Tips for Writing Songs About Anything…But Love
At my BMI Nashville Songwriters’ Workshops, I screen and critique songs from each attendee. When I find songs that I believe are competitive with those being written by today’s top hitmakers, I forward them to ten music publishers who have agreed to listen. After the last BMI Workshop, I forwarded two songs to the publishers. One of the publishers replied that although it was a good song that deserved to be cut, they had hundreds of love songs already and didn’t need another.
It reminded me of a comment made by a well-regarded publisher at a songwriting conference where he and I were both teaching several years ago. When asked what a writer might do to maximize his or her chances of getting a song published (and ultimately recorded) the publisher replied, “Bring me up-tempo songs with depth; songs that really say something.” He added, “And if those songs are not about love, you’ll have an even better shot.”
A look at the music charts reveals that songs about romantic love are a staple in many genres At any given time, it is likely that there are current popular songs about looking for love; the joy of being in love; the heartbreak of unrequited love; wishing and hoping for love; cheating on – or being cheated on by a lover; the pain when a relationship ends; wanting to get back together with an ex; wishing a relationship were better, and other aspects of love.
With love songs being so popular, why would publishers want songs with lyrics about topics other than love? The answer is supply and demand. The overwhelming majority of songs I critique in my workshops are love songs. A song that addresses a different topic jumps out of the pile. While it’s likely there will be fewer slots on an artist’s project for songs that are not about love, there will also be far fewer non-love songs pitched.
So, let’s take a look at some of the topics – other than love – that have spawned hit songs.
Patriotic songs include those that sing the praises of the writer’s homeland, as well as songs that salute the military. They might address the beauty of the country, the values it stands for, references to the flag, the attributes of a country’s people, as well as subjects such as having love and pride for one’s country. There couldn’t be a more perfect example of a song that stirs feelings of pride in America than Lee Greenwood’s anthem “God Bless the U.S.A.” (written and performed by Greenwood). Greenwood’s signature song has been a hit twice and has been covered by artists including Dolly Parton and Beyoncé.
Patriotic songs are played at sporting events, Veteran’s Day and 4th of July celebrations, and political rallies; they also galvanize audiences and boost morale during times of national tragedy. Additional examples of successful patriotic songs include “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)” (written and performed by Toby Keith) and Aaron Tippin’s “You’ve Got to Stand for Something” (written by Tippin and Buddy Brock).
Songs About Money
The popularity of songs about money is evidenced by the fact that thousands of songs with “Money” in the title can be found in the BMI catalog. As an aspiring songwriter in the 1980s, I sat in awe when I took a class with Janie Bradford, who with Berry Gordy Jr., wrote “Money (That’s What I Want),” which was Motown’s first hit. I wondered how much money “Money” had earned, and imagined how it would feel to have one of my songs recorded by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Etta James, Ronnie Milsap, Boyz II Men, Waylon Jennings, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Ike and Tina Turner, and others who had all recorded that ode to cash.
Many songs address the allure of money—and the luxury items it can buy. Among the most successful of these are Cardi B’s “Money” (written by Cardi B, Jorden Kyle Lanier Thorpe, and Anthony Germaine White). But songs about money can also address the lack of money, such as “In the Ghetto” (written by Mac Davis and recorded by Elvis Presley, as well as by a diverse list of artists including Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, the Cranberries, and Marilyn Manson). Another classic song about not having money is Loretta Lynn’s self-written, autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which has been covered by artists including Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow. Fred Ebb and John Kander wrote “Money Makes the World Go Around” for the Academy Award-winning film version of the Broadway show Cabaret, and from the long list of successful songs about money, it certainly seems that its on almost everybody’s mind – and playlist.
Songs About Having Fun and Partying
Everybody likes to have fun, which likely accounts for why there have been so many hit songs that address that topic. Songs in this category might include references to going to a club or a party, being with friends, or in the case of “Down On the Farm” (Written by Jerry Laseter and Kerry Kurt Phillips, recorded by Tim McGraw), the things kids do to have fun at a party at a farm in the country.
Strong examples of songs about having fun include Katy Perry’s tale of a night on the town, “Last Friday Night” (written by Bonnie McKee, Lukas Gottwald, Katy Perry, and Martin Sandberg), “I Gotta Feeling” (recorded by The Black Eyed Peas and written by William Adams, Stacy Ferguson, Jaime Gomez, Pierre David Guetta, Allan Apll Pineda, and Frederic Jean Riesterer), and “Party In the USA” (written by Jessica Cornish, Lukas Gottwald, and Claude Kelly, and recorded by Miley Cyrus).
