Sicker Than the Remix

Jewel discusses writing for the dance floor and what the songwriters can learn from Britney Spears.

Hello again!

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,

xx Jewel

The Write Girl

Kara explains why Sonyae was the winner and what each songwriter brought to the final challenge.

First off, I am so proud of the growth that Sonyae, Scotty, and Jes made over the course of the show. If I were in their shoes starting out, I don't know if I would have been able to take the pressure of the episode challenges. This was a writing boot camp and the strongest (with the exception of Johnny) definitely survived. Their diligence, team work, and commitment to learning is what landed them in the final three. Their songs were fantastic this week, and I believe they all have careers ahead of them in music.

The Winner ---- When we first met Sonyae, we knew she had a gift for lyrics and concepts, which is one of today's most important components to hit songs. But, she was seemingly at a disadvantage because she didn't play an instrument and I wasn't sure how that would translate during the course of the competition. Thankfully we began to see that Sonyae is musical. She knows what chords fit her melodies and that's why she was able to win this competition. Many topliners don't play an instrument but they are responsible for some of the biggest hits out there today. Their voices are their instrument and they sing what they feel and hear in their heads. Her melodies always came from an emotional place and I think that is why she really impressed us as well. She consistently delivered week to week. She would be an asset in any room of writers in any genre. For me, she is a force to be reckoned with and I think we will be seeing a Sonyae song on an album any day now.

And then there's Scotty who was stuck in adult contemporary ballad land when we first met him. During the course of the show, he figured out how to make more contemporary tracks and teamed up with people that pushed him to be younger, more rhythmic, and hipper. His melodic sensibility was always there, he just needed to put it on top of modern tracks. He also started scrutinizing his lyrics more during the season and that culminated in his best work, "Beautiful You." That song is a great personal anthem and I want to commend him for really speaking about such an emotional and personal subject and yet making it so universal.

Lastly Jes, a singer-songwriter with a beautiful voice and passion for writing. When she first started out she would often get lost in her own piano world. Her songs were very niche and her melodies (while lovely) fit her voice more than they did the voices of other artists. Over the competition, she really learned how to condense her songs and make every part of them meaningful. She too has a gift for emotion in her melodies and by the end of the season was writing lyrics that could match the power of her music. "Come Alive" was a brilliant melodic piece of work.

I found it very interesting that all three contestants pulled from their own life stories when they were faced with creating the biggest hit of their lives. We encouraged them from the beginning to always come from an honest place. I don't think it's a coincidence that these were some of their strongest songs. Great writers will tell you their best material came from their real life experiences -- that's the inspiration part of a song, which is so crucial to making it great. The other part is craft, which we spent a lot of time discussing on the show. Hopefully all the contestants feel they are better writers because of the show. If they do, then we all did our jobs.

Good luck to them all. We are rooting for 'em!