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  • Writer's picturePat

Rock bands can't write songs anymore

Rock artists in the 21st century just don't seem to take the task of writing a great song as seriously as their contemporaries in other genres do

^ Great.

The Strokes' "The Adults Are Talking" is a great song. It reminded me how long it's been since I heard a new song as good as this by any artist labelled a "rock band".

Obviously this century has its exceptions... the greatest band on earth right now is Alvvays - every song's a hit. Through the sea of sameness have shone such stylistically diverse artists as Royal Headache, QOTSA, The Kaiser Chiefs (only just realised how good these guys were/are?), Wavves... but the general situation, in my view, is lacklustre songwriting is by far the norm.

Alvvays cranking the hits as usual

The best songs I have heard from the 21st century so far have almost always been by pop artists. Taylor Swift, of all people, was my entry point into modern pop, which had previously seemed an impenetrable sheen of deafening robotic plasticness. I heard “Blank Space” in a taxi, and with nothing better to do, I gave it my full attention and found it was a thoughtful song that pinpointed an obscure emotional middle-ground between impulsiveness/listlessness/little to gain vs nothing to lose, and did so well. Also, unlike 99% of modern pop songs, it takes its time: both the verse AND chorus are a slow burn. Previously I’d heard a friend do "You Belong With Me" at karaoke which, even in his weird Dylan-esque delivery, shone as a classic torch song, so I had a feeling she was far above average as a songwriter. These days Taylor Swift's marketing tries to portray her as a 'Great Songwriter' a la Paul Simon or some shit, with her collaborations with the dull as dogshit guy from The National, but to me, her ultra-poppy material from “1989” and “Lover” has the greater songwriting. Overall, beyond the aforementioned exceptions, I haven't heard a rock band put out a song half as good as Charli XCX's "Boom Clap" or Carly Rae Jepsen's "Run Away With Me".

CRJ is much better than any modern rock songwriter. Get over it, Rocky.

(Note that for present purposes I'm basically saying that "good rock songwriting", "good pop songwriting", AND just "good songwriting" are all the same thing. I realise this is inaccurate, but I'm using the classic rock 3 minute single as the yardstick, back when pop WAS rock and vice versa. Any rock bands making no attempt to fit such a mould or continue that general tradition are exempt from this piece of blog roll.)

(Another note - I'm not gonna waste time discussing the tweed jumper crowd who'd suggest that any off-key, aimless Dolewave jangling constitutes "pop", as that's obviously just hipsters parading around in their emperor's new clothes made out of bullshit.)

A pop song's a really hard thing to write. Many musicians I know would turn their nose up at trying, considering it “selling out” etc. Their views may have softened since the Pitchforkerati embraced poptimism, but still they would suggest that the genre nevertheless sucks/pop musicians have no talent/anyone can do it - notwithstanding that they haven’t tried/wouldn’t know. They’d say people only buy it because they're brainwashed by mass marketing - conspiratorial thinking, given that most mass-marketed new artists still fail. Even with collaborators helping them, the success rate for great songs by many of the write-their-own-songs pop artists is extraordinary, and unparalleled by any current rock band, and makes me think rock bands should probably swallow their pride and play more 'outside material' - you know, so that they won't suck so hard. It’s quite a lame excuse to have shit songs to say “At least I made it myself”: you're a songwriter, not a home brewer! Hall & Oates co-wrote many of their best songs outside the band with great results; even Judas Priest accepted a couple of outside songs on their sheer merit as songs and they're a proud metal band - unheard of today.

My first (kinda, not very) poppy song

My first proper band, A Friend Of Mine, had angry, cynical, seriously pissed-off and on-our-high-horse music about how everyone and everything in the world sucks and is corrupted by narrow-minded conformism. But lyrically our songs were diffuse, we frequently didn't have a chorus, and dynamically were more like a long crescendo than having recognisably distinct sections (we'd be 90% heavy in the verse, 100% heavy in the chorus and 110% heavy in the bit after that). The best song I wrote from that era was a song called "Plastic Dinosaurs". My lyrics were normally semi-incoherent screed that aligned with the general mood of the band and didn't stay on one point for long; I was never entirely sure WHAT I was singing about. This song was different - it had a point (one). It occurred to me, much later, that the reason this was my best song so far in my life was because of this. Like the angry stripper from Peep Show said, "If you can't sum up all of your aims in the first line then they're too diffuse". This song was basically saying that the political is personal and vice versa. It was inspired by the frustration I felt working as a doorknocker for an environmental charity, trudging the streets of Melbourne as the blank faces of apathy pulled their doors open and their eyes scrambled to think of reasons to close it again while I gave my cheerful pitch about the imminent collapse of the planet. Our impending doom is optional, and that is simply incredibly weird. That was what the song was about. I had never really nailed the point before, and even now, it’s often harder to do than it was the day I wrote that song.

