums out there that got initial bad reviews, I know of no songwriters or performers that spent much time creating excuses for what they had written. They had confidence that they had written something good, left it at that, and moved on to their next project.
As you write your songs and present them in public (either by streaming them or performing them), keep in mind that some will love what you do, others will hate what you do, but most will be in the middle somewhere.
So the only assessment of excellence you should really be focused on is your own personal assessment.
We all use our own personal experience with music, from the time we were young children right up to today, to inform what we think good music should sound like.
And since everyone’s experiences will be different, that means that everyone’s own striving for excellence will take them on a unique path. The songs you write will be the summation of how you got to this point in your musical life.
It’s why songwriting takes such an enormous amount of courage. You’ve got to have the courage of your convictions that you’ve written something good.
And — more importantly — you’ve got to have the courage to resist changing your song simply because others don’t like what you’ve written.
The striving for excellence that all songwriters should be focused on should be a personal musical activity. The only yardstick that is relevant is the one you create and use.
You’ll build your fanbase with every song you write. And that means you need to do what the professional songwriters and performers have always done: write something you think is excellent, and then move on to your next project.
And worry about your own assessment, and not so much the assessment of others.
If you’re trying to make your lyrics a much more important part of your songs, you need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”