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Jewel explains the difference between a country and a pop song, and addresses which contestants need help with the distinction.
I can't believe we are already halfway through the season! I don't know about you guys, but the show is getting hard for me to watch because everyone is going home -- it sucks! I wish so badly that everyone could win, or at least stay to the end. It's brutal! The dynamics of the group are brutal, too! What a tough group to write in -- everyone talks behind everyone's back! I guess the silver lining of that is that everyone is competitive and in it to win it. . .
This week's winners were an easy pick for us. Johnny and Brian moved their song into reggae effortlessly and they had the best lyrics and best song structure. On a personal note, I found Johnny's tiny tantrum about the guitars not being tuned to his liking somewhat telling. It made me wonder if it was just stress talking or if winning some song challenges might go to his head in the near future. It's no one's job to tune your guitar but yours, unless you are selling out stadiums. Maybe he was just anxious about trying to get the song just right. Time will tell if a few wins turns him into a diva. . ..
Judging is getting harder and harder as we are starting to send good writers, all good people who have worked so hard at something they truly love, home. The only way I got through it was to focus on our objective: we want hit songs that can get played on today's top charts. If you listen to the radio and then compare our losing songs you can see why they fell short. Jackie, Sonyae, and Scotty's country song is plain and not extraordinary when compared to a great classic song like Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now."
As many of you know I am very passionate and have the utmost respect for country music. Some of the best songs ever written have been in this genre, like "I Will Always Love You," written by Dolly Parton and later recorded by Whitney Houston, classics like Patsy Cline singing "Crazy," written by Willie Nelson, or modern songs that are socially relevant and heartfelt like Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" to chart toppers like Taylor Swift's pitch-perfect narratives such as "The Story Of Us." This a modern and diverse genre that has nothing to do with what Jackie referred to as something like "you keyed my car drinking songs." Pop is about being cool; country is about being sincere. It has everything to do with telling a great story that's authentic, real, and believable. It also takes a lot of craft to write a country song, because you can't dress up a poor concept behind a cool track.
A great country song can be played solo acoustic and move you. . .which brings us to Scotty. On most songs, it is really important to have a good track to sell a song, and Scotty has been complimented on his tracks that help won challenges (like the rap challenge). But being a good songwriter means adapting to different challenges, and it may have behooved Scotty, Sonyae and Jes to all sit down with nothing but a guitar and make sure the structure and story were solid. Scotty did make great improvements in the chorus melody. Those small pop-influenced melodic changes are right in step with where some country radio chart toppers are today, but he neglected to make sure those changes set up the hook line of the song "Say It Back." As it was, that line just floated, plopped, and landed awkwardly, lending no heartbreak or poignancy to the song.
This song concept was all about the terrible feeling of those terrible seconds when someone waits to hear "I love you," back. Those seconds are a lifetime. This song should have melodically and lyrically made you feel the agony of a love that might not be returned, the self-reflection of doubt, the "should I have said it in the first place. . ." and ultimately, it should have helped us resolve and go somewhere in the story -- that love is worth the risk, or that no matter what comes out of your love's mouth you feel you did the right thing, or. . .it could have gone any number of ways. The point is they needed to choose a concept and write a short story to music complete with a beginning, middle, and end. Something that went somewhere and that conveyed the original potential heartbreak and baited breath of waiting to hear those words back. . .and it failed. It was a superficial treatment with an oddly happy melody that had some hooky parts, but failed to hit your heart... I hated to see Jackie go. I liked her scrapper attitude, and her obvious experience with touring and live crowds helped her get far on the show. But being a quirky live touring musician is a different skill set than delivering hits in a small writing room, and that was a tough lesson to watch her struggle with.
I know Nick and Jes were surprised to hear the judges did not consider their song a true pop song, but again -- listen to what's winning at pop radio: like Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream," that our guest judge Bonnie McKee wrote on -- starting with a strong concept and followed through with clear lyrics. When Bonnie said pop music should be clear to 5-year-olds, what she meant is it cannot be vague. It can't be a bunch of lines that talk without saying anything, and the structure has to hit you over the head with its clarity. Jes naturally has a cool Tori Amos vibe, kind of darker and moody, and Nick has a lot of melodic pop sense but they both lack in the lyric department. It doesn't mean you have to be deep lyrically, but you have to have a clear-cut goal and execute it. Ask "what do you want people to feel" and then make sure every lyric and melody and chord makes them feel it.
There was a lot that was right about the song. Jes has a naturally enjoyable sound, and it's a great base to build on. I see her making strides to figure out how to grow and grasp how to take an innate talent and put the work in it takes to develop that raw talent into a crafted career.
As for Nick. . .well, as Keith Naftaly said: we just are not sure yet. So far he is a lot of sizzle, and not much steak. He, too, has natural musical gifts and instincts, but his ego is making it hard for him to really listen and learn so that he can build on his strengths and become even more of a contender. Herein lies one of the great paradoxes of being a songwriter: you must have enough ego to be tenacious and indefatigable, but you also have to be humble enough to acknowledge you can always learn. If you do not continue to learn, you grow stagnant, and that can cripple even the most gifted and accomplished writer, because without listening you stop growing. And when you stop growing in an industry that is as constantly changing as popular music, you become outdated before you know it. What gives me faith in Nick still, is that he does seem to listen in his co-writes and is a surprisingly easy partner to work with. If he could put some depth and some personal experience in his lyrics, it would really help his cause. His distance and inherent anger cause his writing to be unemotional and it does not move people, as evidenced by his empty guitar case on the promenade. I like Nick. I know he has his issues and a hard luck story coming into the show. It's clear he has been hurt and is very guarded. I can relate to him because I was on my own at 15 with my own version of the same story. I was lucky that I learned that the more honest I was with an audience, and the more I shared with people, the more I was rewarded for it. Being honest in songs made me feel less alone, gave me a secure feeling, and also became a great living for me. I hope the same for Nick. We are all drawn to music because it heals us - if we let it.
As always, follow me on Twitter (@Jeweljk) , and send me your thoughts on the show, or ask any songwriting questions you might have. . .