Not coincidentally, this tighter focus gives "Plastic Dinosaurs" the feel of a pop song. Pop songs are inherently structured, and only make enough time to make a single point. Later, I had a folk rock band and while we had some A+ material we were ultimately trying to do two things at once, and thus were too diffuse. We had our droney, deep, psych-folky side, which was great. But we also had our indie-folk, pop rock, trying-to-be-the-Beatles side, which in retrospect was mediocre (and which I won't provide a link to). This was entirely my fault, as the leader/taker-overer of the band. At the time, the skills needed to write a pop song were still out of my reach; my attempts were most often like a bad imitation of Rubber Soul. After that band finished, I made my next goal to be “nailing the pop song”, which led me to me and Lauren's first band together, Ohms.

Better songwriters than me. Get over it, me.

I started this journey by imitating the methods of the 60s pop writers (at the time I couldn't stomach any pop, post-eighties - hipsterism or good taste, not sure). It seemed that to write pop you should just try out a zillion ideas quickly, rather than sculpting one song for months to get it 'just right'. This method hasn’t gone away, either - Sia recommends the "churn em out" approach. Apparently quasi-producer Andy Warhol asked Lou Reed how many songs he wrote today, and when he replied one, Andy said "Why didn't you write ten?".

It's a good point. Your one song written in ten hours is not really any more likely to be good than ten songs written in one hour each. The songwriting camps that much of modern pop’s hit material is borne of favour the ‘quantity leads to quality' approach.

I decided to live in this numbers game for a while. It coincided with me getting seriously ill (which turned out to be a long-term thing), so with so much time on my hands, I played the numbers game for a long time and wrote at least a couple of songs a week. This is how I amassed the song mountain from which all Farewell Horizontal albums are begat. If you are a songwriter, I recommend this, because it really will be quite a thrill for you to go to bed tonight enjoying a song stuck in your head that literally doesn't exist right now.

Churning them out won't guarantee they're all good, but the bad songs still function as good practice. Over time you just learn more tricks to liven up a dead-sounding idea. You realise that you don't have to sing the same melody four times in a row in each section. You can vary the third one. You can cut the fourth one off and just have three lines. You can throw in a random key change the moment things get boring. You can stop singing about a lost love and start singing about chicken sexing instead. It's up to you. You are the God of this little universe's creation story, and this process of sitting around in your room throwing metaphorical shit at the wall is you saying "Let there be light". It doesn't matter if it sucks, because nobody else ever has to hear it.

^ This guy knows it.

I feel like I have nailed the art of the old-school pop song structure now, and that any shortfall in quality between what I do compared with what, say, The Kinks did is not due to my lack of training, at least. I can write pop songs in the classic rock style.

New pop is different, though. In recent years I have tried to write modern pop, e.g. POPPY pop - not the pop-rock-shaped alternative stuff Farewell Horizontal releases, but the kind of built-for-stadiums, music-for-the-people stuff that Taylor Swift and the Weeknd and co do. I must have tried to write 50-100 such songs. You know how many DON’T suck? None. Not a single one of them is even OKAY, let alone good, let alone great. Being a Determinator, I don't quit, but I seriously wonder if I should. I feel embarrassed - nay, disgusted - to write such shitty music. I don't imagine I'd have so much trouble writing a CLASSICAL SYMPHONY as I do writing a mass-market-perfect pop song. It really is that difficult. Part of it's the "track and topline" method with its inflexibly looping track as opposed to the relatively free-form "guitar and notepad" method. Part of it's that I just don't know how to articulate the feelings of millions; I have made a point of going for the most obscure and unflattering point of view, which I’ve built a style out of and find hard to get away from. (If YOU, reader, are a songwriter looking for collaborations on modern pop songs, please get in touch; see the contact page. I think I could cowrite such a song; it's just not something I can pull off alone.)

I almost have a problem nowadays where my obsession with pop structure has gone too far, and I can't help but conceptualise every new musical idea I have as a pop melody, and shape it like one. This is dangerous: I don’t want to straitjacket my less poppy ideas. Sometimes I go through consciously mind-broadening stages where I avoid melody completely, and focus on texture, beats, ambience and try to see music from other perspectives. I'm currently working on a soundtrack project that throws away the need for an earworm, or even a discernible rhythmic pulse altogether. It's refreshing. You can write a million ways.

But ultimately, I always come back to the pop song as my main inspiration, because when I turn on music for my enjoyment, I usually want it to have strong melodies, with big guitars and drums, and a song structure that doesn’t fuck around. Which makes it difficult to find new artists to listen to, because I’m always at a loss to find new ones who meet this very basic criteria.


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