Lady Gaga and Madonna: are they trying to tell us something in their song lyrics?

Recently I’ve been keeping a close eye on the phenomenal progress of the lovely Lady Gaga through the music charts as well as pretty much every other commercial/entertainment avenue. I marvel at her ability to charm millions not only with her, er, shall we say extravagant taste in dress/undress, but also her musical compositions. However, what exactly do her lyrics contribute to our current culture? And what difference did (and still do) the song lyrics of her cultural predecessor, Madonna, make to us over the last three decades or so?

Madonna and Lady Gaga compared?

Whether their management companies, publicists and other hangers-on agree, to an analytical old goat like me these two performers have quite a lot in common. Both come from USA-based Italian origins. Both are very talented musicians and songwriters. Both are unbelievably good performers. Both are incredibly good publicists. Both are amazingly good at re-inventing themselves every 10 minutes. And all this, despite a nearly 30-year age gap.

But as for hoping that the lyrics written by Lady Gaga may show some cultural moves forward beyond those written/co-written by Madonna up to 30 years earlier, I have to say I’m disappointed. Much as these two women express their individuality in their costumes, set designs and performances, such expressions are visual only. When it comes to their music and lyrics, it’s pop pulp every time. Or is it? Could we be missing something here?

Is there a personality in there?

Let’s face it; lyrics such as the following (excerpts only) do not immediately bring to mind anything other than a few words that conveniently rhyme and give the performers mouths something to do while they’re making their noises:

When you walked out my door

I knew you’d be back for more

Let’s leave the past behind

True love is so hard to find

(from “Stay” by Madonna and Steve Bray)

You know that I want you

And you know that I need you

(‘Cause I’m a freak bitch, baby!)

I want it bad

Your bad romance

(from “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga)

Then, we get the phonetics which really stretch that credibility gap if you’re looking for meaning of any kind:

Shoo bee doo bee doo ooh la la, come to me baby

Shoo bee doo bee doo ooh la la, don’t say maybe

Shoo bee doo bee doo ooh la la, come to me baby

Shoo bee doo bee doo ooh la la

(from, surprisingly, “Shoo-bee-doo” by Madonna)

Oh-oh-oh-oh-oooh!

Oh-oh-oh-oooh-oh-oh-oh!

Caught in a bad romance

Oh-oh-oh-oh-oooh!

Oh-oh-oh-oooh-oh-oh-oh!

Caught in a bad romance

Rah rah ah-ah-ah!

Ro mah ro-mah-mah

Gaga Ooh-la-la!

Want your bad romance

(from “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga)

I don’t want to be patronizing and I realize I have been by pulling out the examples above, which are not just put across by Madonna and Lady Gaga but are representative of much popular music going right back to songs like the intriguingly named “Jada, jada, jing, jing, jing,” written by Bob Carleton back in 1918. And I’d probably find more going back further in history.

There’s nothing new about “shooby-dooby-doo.” (Funny, that sounds like a good title for a song…) Similarly nonsensical lyrics have been sung by various very distinguished and talented artistes including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Dame Cleo Laine and many more … written by some very famous composers, too. It could be argued that lyrics like these are not garbage, but phonetics that permit the human voice to be used as a musical instrument. Yeah, well, maybe.

So can we find a glimmer of the real Madonna and Lady Gaga – somewhere?

Yes, I believe we can. Let’s start with Madonna. In this excerpt from “Over And Over” written by her and Steve Bray, we begin to see signs of her driving energy and ambition … hints of hyperactivity, and the possible reactions to it from someone close to her:

Hurry up, I just can’t wait

I gotta do it now I can’t be late

I know I’m not afraid I gotta get out the door

If I don’t do it now I won’t get any more

You try to criticize my drive

If I lose I don’t feel paralyzed

It’s not the game it’s how you play

And if I fall I get up again now

Lady Gaga, too, shows something of her own character here in this caring and socially conscious excerpt from “Born This Way:”

Don’t be a drag, just be a queen

Whether you’re broke or evergreen

You’re black, white, beige, Chola descent

You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient

Whether life’s disabilities

Left you outcast, bullied or teased

Rejoice and love yourself today

‘Cause baby you were born this way.

Obviously I’m aware that the very nature of pop music – of which Madonna and Lady Gaga are Queen and Princess respectively in my view – means that lyrics must never get beyond the fringes of intellectualism or they’ll scare off the fans who don’t want to think; they just want to boogie.