Songs That Accompany a Dance
In the sixties, “The Twist” (written by Henry Ballard and recorded by Chubby Checker) and “Mashed Potato Time” (written by Robert Bateman, Georgia Dobbins, William Garrett, Freddie Gorman, Brian Holland, and Kal Mann, and recorded by Dee Dee Sharp) were among the hit songs that sent millions of teens to the dance floor. During disco’s heyday “The Hustle” (written by Van McCoy and recorded by Van McCoy and the Soul City Orchestra) served the same function and topped Billboard’s Hot 100 and Hot Soul Singles charts with a lyric that consisted solely of telling the listeners to do the hustle.
“The Locomotion” (written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King) accomplished the remarkable feat of reaching top 5 on the Billboard pop chart three times – and in three different decades. The song was a #1 in the ‘60s for Little Eva (who had been Carole King’s and Gerry Goffin’s nanny), #1 Grand Funk Railroad in the ‘70s, and #3 for Kylie Minogue in the 80s. In her “One to One” concert video, Carole King shared that “The Locomotion” was written before there was a dance and Little Eva (Eva Boyd) created the dance.
Brooks & Dunn helped spark a country line dance craze with “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” (written by Ronnie Dunn and first recorded by Asleep at the Wheel). More recently we’ve had the international mega-hit, “Macarena” (written by Antonio Romero Monge and Rafael Ruiz Perdigones, recorded by Los Del Rio).
In many cases, the lyrics of a song that accompanies a specific dance includes instructions for that dance, such the “The Hokey Pokey” (written by Tafft Baker, Roland La Prise, and Charles Macak) which directs listeners to put their right foot in, right foot out, shake it all about, etc.
While songs that are created to go with a specific dance are not regularly found on the charts, when they hit, they can be huge hits.
Songs About Dancing
A strong case could be made for “Dancing in the Street” being the quintessential song about dancing. Written by Marvin Gaye, Ivy Jo Hunter, and William Stevenson, Martha & the Vandellas’ version went to #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and the song has been covered by artists including Van Halen, Grateful Dead, the Kinks, the Mamas and the Papas, and was a duet by David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Additional hits about dancing include Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” (written by Richie, Michael Frenchik, Jr., and Carlos Manuel Rios) and Whitney Houston’s smash, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (written by George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam).
The disco era spawned a plethora songs about dancing, including “Turn the Beat Around” (written by Gerald Jackson and Peter Jackson, Jr.). Both Vicki Sue Robinson’s recording and Gloria Estefan’s cover version topped the Billboard Dance chart. Additional #1 songs about dancing include “Dancing Queen” (written by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Stig Anderson) which was Abba’s only single to reach #1 in the U.S., and KC and the Sunshine Band’s disco classic “Shake Your Booty” (written by Harry Wayne Casey and Rick Finch).
As long as people dance, it’s a safe bet there will be songs about dancing.
Songs About Friendship
There have been hit songs about friends and friendship in almost every genre and in every decade. In the 1800s, the Christian hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” was written by Joseph Scriven and Charles Converse. The song has stood the test of time, being recorded by Ike and Tina Turner, Ella Fitzgerald, Brad Paisley, Amy Grant, Glen Campbell, Bing Crosby, Aretha Franklin and Alan Jackson.
One of the most successful songs about friendship is “That’s What Friends Are For” (written by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager and first recorded by Rod Stewart). The version recorded by “Dionne and Friends” (Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder) raised more than three million dollars for AIDS research and prevention and was named the #1 single of 1986.
Kanye’s West’s “Real Friends” (with vocals from Ty Dolla Sign) (written by West with Mike Dean, Adam King Feeney, Noah D. Goldstein, Tyrone William Griffin Jr., Jail Hutchins, Darren King, Dejuan Waliek Muchita, Glenda R Proby, Matthew Jehu Samuels, Lawrence Smith, Rupert Thomas Jr., Cider Charles Young, and Malik Yousef) is one of many rap songs that address friendship. Alternative rock song, “We’re Going to Be Friends” (written by Jack White and recorded by his band the White Stripes), tells the story of meeting someone at the beginning of the school year and predicting they will be friends. Cynthia Fee’s version of “Thank You for Being a Friend” (written and also recorded by Andrew Gold) was the theme song for the television show Golden Girls.
