I recently discovered that I own a book on songwriting that I have not read before, Songwriting; A Complete Guide to the Craft, by Stephen Citron. This book is seriously appalling. So appalling that I have to write not one, but two blog posts on it. This one will cover the section on lyrics. There is a First Considerations section before this one, but there’s not much to say about it, as it mainly tells you how to find a collaborator and that you will need paper.
So the first part of the lyrics section talks about form. This is pretty basic, and is basically the way a song’s elements are organised. Pretty much, if you have a song that goes verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, a shorter way to say it would be AABABCB. It’s how the different musical ideas are arranged. Note that you will not be able to mark form this way with a through-composed piece. The weird thing about this section is that Citron seems to be very strict on what forms you can use depending on genre. On the first page of this section, he writes “If you try to create a show tune (whose form is generally AABA or ABAC) and cast it in the form of punk rock (often AAAA), the show tune will come out sounding punk rock.” (31) My problem with this statement is that I really don’t think this is the main thing that causes us to categorise what we’re hearing. One of my first songs, Speechless, was written in AAAAA form, and for a while I worried that it sounded too country.
Anyways, after he talks about form for a while, he decides to give an extremely biased music history lesson. Now, it doesn’t start out too badly, but if for some reason you are reading this book, stop before reading the section on the sixties. Everything is downhill from here. On page 68, he lists the following musicals as “add[ing] nothing to the canon of musical art…” (68):
- ‘Bye ‘Bye Birdie
- The Fantasticks
- Unsinkable Molly Brown
- Milk and Honey
- How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
- No Strings
- All American
- I Can Get It for You Wholesale
- Stop the World–I Want to Get Off
- Hello, Dolly
- Funny Girl
- Anyone Can Whistle
- Fiddler on the Roof
- On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
- Sweet Charity
- I Do, I Do
- Promises, Promises
I’m sure anyone reading this will recognise at least one or two of these, if only by title, and for good reason. There are some fantastic musicals on this list, including some of my personal favourites. But his statement doesn’t irk me because he doesn’t like the same things I like, it infuriates me because he has the gall to think he gets to say what is art. I mean, really? There are lots of musicians and plays and books and movies out there that I don’t like, and I won’t be shy about saying what I don’t like about them, but I would never say they aren’t art. That’s just elitist.
Citron’s elitism does not end here. He goes on to imply that rock music did not have respectability until the Beatles formed (76), state that rap is “childlike” (89), and to dismiss two entire decades of music, the sixties and the seventies, as having “very little…of lasting value.” (133) He also says that folk-rock “is almost a redundancy, since most of the music written since the fifties has been in the rock idiom,” proving that he does not understand the purpose of genres in helping people find music they will enjoy. My problem with all of this again isn’t that he doesn’t like some music, it’s that he brushes it aside with generalisations. I don’t understand how anyone who wants to be in the music industry could choose to ignore the ideas of a genre or time period just because the majority is not their taste. It is a huge limit to impose on musical and creative growth. Also, just to be childish in return, I’m going to use the fact that he likes Barry Manilow (88) as an excuse to point at him and laugh.
Now we get into the Types of Songs chapter. He starts completely making me doubt his credibility by writing “Parodies to melodies that are in the public domain (not under copyright) can be published but must have the approval of the original creator” (96), which is the exact opposite of what public domain means. He is in a creative field. He should know this, especially since the back of the book promises to answer the question “What is the simplest way to protect my copyright?” Also, just to be nit-picky, you can publish a parody of things that aren’t in the public domain without permission as well. It falls under the fair use exception, which allows for, among other things, commentary and criticism. Come on, look at Weird Al. (NOTE: I write all of my posts really quickly because otherwise I never post anything. Sometimes this means I am wrong about stuff. I was writing this mostly whilst thinking of parodies that you don’t intend to sell and then my mind went to Weird Al and I was wrong because I didn’t bother to take the time to think or look things up. Don’t take a blogger’s word as the definitive on legal stuff. But also don’t trust Citron on it because he got public domain so very, very wrong.)
After this, he talks about writing original lyrics to music in the public domain. This is mostly listing examples of songs where this was done, but I have two things to point out. First, he uses a song that was based on the chords of another piece as an example (99), which doesn’t count. Chord progressions alone do not make a piece. I will quote a genius here and say “You know I’m getting really bored, cause all songs have the same damn chords.” Second, he advises to pick music that’s singable, and not, you know, arias. (99)
The next section is on story songs and he provides us with the most confusing Do’s and Don’ts list (106) I have ever seen. Here it is in its entirety:
“Do’s and Don’ts for Story Songs
- Use verse-chorus form.