However, perhaps we can look forward to the day when both Madonna and Lady Gaga are older and have moved on into more intimate musical genres, where both would be free to write lyrics that give us a good look at the fascinating personalities both of them are hiding behind the glitzy costumes and expensive stagecraft.

What do you think?

Now – tell people what you  mean:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

Photo of Madonna gratefully borrowed from EOnline

Photo of Lady Gaga gratefully borrowed from her own website

Why English is the first language of music

You may laugh about romantic song lyrics that sing about “the moon in June,” but as far as I can see English is probably the language most suited of all to songwriting. Here’s why…

Here in Europe, every year we celebrate the vast TV extravaganza that everyone loves to hate – the Eurovision Song Contest.  This contest to find the “best” European pop song has been going for more than 50 years now and gets bigger every year. Especially since the dispersal of the USSR, the contest has welcomed a whole raft of new faces. However eligibility for the song contest is about geographical location, not the dictats pf the European Union, and in a typical year more than 43 countries take part.

So this is no small reality show. According to Wikipedia annual Eurovision audiences run anywhere from 100 million to 600 million, in countries as far away as south-east Asia and South America.  Although many winners disappear into oblivion, it’s worth noting that such classic acts as ABBA, Dana and Bucks Fizz started at Eurovision.

Needless to say politics have crawled out from the woodwork and some of the pan-European voting trends have been accused of being partisan – never mind the music, you’ve got to vote for your neighbors if you don’t want them to cross your border to dump their garbage.

In 2011, the winners were from Azerbaijan. And their main choice of language for their lyrics? English.

So songs in many languages, then?

No. I would say well over half, if not three-quarters of the Eurovision songs are performed in total or in part in English. A few throw in a couple of lines in French, as that is the second language used for commentating and voting returns. But English reigns supreme.

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If you’re interested in music and poetry, check out these other articles and tutorials here on HTWB
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Quite apart from English being the third most widely spoken native language in the world, it also has some very handy features that make it a joy to use in writing music. When you listen to some of the Eurovision entries that are sung in, say, Spanish or the language of one of the eastern European countries, you can almost visualize the musical composer writing in lots of eighth and sixteenth (very short) notes just to keep up with the staccato words and uncomfortable grammar.

What’s so special about English?

By comparison with many other languages, for songwriting English is a breeze. Lots of opportunities for rhyming lyrics, nice short words that mean a lot so you can relax the musical pace (or not) as you please, pronunciation that doesn’t require you to contort your mouth and tongue so your face looks like a tumble dryer at work, plus plenty of words ending in convenient vowel sounds that are easily “singable,” as Jacqui Dankworth described it when I interviewed her for my series on lyrics and songwriting.

I would say we who write (music, poetry and everything else) in English are very lucky to use a language that is so flexible and obliging. Do you agree?

NB: if you want to read more about writing song lyrics, check out my masterclass series here on HowToWriteBetter.net…
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Now, let’s make your writing sing:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

Lyrics and music: songwriting masterclass part #3, advice

Having looked at what can inspire their lyrics and music and also how they take that inspiration forward into a finished song, our three experts in this final part of the masterclass series share their advice for people who need tips and encouragement for their own songwriting.

My grateful thanks to our three masterclass experts who have so kindly contributed to this series of articles: jazz vocalist Jacqui Dankworth, pianist/vocalist Charlie Wood, and South Sea Company vocalist/bassist James Miles.

So – what are the key points?

James Miles: “you’re free to write whatever you want”

“The most important thing to bear in mind is that you are free to write whatever you want. If you write about an issue and you want to really open up and start spilling your emotions, then feel free to do so. Equally if you just want to write funny lyrics or aren’t particularly interested in writing serious lyrics, then you should feel free to do so. Never feel constrained by anyone or anything, when it comes to writing,” says James.

“It is quite likely that to begin with, it won’t be as easy as some might think, but the trick is to persevere, and over time you will find that certain styles and topics will suit you more than others. To begin with, I found myself getting quite frustrated, because I couldn’t express myself in the way that I wanted to, and I couldn’t stop myself from using clichés. But nowadays I write a lot more comfortably, having learnt a few lessons along the way.”

Charlie Wood: “keep it simple”

I know some good guidelines for writing:

Don’t explain; describe

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid)

Embrace randomness

Let your thoughts wander

Don’t allow your rational mind to limit your imagination

Let go of the steering wheel

Writing should be easy

Let the song decide

Jacqui Dankworth: “leave some elements open-ended”

“I agree with Charlie – keep it simple. Don’t feel you have to be too clever, especially as simplicity can be very, very effective. Work out what it is you’re trying to say, and don’t worry too much about messing around with words – they don’t necessarily need to be perfect in order to tell your story well,” says Jacqui.

