The American Society for Crap Artists Produce has estimated there are 31.9 bad songs written for every good one. This is not entirely the songwriter’s fault. It’s just one of the basic laws of nature: there are more ways to screw up than there are ways of getting anything right.
And yet I can’t find a study anywhere of what makes some songs awful. If I go to my local bookstore, the music section is loaded with books, DVDs, and VHS tapes on how to make a million dollars as a songwriter. (As in real estate, there seems to be more money in telling other people how to make a million dollars than in actually doing it.)
Luckily, bad songs are all around us. You hear them on the radio, in the supermarket, your neighbor whistles them on his way out the door to steal your morning newspaper. But are you aware of them? No, because you’ve grown so accustomed to bad songs that they drift in and out of your consciousness like the 2012 presidential race.
So how do we figure out what goes into a bad song?
One way is to put them through a blender with a good margarita mix. Swirl them in a wine glass and admire their attributes. Collect them like pint glasses. All this takes a lot of time and alcohol, but once you’re an expert on bad songs, you can put your knowledge to work.
Imagine chuckling knowingly in the elevator as you reach the twentieth floor after listening to Richard Harris’s rendition of MacArthur Park.
The other passengers admire your self-confidence and step aside to let you pass, wishing they too knew why someone left the cake out in the rain.
(MacArthur Park was written by Jimmy Webb, who also wrote a lot of great songs—The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Galveston. Go figure.)
Now, I’m skating dangerously close here to something called “Bad Music,” which is something else entirely. Bad Music is music that’s so uniquely bad it’s great. I love Bad Music, but I’m prevented from discussing it in an open forum by the rules of the International Bad Music Society.
What I’m talking about here is really mediocre songwriting, lacking the genius of good songs, and also lacking the genius of bad ones.
But for now, let’s just call mediocre songs bad.
So, here are ten tips for writing a bad song:
10. To save time, always rhyme a word with the same word. For instance, if you’re stuck on a rhyme for macadamia, just use the word macadamia again.
9. Be really obvious. I think Ohio Express said it best: “Yummy, yummy, yummy, I got love in my tummy.”
8. Or be really obscure. Try it. I’ll make something up now: My uncle wears a boa whose first name is Nantucket. Now you finish the verse. . . .
7. Use the word really. If you were going to take a good song and make it into a bad song you could, say, take the song Tall Pines and create a song called Really Tall Pines.
6. Chord progressions are the most important thing. Always go to a lot of different chords even if it doesn’t make musical sense. What you want is a lot of noodling over chord changes.
5. Cram a lot of words into the chorus. Make it hard for a trio to sing long vowel sounds. You can double the number of words if you really, really try.
4. Write about what you know, as long as what you know is unrequited love or dogs whose names are more than one syllable. Good dog songs have dogs whose names are one syllable, like Shep or Blue. Old Sir Poops-a-lot is a good name for a bad dog song.
3. Don’t consider the singer. Going from a low E to a high C should be easy enough for anyone. Make them work.
2. Always use first-person singular. Remember, it’s all about you, which leads to the golden rule of bad songwriting:
1. The first thing that pops into your head is always the best.
(Adapted from a piece that first appeared in Bluegrass North.)