- Most story songs are in the third person; the singer pulls the audience in by telling what happened to so-and-so.
- Take your time. Most story songs are three or more verses.
- A good method of working is to write your story in prose first, then write the chorus, which will comment on the action.
- Last of all, write the verses.”
As you can see, two of these, 2 and 4, aren’t really a do or a don’t, and he doesn’t specify which one 1, 3, and 5 are. Though I’m guessing he means for a “do,” I giggle at the thought of him saying “Don’t take your time.” Seriously though, I wonder why he even mentioned “don’ts.”
Moving on, in his section on descriptive songs he makes a comment that made me stop and go “wait, what?” He brings up a song called “Sunny,” conveniently not mentioning either a composer or performer so I can look this up for myself, and in his discussion of it says “The next three choruses (and I call this song with no verse all choruses because they are so short) are in the same vein [as the above;] they tell us a bit more about the reaction of the singer to Sunny.” (108) This is completely ridiculous. Verses and choruses are not defined by their length.
I’m confused by his definition of social message songs, because he uses “I Will Survive” as an example of one (117). If for some reason anyone doesn’t know, this is about the aftermath of a bad relationship. Putting it on the same level as songs like “Society’s Child,” “Alice’s Restaurant,” “They Paved Paradise,” and “Black and White” completely insults the messages of the other songs, which are about race relations, the draft, and preservation of nature. He also thinks it’s a good idea to refer to the social message song as “the antipatriotic song.” (119) I’m so sorry, Stephen, I’ll stop destroying America with my outlandish demands for equal rights and trees.
Finally we get to his chapter on rhyme. I really don’t understand how this guy is a writer. “Songs feel “righter” when the lyricist uses rhyme.” (129) I don’t care if you put quotation marks around it, using a made-up word in a nonfiction book makes you look dumb. Anyways, this chapter really irritated me. He does not understand that the term “perfect rhyme” does not make it the only type of rhyme you can use and constantly complains about people using other types, which he calls “false,” “trite,” and “second-rate.”(132, 134) Actually, technical terms for other types of rhymes are family rhymes(families are plosives, fricatives, and nasals), additive rhymes, subtractive rhymes, and assonance rhymes.* He also does not like using homophones as rhymes (132), though later he gives lots of examples of rhyming words to themselves with no criticisms (139-40). He seems to have a low opinion songwriting as he writes “We have come far beyond the stage where lyrics could be used as a display of the creator’s cleverness.” (132) Going back to his insistence on perfect rhymes, he seems to think that mine/line and time/crime are not perfect rhymes. (134) Unless he pronounces things really weirdly, they are. He also says that rhyming “love” with “of” is “stretching it.” (142) He says that you can write songs that don’t rhyme, but not before you’ve written songs that do because otherwise everyone will think you just don’t know how they work and won’t respect you. (138) I don’t know about you, but if a non-rhyming song is good, I don’t think “ha! amateur songwriter doesn’t know how to rhyme!” Near the end of this chapter, we get to the reason why it’s dumb to limit oneself to perfect rhymes – Citron has provided us with a list of words that “will not rhyme.” (143-144) All of them could easily find a match in other types of rhymes.
The last chapter in this section, Word Usage, pretty much tells you what similes and metaphors and the like are, so I’m going to skip that and provide you with and example of Mr. Citron’s own writing, found on page 141:
I should have told you yesterday
But I was just too ashamed to say
That in a while I’m goin’ away
I know that this is bound to upset you
But it’s the kind of place that’s so hard to get to
And I wouldn’t want you visitin’ even if they’d let you
Punch me in the belly the way we do in play,
But this time make it real.
Give me some pain that I can take away,
A wound that never will heal.
God knows, that inside of me I’m battered and torn
But I never let it show through.
I’ve been shattered and festering since I was born
But none of my scars came from you.
I guess nothing worked out as I planned,
And maybe you’re too young to understand,
But now you’ll have to do the best you can.
The next time I see you__________
All I can say is that if a punch from that kid never heals, I’m calling cyborg.
-67 minutes left.
Citron, Stephen. Songwriting: A Complete Guide to the Craft. New York: Proscenium Publishers Inc., 1985. Print.
*Rhyme information gotten from:
Pattison, Pat. Writing Better Lyrics. Cincinnati, OH: Writers Digest Books, 1995. 25-29. Print.