“In fact I find it’s often effective to leave some elements open-ended, so your audience can place their own interpretation on your lyric. That brings them closer to your song, and to your performance; it makes them feel more deeply involved so they’re experiencing it on more than one level.”

“Finally, listen to the great writers’ music – to what they do, what you like about them, and gain inspiration from other people’s music that you’re really passionate about.”

 

Once again, my grateful thanks to our three masterclass experts who have so kindly contributed to this series of articles: jazz vocalist Jacqui Dankworth, pianist/vocalist Charlie Wood, and South Sea Company vocalist/bassist James Miles.

If you have any questions about songwriting, please leave them here as comments so when I next run some posts on the subject, I can be guided by what you want to know.

Until our next masterclass series!

This article is one of a series of three. Links are as follows:

Part one: inspiration

Part two: techniques

Part three: advice

Want to set your writing to music?

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

 

Photograph of James Miles – many thanks to Kristell Gathoye

Lyrics and music: songwriting masterclass part #2, techniques

In Part #1 we focused on how our interviewees find inspiration for their lyrics and music. Now that we have the inspiration, though the next requirement is that we, literally, “set it to music.”

My grateful thanks to our three masterclass experts who have so kindly contributed to this series of articles: jazz vocalist Jacqui Dankworth, pianist/vocalist Charlie Wood, and South Sea Company vocalist/bassist James Miles.

So what are key points to consider when taking a song onwards from the initial inspiration?

James Miles: “I begin with chord patterns”

“Most of the time, I begin with chord patterns and as I start to fuse these patterns together, I can usually start listening out for melodies (instrumental or vocal) which would suit the characteristics of the chords. The reason I usually start with chord patterns is because I tend to find that these lay the foundations for most songs, and if your foundations are sound, then it’s just a case of adding little ingredients as you go along,” says James.

“I have a great fondness for a lot of instrumental music, and I would say that at times that music can convey a lot more than words. We can interpret instrumentation in a million ways as it is not a rigorous language, and it is more often the case that it is a melody that ends up stuck in one’s head as opposed to anything else.”

Charlie Wood: “never try to force a lyric into an uncomfortable melody”

“I like to keep my mind pretty open and flexible when writing, so I’d say the best thing for me is not to impose any limits or preconceptions on myself. However, the songs I like best all display an awareness of the rhythm of spoken language and have a ring of truth about them,” says Charlie.

“I would never try to force a lyric into an uncomfortable melody (I’d change the melody first) and I’d try to be as truthful as possible – not necessarily honest, self-confessional, etc. (although that’s fine), but truthful about the human condition as I see it and about the behavior of human beings towards one another. A songwriter, like any writer, has to be a great many different characters and sympathize with all of them.”

Jacqui Dankworth: “the melody and the lyric should complement each other”

“I find a very good way to write songs is to work with other people, because this can lead to some very interesting and far-reaching ideas and combinations of melody and lyric. It doesn’t always work out, of course, and the only way you can find out if you can work well with someone else is to try it and see,” says Jacqui.

“As I mentioned before, I’m coming at the whole songwriting issue as a performer first and foremost, so as you can imagine when I’m writing a song – whether on my own or with someone else – I am most concerned that the music has to “sing” right. Also, I believe that the melody and the lyric should complement each other, although you can achieve some quite interesting effects by, say, writing a happy, upbeat melody and combine it with rather dark words.”

And the Big Question: should lyrics rhyme?

Jacqui Dankworth: “If, like me and many other jazz musicians, you follow what’s recommended in the Great American Songbook, then lyrics must rhyme. And that’s really hard to achieve without it all seeming gratuitous! However I have to admit that some of my best compositions don’t actually rhyme…”

Charlie Wood: “It isn’t important that lyrics rhyme, but they’re inherently poetic (even when unintentionally so). I think writers ignore the poetic or symbolic content of their work at their own peril.”

James Miles: “I think that this can sometimes be a way of making a chorus slightly catchier, or a verse fit well, but at the end of the day, it’s not worth sacrificing any significant meaning for.”

Phew, that’s a relief then. No more “moon in June…”

In Part #3 we’ll share our experts’ advice on how beginners can improve their approach to writing lyrics and music.

