Setting the Bar
Jewel discusses what she wanted from the songwriters and why the first elimination was the so difficult.
First of all, if you didn't know, I am currently eight months pregnant, so the first thing that hits me as I watch Episodes 1 is. . .I was skinny! Ha! But I am really enjoying being pregnant, so I am content to watch my skinnier self on the show (though I look forward to getting into those cute dresses again).
OK, back to business! In the premiere, we saw the contestants come to terms with the fact that they had to co-write. As I mentioned before, 99 percent of the songs on the radio are co-written. It can be invaluable to co-write because being a good writer means you have to learn and ingest new thoughts and sounds. What better way to do that than to constantly be with other great writers, and learn how they think and do things? Being influenced is a good thing -- you learn from it. Plus, a lot of writers find it nice to have an appointment to write. It's kind of like going to the gym. If you are meeting a friend or a trainer, you tend to show up and do the work a little better than if you are left to your own devices!
It will be interesting if the contestants start to see the value in a co-write as the season goes on -- or if they will see it as a constant source of frustration, because it is not easy to meld your creativity, much less reveal the tender unformed thoughts of an idea, to a stranger. . .
I'd also like to point out, and elaborate for any novices out there, that you are seeing some writers who write with a guitar or piano, and some who are singing their hook challenges a capella.
In songwriting there are basically three types of writers:
2) Top liners. This is someone who writes melody and lyric, but generally not the music or the track (like Sonyae and Amber on the show). There are many successful top liners out there. Our head judge, Kara is a shining example of this.
3) There is a third category of writer that we do not have on the show: track writers. These are people who only write the tracks -- or the bed of music. They write beats only or beats and chord changes, that a top liner, or any writer, can write melody and lyrics on top of. Sometimes they will just deliver a track and leave, other times they will stay and have input into the lyrics and help shape the song further.
Also in Episode 1, we saw something interesting happen. One of the writers felt the pressure when writing the first hook about the city of LA, and he accidentally 'borrowed" his entire melody from Elton John's "Candle In the Wind." This certainly is not a good idea for several reasons. In the setting of this show, I imagine it would make the other writers worry you have no originality and make them reluctant to write with you. Secondly, you cannot just accidently lift someone else's song under any circumstance, especially as a pro!
That being said, I have been in countless sessions where we ask each other, "Did that line sound familiar?" Our job is to write stuff that is so hooky, it sounds like you have heard it before -- and, well, sometimes you have! We rely on each other to keep us on the straight and narrow. While I have never seen an entire song melody get lifted, I have seen snippets of other songs get incorporated. Generally it's an innocent mistake that is usually caught quickly and we all readjust and rewrite as we go, so our final product has no offending lines --most of the time. Sometimes lines get by a writer, the A&R agent, the record producer and the label -- and make it to the record! Sometimes no one raises a red flag ever, and all is well, but it can lead to lawsuits. As a songwriter, you cannot build a hook of a new song around the hook of an existing song. The original writers are then entitled to some portion, if not all of, the sales and royalties of the new song. All of this varies case by case.
There is intentional and purposeful use of other people's material, like in the case of many hip hop and rap songs. They will first ask permission to use another song –- like the bass line from David Bowie's "Under Pressure" for Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" or Eminem using Dido's chorus hook in his song, "Stan." The original writers will get a writers share of the new song.
I don't think it was Nevin's intent to write his LA song to the melody from Elton John's song "A Candle In The Wind," but it's certainly a good lesson to make sure you guard against such things in the future. It can be a costly mistake.
The other thing I saw contestants grapple with on this episode was the fact that we judges are looking for REAL hits for OTHER artists -- not hits for themselves as artists, and we don't care how they sing. They need to sell their songs and that's it. Countless great songwriters can't even sing, while others like my co-judge Kara, can sign their tails off. BUT we are listening to the bones of the song and if it's viable for an artist, not if they are great vocalists.
We judges came down on them hard because the kind of song you would write for yourself as an artist, or that you could imagine for another singer-songwriter, are very different than the actual hits non-writing artists are looking for. John Mayer can write a quirky song, like "Your Body Is A Wonderland," and have a hit with it. But singer-songwriters write their own material. They don't need outside writers to write what they are already doing. However an artist like Usher needs a straight up hit that will have kids dancing in the club, and it's a Carrie Underwood type of artist that needs a fresh, well-crafted lyric on a song built to showcase her vocals.
Hit songs need to be clear and recognizable, unique and universal at the same time, like a great sculpture, so they stand out on radio, and so artists want to cut them. We are not looking for middle of the road decent songs that might make a record but never the radio. A writer would starve this way if it was all they wrote for other artists.
Another thing we judges agreed on is that we don't want just a generic novelty song for the radio. Not that those songs are not valid or that they don't make a lot of money for who wrote them. There is a place for novelty hits. But in general, we want to encourage the contestants to strive for the trifecta of what being a professional writer is all about -- to be original, well-crafted/timeless, and be a hit. It's not easy to do, but it's worth trying, and we wanted them to strive for that bar.
The hardest thing about Episode 1 was eliminating someone so soon. It's a tough call to make so early, and none of us relished the chore. As we investigated into how the co-write went, we felt Nevin was the weakest link. He was not able to contribute or be useful or original in a meaningful way. But this was a hard call, because it must be determined if he didn't contribute due to his own lack of ideas or drive, or due to the fact that the other writers shut him out. If the latter were true, it would have painted the picture a different shade in our eyes.
In the end though, we felt Nevin should be sent home. But it's always a hard choice that leaves my stomach in knots.
That said, I know all of us judges were impressed with our cast, and we began to look forward to watching this young group of talent grow.