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Face the Music
by Paul Landkamer
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So, you want to be a song-writer, eh? I'm not one, but have written lots of neat phrases that I thought could turn into songs one day. Nothing's come of that. I have, however, read a bit on song-writing. I love listening to music and sharing what what I've found. I may not know how to write complete songs, but I have developed some opinions on the art.

Quite often, while working on or showing my other artwork (chainmail, calligraphy, wood-carving, cooking and so on), people have said, "Wow, that's beautiful! I could never do that!" Then they seem puzzled when I smile back at them and say, "Nope, you couldn't." Of course, I follow the shocked pause that almost always comes after my reply with a short lecture on the attitude of an artist. No, you probably can't do something if you start off saying "I can't"! You're defeated from the start. "That looks neat! I oughtta try that," is a much better way to begin.

Why do you want to begin at all? Do you want to be a famous writer, or a rock star? If that's your goal for writing, I'd tell you that's the wrong approach. Do you already like song-writing just because you enjoy it? That's a far better way to begin. As with any art, do it because it brings you enjoyment, not for what you anticipate others will think about it, or to make money. That's the case with lots of my cooking. I like it, but it's a rare few others who also like it. If you go at your art thinking about the fame and admiration, the art will be your audience's art, not yours. Anyone can give an audience what they want. Only you can give an audience "you", and that's what "your" art should be –a glimpse into you. If an audience can relate to your art, great! If not, it's still art, as you like it.

Don't jump on the bandwagon. When you're listening to a song and think, "Oh, that's beautiful!" Don't try to re-create the same thing. Christian music already has too much of a copycat image in the mainstream. You don't need to further that image. I once got a dog from the Humane Society that was going to be put to sleep for the reason of "Too Many of This Kind". Although the message is always valid, I think way too much Christian music could be euthanized because there's too much of that kind. No offense is intended to these artists, but there are too many Mercy Me, Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, Nicole C. Mullin and Crystal Lewis knock-offs out there. It's almost like the little yellow smiley faces or the WWJD bracelets, stickers and so on. They were novel and eye-catching when they first came out, but so many said, "I can do that" and the frequency of appearance made stuff like that too ordinary. It became almost meaningless. Don't let your music be simply ordinary. Like my daughter says, and I don't know her source, "Don't take the advice of anyone who says, "Think outside the box."" Don't use a cliché in an attempt at originality. Every true work of art is an original.

I write reviews when I can. I feel a calling to share my findings in Christian music. I know there's way more stuff out there than what the adult contemporary radio stations play for soccer-moms. Soccer-mom music, or easy-listening, seems to be the predominant stereotype when one starts to describe "Christian music". The audience for non-soccer-mom Christian music is almost too varied to cater to one style. I'd like to see eclectic Christian music radio stations that play everything BUT soccer-mom music. We've all got opinions. If you don't like mine, you can feel free to click to another website. All opinions are valid, yet subject to change, hence, an opinion isn't necessarily a fact. Opinions are somewhat like theories –like that of evolution which has so many holes poked in it that it shouldn't still be taught in schools, but that, too, is an opinion. But this isn't a science topic, so I'll not go there. Try to apply my opinions, or make adaptations so you can use them, as I go on to tell you what I look for in music when I review it.

Before you submit something for a formal review, have a critical sibling or friend look at your work. Don't accept, "That's dumb," or "It sucks," because, aside from bordering on cussing, it doesn't tell you anything. Ask them to be more specific. WHY do they call it dumb? If they like it, likewise, don't let 'em get away that cheaply. Ask your reviewer why they like it. You might get, "Your lyrics grabbed my attention. I felt like I was holding your hand all the way through your trial, but the melody was too familiar –was that "The ABC song" or "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" or "Baa Baa Black Sheep"?"

I've reviewed a fair amount of music I didn't really like. I always tried to be tactful. Often, I might be reviewing a style I don't like. Still, one can recognize quality in something one doesn't like. I might not be in a certain target audience, but that doesn't necessarily make the music bad. Sometimes the music can sound amateurish. Don't release your music for public critique if it does. It'll hurt your feelings, and also tax your reviewer's ability with a thesaurus to stay tactful. At other times I might disagree with the theology in a song. One band asked I not publish a review because I couldn't review the CD without telling would-be listeners of the extremely heavy Roman Catholic flavor of the message. Another band asked that I not publish a review until they could send me the new CD they were working on. It was quite an improvement. They apparently knew they could do better. I like to offer artists a chance to defend or improve before I publish a review that isn't as positive as I'd like. If you don't like your work, or if something doesn't sit well for you, don't submit it for review.

For your own protection, when you feel you're ready to go public, mail a copy of your work to yourself and store it away unopened until such a time possible copyright infringement should arise. The seal and postmark can (note: "can" not "will") serve to date your work. Of course, the most secure protection is registering your work with the copyright office.

