Monday, December 31, 2012

Churning out Christmas Songs

This post is a follow-up on the Christmas music and Nostalgia post, and the last Christmas-related post of the season. I promise. I'm going to examine a news story sent to me by one of my readers about writing new Christmas songs.

The audio version of the story is longer than the written version you'll find at the link, but the basic idea is this: A band named Office Romance talks about their experience writing new holiday songs. They mentioned a few problems: decoding what musically makes something a Christmas song, penning lyrics that are fresh and new, and trying to appeal to everybody.

Be there with bells and clich├ęs on

I agree that there are certain musical sounds that frequently appear in holiday songs. Maybe not always sleigh bells, but certainly bell references, glockenspiels being the most ubiquitous. I do think it's interesting that the musician interviewed stopped short of specifying any other signifiers, because that's about as far as I've gotten in my analysis, too. I'm convinced there are other musical things that signify Christmas, but I'm still trying to figure those out. Maybe next year.

I think the main problem in writing a new holiday song is that the lyrical themes are so hackneyed, and that is exactly what I heard in story's musical examples. Good songs create emotional packets that BOTH make people think "Oh, I haven't really heard it that way before" AND are musically memorable. There is a short cut: if you were really having trouble with new words, you can also take well-known words and attach new memorable music. Religion is one way to access emotions, and if you rule out religious songs, creating emotionally moving music is that much harder.

When generic is unreal

Bill Cosby once said "I don't know they key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody," and I think these featured songs prove that. In trying to create a song that appeals to everybody, Office Romance has created songs so generic that they won't have any lasting value. I would write a parody Christmas song with a list of generic Christmas symbols as lyrics, but there are already several out there (which are not meant as parodies). Also, if make your Christmas song's music be like other Christmas songs (Office Romance's apparent goal), how is that going to be memorable? I'm not saying that songwriters should avoid musical symbols of Christmas, but throwing in as many as possible could be dangerously generic.

But I don't think Office Romance is totally to blame for their generic music and unimaginative lyrics. As they wrote their songs, they mentioned bringing in music supervisors. Why? Well, music supervisors are now more important than ever. As CD sales plummet, people get music illegally, and online streaming services pay less in royalties, getting songs placed in movies and on TV is one of the few ways that artists can definitely make money. But I think this story illustrates the problem pitching to a music supervisor creates. Music supervisors are not normally artists looking for new ways of expression; they are instead looking for something similar to what they know already works. So, it is very easy for music supervisors to say "we need this and this" in a song, leading to flat and unimaginative music. Giving the artists complete artistic freedom or at least some collaborative give-and-take instead of dictating would most likely yield better results. At the same time, it's more risky. But that's art, isn't it? You never know when your work is going to connect or completely go over someone's head.

What musical sounds do you think signifies holiday songs? Care to suggest what you think makes a great song, holiday or not?

Happy New Year!

Vocab: signifier

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