This article is one of a series of three. Links are as follows:

Part one: inspiration

Part two: techniques

Part three: advice

Now, set your  writing to music:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

 

Photograph of James Miles – many thanks to Kristell Gathoye

Lyrics and music: songwriting masterclass part #1, inspiration

Much as I studied music to “A” level and sang in a hand-knitted muesli, finger-in-the-ear all acoustic folk band in my youth, I can’t claim to be much of a songwriter. Most of the songs I wrote were either pseudo-classical orchestral scores or boring dirges in a minor key describing someone’s messy suicide – not exactly what you’d call chart-toppers.

But as songwriting is a very popular and very important element of “creative writing” in its broadest sense, I asked three supremely talented musicians to share their views on how they go about it. Here in Part #1, we’ll look at how they get inspiration for their own music and lyrics. In Part #2 we’ll share their views on the more in-depth, technical aspects of writing lyrics and music, and in Part #3 we’ll share the advice they’ve given for all you aspiring songwriters to create meaningful lyrics and music of your own.

First up is the one and only Jacqui Dankworth, jazz vocalist extraordinaire whose talent has been described by UK chat-show supremo Paul O’Grady as “the most magnificent voice.” She is the daughter of Dame Cleo Laine and the late, great Sir John (Johnnie) Dankworth, so jazz and amazing talent obviously run in the family.

“Primarily I’m a performer first, songwriter second,” says Jacqui. “What this means is that I approach composing music with quite a useful advantage, because I know straight away what will work for the vocalist and what won’t.”

Jacqui Dankworth: “in the main my first inspiration will come for a lyric”

“There’s no cut and dried answer to that, but in the main I’d say my first inspiration will come for a lyric. It might be an article in a newspaper or a chapter in a book, or it might be something someone says casually … anything like that can trigger an idea for a song,” she continues.

“Having studied drama at the Guildhall and worked as an actor as well as singing, I love stories and many of my own compositions tell a tale. Some are autobiographical, some are about characters and plots that I create. Story-telling is really back in fashion now – and of course, melody never goes out of fashion.”

With Memphis-born piano/vocalist Charlie Wood, about whom Jazz Times has said Remember the first time you heard Dylan, or Springsteen, or Costello, or Waits? Charlie Wood delivers that same jolt” (and as of recently, Jacqui Dankworth’s husband – congratulations!) inspiration for a song comes with a more even balance of lyric and melody.

Charlie Wood: “the easiest ones to write usually end up being the best”

“My songs are typically built on an idea I have for a sung line; i.e., a lyric and melody already combined.  This is usually pretty brief and needs a lot of elaboration, but it gets things rolling.  As the song progresses, there is usually a process of adapting new lyrics to an existing bit of melody (or vice-versa), but the easiest ones to write usually end up being the best,” says Charlie.

“I try to get as close as possible to expressing whatever feeling or idea it was that initially inspired me to write the song. More than any particular element, I think a sense of wholeness or cohesiveness is a priority for me.  I think songwriting is like cooking in the sense that intention, inspiration, technique, etc. matter considerably less than the quality of the end result.  I try to bake a cake I’d enjoy eating.”

Whereas Jacqui and Charlie are focused on (and famous for) jazz, blues, and more traditional forms of soul and popular music, James Miles – vocalist/bassist/composer of the young, up-and-coming indie band South Sea Company – finds he starts with instrumentation first, as is common with many rock and pop musicians.

James Miles: “people can tell if someone has written lyrics from the heart”

“There is nothing worse than hearing a song on the radio, and knowing that the lyrics have been shoehorned into rhymes and rhythms. This was something I was initially guilty of myself, but eventually came to realise that what was more important was the integrity and validity of the lyrics in their own right. Regardless of whether it’s a story being told or a statement of beliefs or whatever subject, most people can tell if someone has written lyrics from the heart,” says James.

“I do find myself returning to certain subjects more frequently than others. These are probably the things that I feel most strongly about or have affected me in the greatest way. When it comes to writing songs in general though, it’s usually the influence of other artists I listen to. If I hear a really beautiful or clever piece of music, I feel a sense of competition stirring within me, and this leads me to try and write something just as beautiful or clever.”

My grateful thanks to our three masterclass experts who have so kindly contributed to this series of articles: jazz vocalist Jacqui Dankworth, pianist/vocalist Charlie Wood, and South Sea Company vocalist/bassist James Miles.

In Part #2 we go into the deeper and more technical elements of writing lyrics and music.

This article is one of a series of three. Links are as follows:

Part one: inspiration

Part two: techniques

Part three: advice

Do you want to set your writing to music?

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

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