What Should You Write Songs About?

Bertolt Brecht. Fingernails not pictured.

It is said that the great director Bertolt Brecht used to apply dirt to the undersides of his fingernails each morning so that he could more deeply empathise with the ‘Great Unwashed’.

What a faker. Despite coming from a deeply middle-class background, he began erasing the circumstances of his birth and embracing a fictional ‘peasant of the theatre’ persona. He wanted to make theatre for the working class, and it wouldn’t do too well for his audience to think he was a posho. Essentially, he disregarded his whole identity in order to make art tailored to a certain demographic.

Luckily, he happened to be a genius, so it pretty much worked out for him. Go figure. So what works for the rest of us non-genii? I mean, we can still write about what we want, right?

Technically, you’re absolutely free to write about any subject you please. This ain’t no Stalinist regime. You’re free to write that 8-minute stream of consciousness about mackerel livers if you fancy it; go ahead and pen a rhyming version of the Magna Carta; sure, write lengthy death metal songs about unspeakable subjects (No joke, I once went on after a band called ‘Vomit Enema’. Their first song was entitled ‘Hilarious Abortion’.)

But lyrics based in truth will always beat lyrics based in fantasy. Lyrics from your own life carry a supreme authenticity, a momentous weight of personal significance: you can extract so many original ideas from your own life because you understand yourself better than anyone. You aren’t just gazing superficially at some other random subject, you’re communicating what is important to you.

This is a crucial part of finding your unique voice as an artist. I’ve heard the same old platitude thrown around for a long time – ‘You’ve got to find the thing about yourself that makes you unique’ – but I didn’t understand the wisdom of it until very recently. The things that make you unique are so ingrained in you that you take them for granted.

It’s like seeing your sibling every day and not noticing them grow taller. You come back ten years later and say ‘Woah, this is you?’ Finding your unique voice is a process of rediscovery: writing authentically, then working out what shape you’ve grown into over the years. It’s a long process, but it’s utterly, utterly worth it. Having someone really connect with a song that came bubbling up from your soulwell, that’s what it’s all about, right?

Thing is, if the audience see dirt under the fingernails of your songs, they’ll sniff it right out. But if you give them your hands as they are – your guilty, dirty, ragged old hands – they’ll fall at your feet.



Filed under Lyrics, Structure

3 responses to “What Should You Write Songs About?

  1. Hello. I loved this post and found it spot on. I’m the world’s only physician bluegrass fiction writer. It might be a narrow genre, but when people read my book no one denies it is true fiction. All I can be is me.

    I play the mandolin. I wish I could play the piano. My parents lined me up with lessons but I kept skipping out to play baseball. Oh well.

    All the best,

    Dr. B

  2. I always say write a song or a poem like a story, but if you can’t figure out what to write, how to write it, etc. just jot down anything or jot down what you feel from within. There are millions of phenomenal writers out there that just write on good point and I always say wow! how do they do it? or how are they singing it with such a great voice? the answer is that: “It has to come from the inside, it’s a gift.”

  3. Songwriter M.

    I just read this and found it really cool.

    I am a songwriter and I know how to express everything that happens in my emotional world and then give it to the audience. (Well, now to my friends, to the audience later. I am not famous.)

    I play the piano and I compose on it. I write me lyrics and that makes me feel kinda wierd, like an oddity to my friends and family, because almost none of them does it. (My uncle did, somewhen) I’ve made myself understand who am I, by writing my songs and that’s because I wrote about my life and my feelings for the world around us.

    You are totally right, writing about yourself makes your songs much better than the ones that you write about fantasy. How you make your song a succesful hit? You write about the REAL thing, the thing that everyone lives and the audience find themselves into it.

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