Episode 2 had our contestants coming to terms with the fact that as professional writers they will have to be versatile and write in every genre. This week was a dance anthem, and the legendary dance queen herself -- Donna Summer -- came in to guest judge it with us.
I cannot stress how important versatility is to our job. Does that mean every successful writer can or does write in every genre? No. I can name many iconic writers, like my friend Dianne Warren, who have a sound and genre, and are so proficient at it they can afford to specialize. But again, my goal with this group of writers is to give them every edge we can, to go out there and succeed in this highly competitive field. The more tools you have in your tool belt to get a job done, the better. In any given genre you have a handful of artists looking for songs and the writers outnumber how many artists need material. Because of this, your chances of getting a song cut every time you write are very small. You can increase your odds if you can write in multiple formats for multiple artists. As the music business continues to shrink, it is vital that up and coming writers learn to be versatile, if it really is their intent to make a living as a song-smith.
On a personal level, I also find it the most rewarding. It is very difficult to succeed in multiple formats, and I consider it a big feather in your cap to be able to do so. One of my greatest points of pride is that I have been able to write chart-toppers in pop, rock, alternative, and country genres. That's what has kept me interested as a writer. Variety is the spice of life -- at least for this Gemini.
In the hook challenge you could definitely hear who consumed music of all sorts versus those who listened to only one category. It showed up in their writing. In Karen's case, she had no experience with dance music but was able to come up with a soaring chorus that had the potential to move people if she could get a better lyric on it.
Ultimately her song failed in this. Watching the episode, it's amusing to see her take on modern female empowerment. Her lyrics were not club-worthy, as Britney Spears and Rihanna would never speak of rubbing a man's feet or cooking a meal for them, as was suggested in her writing session. If you listen where club music is today, you can see the difference in what this group wrote, and what is working on radio, which takes a much more aggressive female stand. Consider the first verse of Britney's "Till the World Ends":
This kitten got your tongue tied in knots I see
Spit it out 'cause I'm dying for company
I notice that you got it
You notice that I want it
You know that I can take it to the next level baby!
If you want this good b---h
Sicker than the remix
Baby let me blow your mind tonight
Sadly no one else in her group was able to really lyrically embody the girl power, modern seductress we were looking for, and the song became generic and weak, landing them in the bottom.
Brian took a risk with his low chorus, but allowed it to be strayed from when they formed a team. Co-writing is awkward, as no one wants to be bossy, yet if you feel strongly you have a winning idea, you owe it a fight. The girls did not seem to grasp how hooky a male low vocal was like that. I could have heard Enrique Iglesias or Pitbull doing something like that. A low chorus was memorable, a girl singing it suddenly made the melody less hooky -- and suddenly the cool tag line "Be my ridiculous" blended in to the background. One of the most important things about co-writing is having the self-awareness to recognize a good idea, whether it is yours or someone else's. There can be no ego in the room -- only a tenacious determination to make that song the best at any cost -- be it ruffling feathers with someone who doesn't agree or seeing someone else has a better idea. Brian had obviously listened to the radio, and knew a low chorus would stand amongst the pack out for a dance song. The girls both admitted they had no experience with dance, but yet they didn't follow Brian's lead and had out of touch opinions about how to tackle the chorus -- and it showed.
Surprisingly the biggest egos in the show, Nick and Sonyae, were able to set their differences aside and do what was best for the song – and that is crucial. Scotty was secure enough to recognize Nick's counter melody was a stronger hook than his original hook, and to go with it. These adjustments are crucial for a successful co-writing session.
When it came time to send someone home, it was our job to find the weak link in the group -- never an easy task. Being privy now as to how the session worked validated our decision. While we are judging and filming the show, we of course don't see what actually goes on in the room, and must rely on what the contestants tell us. Karen came up with a great melody, but failed miserable lyrically.
She also lacked the self-awareness to say "I know very little about dance. Why don't I rely on Johnny who shined on the hook challenge with a great melody and lyric hook "Push on Me"? She should also have recognized some very strong phrasing that Amber was coming up with on verses. Oftentimes writers with heavy jazz and American standards backgrounds, like Amber, will come up with interesting phrasing, and phrasing can in and of itself be a strong hook. That's what had me scratching my head about Blessing. He said dance was not his wheel house, and yet he grew up listening to dance and popular music of the '40s, '50s, and '60s. It really should have helped him, even if he hadn't listened to modern dance music, because while the genre has changed in many ways regarding topic and beats, the mechanics are the same -– rhythm in phrasing, an interesting hook, and playfulness in the concept. He should have been able to be a great contributor instead of just opting out of the session.
In modern music, all the lines have blurred. There is hardly a straight up R&B radio channel or artist, or a pure country artist. All genres blend together, mixing urban and pop, or dance and R&B, or country with pop or rock. Being a specialist does not pay off right now as a writer trying to write hits, because you may be called on to write a dance song for Britney Spears one day or ballad for Martina McBride the next. You just never know. But like Blessing himself said at the end, "The dream lives forever." I'm sure he will go on to succeed.
Talk to you after the next episode,