Proving that songs about friendship are still in vogue, in “7 Rings” (written by Grande, Michael David Foster, Charles Anderson, Thomas Brown, Oscar Hammerstein II, Kimberly Krysiuk, Victoria McCants, Taylor Parks, Richard Rodgers, and Njomza Vitia) Ariana Grande sings about going to Tiffany’s and buying rings for her friends. With a melody based on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” (from “The Sound of Music”), the song, described by Grande as a “friendship anthem,” spent eight weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hit 100.
Songs About Feeling Good and Being Happy
Songs about feeling good and being happy have not only produced countless hit recordings, they have been exceptionally successful in advertising, on television shows, and in films.
It has been estimated that Katrina & the Waves’ feel-good hit, “Walking On Sunshine” (written by Kimberly Rew), earned more than a million dollars a year in each of the ten years ending in 2010, making it one of the highest earning songs from advertising. “Feeling Good” (written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for their hit musical The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd) has become a standard, with recordings by artists including Nina Simone, Michael Bublé, Muse, George Michael, Lauryn Hill, Pussycat Dolls, and many more). Music website NME (New Music Express) readers voted “Feeling Good” the best cover single of all time and Avicii’s version of the song was used in a Volvo commercial.
Bobby McFerrin’s self-written smash, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” the first a capella song to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart, was featured in films including WALL-e, Cocktail, Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation. Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling” (written by Tim Bergling, Tramar Dillard, Lukas Gottwald, Bryan Stanley Isaac, Etta James, Pearl W. Johnson, Leroy Kirkland, Arash Pournouri, and Henry Russell Walter) and Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocketful of Sunshine” (written by Bedingfield, Danielle Brisebois, and John Shanks) have also had great success both on the music charts and in media.
Songs About Home
The lyrics to songs about home might be about missing home, the place where the singer was raised, or that the singer is glad he or she got away from home. For some excellent examples, listen to these hits.
“The House That Built Me” (written by Tom Douglas and Alan Shamblin) became Miranda Lambert’s fastest rising #1 single on the Billboard Hot Country chart. “Home” (written by Michael Bublé, Alan Chang, and Amy Foster-Gilles) was a #1 twice—for Blake Shelton on Billboard’s Hot Country chart and for Michael Bublé on the Hot Adult Contemporary chart. The song was also a huge hit in the U.K. for Irish pop group Westlife. With more than 5 million sales, Phillip Phillips’ “Home” (written by Greg David Holden and Drew Pearson) became the bestselling single by any winner of American Idol. It appeared on eight different Billboard charts, topping the magazine’s Adult Contemporary, Adult Alternative, and Adult Top 40 charts. Songs about home regularly find a home on the music charts.
Songs About a Place
From Jay-Z’s valentine to New York City, “Empire State of Mind” featuring Alicia Keys (written by Shawn Carter, Angela Ann Hunte, Bert Keyes, Alicia Keys, Sylvia Robinson, Janet Andrea Sewell, and Alexander William Shuckburgh) to Camila Cabello’s “Havana” (written by Cabello with Louis Russell Bell, Adam King Feeney, Kaan Gunesberk, Brittany Talia Hazzard, Brian D. Lee, Ali Tamponi, Jeffery Lamar Williams, Pharrell Williams, and Andrew Wotman), innumerable songs about a place have been hits.
Ed Sheeran’s love song to “Barcelona” (written by Sheeran with John McDaid, Benjamin Levin, Foy Vance and Amy Wadge) mentions some of the top attractions in that city. Songs about the South, small towns, and the U.S.A. are staples on the country music charts. An exceptional example is “It’s America” (written by Brett James and Angelo Petraglia and recorded by Rodney Atkins).
As I researched and wrote this article, I was surprised at how many successful songs are about topics other than romantic love. In additional to the subjects previously listed, there have been countless hit songs about following your dreams; maintaining a positive outlook; believing in yourself; the “good old days”; songs about social issues; holiday songs; story songs; songs that celebrate a season; songs that offer encouragement or advice; novelty songs; songs with abstract lyrics; and songs about loss.
Regardless of the subject matter, our songs need to resonate with listeners and be capable of stirring their emotions. There are clearly a tremendous number of songs that listeners love – in addition to love songs. I’m certainly not suggesting we stop writing love songs, but if you want to improve your chances of getting a “yes,” it might be a good idea to write songs that address a variety of topics.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His songs are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. He has been a guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music. For information about his workshops, additional articles, instructional audio downloads, and more, visit www.jasonblume.com.
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