How To Be a DIY Musician Part IV: Political Songs

Given I’ve pretty much decided that this series of blogs won’t be in logical order (Hell, it can’t be in logical order – that’d give the lie there’s some logical process you follow in starting to play and it’s all far more random and chaotic than that), and given I’ve recently written a song for a political album for the Helen Llewelyn Product 19 label and wanted to give some thoughts on that, and lastly given that I anticipate the coalition cuts will cause a huge up-swell in angry acoustic troubadours, I thought I’d write a piece on writing political songs.

In a way I think this actually is logical. I do want to cover songwriting in this series of blogs and I think a lot of people who write songs often want to share their thoughts with the world and so will write political songs early on, it’s probably worth doing now.

From a purist’s point of view political songs have two fairly significant flaws:

1. Very few people write them well. They’re often born of anger and frustration and as such the writer tends to lose all objectivity and as such fail to spot and edit some pretty cringeworthy lyrics.

For example –whatever you think or feel about Lily Allen – she’s a much better lyricist than her paean to George W Bush would suggest:

2. An audience tends to judge them far more on whether they agree with the political sentiment being expressed, rather than whether they’re any good. At least one person reading this will at this moment be outraged I just criticised a song that slags off George W Bush.

From an aspiring singer-songwriter’s point of view you can translate the two above points as follows:

1. The bar’s lower with political songs so even if you write one that isn’t great, it’s more likely to be acceptable.

2. There’s a good chance of an audience reaction (best to judge your audience’s political beliefs first unless you want to be lynched. Certainly in London most singer-songwriting communities will be liberal-left (and those that aren’t tend to not want to stand out from the crowd) so any left-wing sentiment should be fine. In other towns this may be a bit different.

So this presents you with a good opportunity. However please, please, please use this opportunity to get good. Don’t use it as an excuse to let yourself be complacent knowing you’ll get away with it. And most importantly don’t ever write political songs expressing views you don’t really believe in order to get a good audience reaction. For one thing it’s a bit of a daft thing to do and more importantly it’s often pretty transparent. Plus if someone does come and talk to you about your opinions later, you may well get found out.

So how do you write a political song well? Let’s start off with how to do one badly. I could write an exhaustive list of all the flaws and clichés of political songs but I could alternatively just post this video. Whatever you think of Russell Brand, this is as well-observed a parody as you’re ever going to see:

So, my tips for writing a political song:

1. Don’t tell people what to think

This may sound a bit contradictory – if you’re writing a political song presumably you have an opinion you want to share and telling other people they should feel the same way as you is exactly what you want to do.

The problem is – however well meaning you are – people hate being told what their opinion should be on an issue and want to figure it out for themselves. What’s more a three minute pop song is very different to a 2 hour lecture or a 400 page book. Any opinion you did give will- by the nature of the medium – have to be reductive and simplistic. If you do write a song which basically says “this is my opinion and you should agree with me” then anyone who disagrees will pick holes in your argument (and, because the opinion is simplified, there surely will be holes) and all you’ll do is preach to the converted.

Don’t get me wrong – certain bands have made entire careers out of preaching simplistic political views to people who already agree with those views anyway – but I’d question the validity and responsibility of doing that. Assuming you suddenly become massively successful, all you’ve achieved is to reinforce people’s existing prejudices and reinforced ideas the world’s a much more simplistic place than it really is, which might appeal to base human instincts but probably isn’t all that helpful.

2. Personalise the song

Just as the news tends to report major tragedies by picking out human interest stories of personal struggles to focus on, and almost every film (Battleship Potemkin being a rare exception) will pick a protagonist as the focus of the story and use his or her struggles to make a wider point about the societies they exist, often picking one person and telling the story through their eyes can connect with people far better than a wider generalised argument. What’s more, going back to the structure of a song, it is a format which suits individual case studies far better than grand sweeping analyses.

Certainly to me a song like “The River” (and the line “I come from down in the valley where Mister, when you’re young, they bring you up to do like you’re Daddy done”) reinforces the point about limited working class social mobility much better than a song lecturing on that very topic.

Similarly a million objective songs about the evils of war could not possibly have the emotional impact of My Youngest Son Came Home Today or Army Dreamers:

3. Remember it’s an opinion

You might at this point be thinking this sounds a bit like I’m endorsing emotional manipulation over objective arguments. In this context, I kind of am. Or at least making the point that I don’t think a song is a medium that works better in conveying emotions than it does in terms of a forum for rational debate and objective discussion and, since what you’re going to realistically bring to the table is an emotion and a perspective, it’s far more honest and effective to be open about that and present that as it is (albeit perhaps in the form of a fictional character making the point).

4. Don’t preach to the converted.

As I’ve discussed above, people’s reactions to political songs tend to very much depend on whether they agree with the opinions as much – or far more than whether they enjoy the song itself. This means that you can fall into the trap of crowd-pleasing by basically working out what the audience wants to hear and then telling them exactly that. When I was first playing open mic nights in around 2004 pretty much every other singer who performed had an anti-Iraq War song. And whilst I’d accept some of them felt damn strongly on the subject, there were others who it seemed from the songs didn’t really know a whole lot about it but had worked out that was what the audience responded well to. But audiences are smarter than they often get credit for and you might be surprised how often these people got sussed out, and what’s more, I’d personally say that if you’re writing a political song only to tell someone what they already believe, there isn’t really much point to writing that song.

It’s imperative to take an original perspective and try to challenge and question people’s beliefs, if only because people tend to be quite complacent in their beliefs and often aren’t challenged enough. It’s part of human nature that we often take our views from our friends and parents and then seek out people with similar beliefs who won’t challenge us, which isn’t necessarily healthy. For that reason I’d also recommend trying to write songs to explore and question points around your own beliefs, taking characters who are do or believe things that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with and trying to explore those views and see where they take you, without deciding beforehand where the song is going to go. To me it’s far more interesting both to write and listen to a song by someone trying to work out what they think than it is to listen to someone who thinks they have the answers and can’t wait to tell you them.

Certainly a large part of my writing the Battle is Over was trying to work out how I’d justify my anti-war sentiments to someone who’d actually been fighting.

5. You’re not going to follow my advice. And quite right too.

Political songs are, by their very nature, driven by anger and passion and ultimately if you feel that strongly about an issue and want to get a song out about it then do it. Anger and passion can be powerful tools if used well and it might be you get a brilliant song out of it. Just remember that you’re impassioned rant isn’t necessarily going to get the rest of the world to agree with you. And ultimately the golden rule of political songs is the same as the golden rule with everything else in being a musician.

Whatever you do, just don’t be boring.

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