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Bad Song! The Art of Sucking On Purpose… Part I

Here’s a fun exercise. Write a bad song. On purpose.

Why?

Dull and Humorless Statement of Learning Goals. Carole King said (somewhere) that she had to write about 200 bad songs before she started writing “keepers.” She wasn’t trying to write bad songs. But her experience shows us that even great songwriters build their craft slowly and painfully, by trial and error.

While that’s always true, you can accelerate the process by doing it on purpose!

Pat Pattison compares songwriting to juggling. A great teacher of mine, movement education master Jaimen MacMillan, teaches juggling in an interesting way. He says that when we’re learning to juggle, what we’re most afraid of is dropping the ball. So he has us practice dropping the ball on purpose. We began to recognize those “tensing up” movements we made prior to dropping the ball; our juggling improves quickly through the work of turning the accidental to the intentional.

So with this exercise, we practice intentionally dropping the “songwriting ball.”

Writing a bad song is also a way to cultivate the skills of non-attachment and improvisational flow. My all-time favorite co-writing partner, Lisa Aschmann, wrote a great book on songwriting that is now called 1000 Songwriting Ideas (Hal Leonard). The original title—which I loved—was Dare to Be Stupid. That title expresses the wisdom that brilliant ideas often lie on the other side of ludicrous, awful ideas. To get to those surprising gems, you have to be loose and let things flow.

If looseness and spontaneity is important in solo writing, it is even more important in co-writing. In co-writing, we can be particularly anxious about looking “good” and clever and being on our best songwriting behavior. But being embarrassed about throwing out stupid ideas can hold us back from throwing out those unusual but earth-shakingly good ideas as well. Throwing out bad ideas, and being willing to knock down your own ideas, also signals to your partner that you have your ego in check. It reinforces that going forward, for both of you, it’s going to be about the song, not whose idea it was. Thus, setting out to write a bad song together is one of the best ice-breaker or warm-up exercises I know.

This is why I use “Bad Song!” as an early, time-constrained classroom exercise in my Songwriting Collaboration class at Berklee.  In that context, I’ve discovered another benefit of the exercise.

“Bad” can mean different things to different writers: silly, stupid, awkward. I don’t try to nail this down in advance with my exercise; my instructions simply say: “The song can be a short form (a minute or less), such as a verse and chorus. The song should not be gratuitously obscene or personally highly offensive to other people in the class.” The rest emerges in the encounter with the co-writers.

After writing and presenting the songs—always a hilarious experience!—we spend some time debriefing the experience and the results, with questions like these:

  • What about your song made it bad for you?
  • How similar were your ideas about badness to those of your partner(s)? How quickly did you converge as a team on the particular kind of badness you were going for?
  • How did it feel to critique lines and song ideas in order to make them “sufficiently bad”?

Generally, we’re all trying to write good songs. We have conceptions of  “good” songs and good songwriting, a complementary set of conceptions about “bad” or “improper” songwriting. Included in these categories are implicit ideas about “things we get to write songs about.”

But there are great songs (as well as stupid songs) there to be written about anything.

By letting ourselves write what we define as a “bad” sort of song, we expand the scope of what we can do as songwriters. Almost always, somewhere in that forbidden landscape is some “shadow” aspect of our songwriting—an aspect we tend to reject or deny, but that can help us be better songwriters once we claim and own that territory.

More bad to come. Or, as the fellow says in the joke: “Drums stop, very bad! Now come—bass solo!”

 

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