As said earlier, avoid predictability, but not so much that it sacrifices a sing-along quality. Most of us like to hum to, sing with, or otherwise follow a song when listening. Some predictability is a must if you're trying to write music for congregational singing. We still like to avoid cliché or corny songs –or Iowa music, as I like to call it –get it: Iowa, corny? OK, that's bad. Unless you're trying to be silly, don't do what I just did in your songs. Perfect rhymes are OK in beginning-reading books. In music, however, they can be too predictable as "love and above" songs, like a friend put it.

Pray, way, say, and day are perfect rhymes.
They're used in poetry too many times.
They're among a multitude of poetic crimes.
And here's an additional phrase that ends with chimes.

Don't do it unless you're trying to sound silly, because it does. The last phrase in the above poem didn't fit in with the message of the poem. Unless you're doing freestyle rap and you're under a severe time crunch, don't just throw in a word because it fits the rhythm and rhyme. There are other appropriate times to rhyme for fun, like to irritate a boss while taking a boat trip to Guilder, but that's another story altogether. Be original, but just enough so your work stays interesting.

I get lots of ideas, but never really enough for a whole song. Carry a notebook or a voice-activated recorder. Get your thoughts recorded so you can come back to 'em later and maybe expand on them. I've got lots of notebooks full of partial articles, poetry, ideas and so on. Many times I'll take bits and pieces of several scattered, but documented thoughts, and assemble them into a, hopefully, coherent bit of writing, to express a complete thought. If the whole song comes to mind at one time, and not in pieces, you're among a rare few. Write the bits as they come.

One time, a really neat melodic hook came to mind. It went like this: BUM BUM BUM bumbly bumbly BUMBLY bitty BUM, bitty BUM and so forth. There were guitars and drums and stuff –and a baritone sax. It was so cool. Did you like it? That didn't make a whole lot of sense, did it? Learn to read music before you try to write it. The same goes for learning how to read words before you try to write them. The poetry is only a small part of a song.

Bumbly bumbly bumbly… aren't good lyrics unless you're scatting like Popeye (Skiddley eye-de-o, it's off to Java Junction I go). Be clear if you're singing. I'd much rather listen to a crisp clear voice that's slightly off key than to one that's slurred, mumbling, or trying to sound overly emotional by being too breathy. There are, of course, exceptions, but not too many. If I have to read along more than once or twice to get the words, the lyrics are probably too muddled. "I love You, my God" is NOT pronounced "Hi love hugh my ngod." And don't make a grammatical massacre of standard English. And don't use the excuse, "But dat's de way we talks down in da hood, "specially if dat's not de way you talks. I ain't juss dissin' dialects. If ya ax me, it just be lazy. It's not a racial thing. There are musicians of all races that do it. And on the urban music topic, another big nasty turn-off, at least as far as I'm concerned, is an angry, in-your-face attitude. Another biggie is cussing. There's no excuse for it. Music quality isn't all that casts a fairly big first impression. An overall genre might likely punch out prejudiced thoughts.

My musical turn-offs include most teen-extreme genres. If the vocals are mostly sneered or screamed, I probably won't like it. If the music physically hurts, I probably won't like it. If the genre ends in "core" it's likely past my noise threshold. On the other end of the hardness spectrum, there's the sticky-sweet, often breathy and slurred, bunnies, puppies, kitties and fluttering butterflies music where the musicians all have their perfect toothy smiles and bright eyes glittering through star filters. That'll probably make me turn off the music faster than teen-extremes. The sticky-sweets sometimes use rock instruments, but dulled down so it's no longer rock, and likely not even pop.

Black and southern gospel are usually out of my listening range. Black gospel can be good if it's upbeat, and not dominated by some overly melismatic (warbling) female vocalist. On the edges of black gospel are some really good rappers and R&B artists, if they're not singing of the plight of their minority. For me, racism songs only scratch open wounds that should have healed long ago. If it was just a racial thing, I'd like southern gospel. Southern gospel too often features sleepy-time waltzes and whiney steel guitars. The lyrics tend toward strongly perfect-rhyme-laced corny stuff. Then there are the genres on the edge of southern gospel that I like, such as southern/country/blues rock and bluegrass.

I've never claimed to like disco. These days (later first-decade 2000s), it's called "dance pop," but it's still disco to me. Dance pop includes lots of tweener music, or Disney pop. There's good stuff there, too, but it often has a TV-producer-manufactured sound, like lots of young girl-groups and boy-bands.

On re-reading this, it sounds like there's very little that'll get a solid positive review from me. That's not really true.

Most rock and rock-related genres fall in my recreational-listening range. Lots of rap, R&B, bluegrass, Celtic, jazz and world music enjoys high ratings. Many eclectic, acoustic, artsy and classical artists are also among my favorites. There's even some punk, hardcore and other teen-extremes in there as well as a smattering of black and southern gospel.

If you can put out decent quality music that transcends the stereotype of Christian music, you stand a fair chance of getting a decent review. So go ahead and get writing! Don't forget: If you like your music, it really doesn't matter what others think. After all, God said, "make a joyful noise," not "make ear-candy for the critics."

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