It’s fun to write a song from the perspective of an unpleasant character. Pop music has enough love songs, so it can be refreshing to write something from an alternative angle. However, if you want a career as a pro songwriter, be aware that prospective artists are unlikely to want songs that portray them in a negative light. Artists want to feel good singing a song; they want to spend 3 minutes being the hero, not the villain. With that in mind, here are 4 songwriting persona traps to avoid.
1. The Insensitive Arsehole
Pictured: A sensitive arsehole
Apologies for the humblebrag, but several years ago I got some valuable advice when in the regional final of the Songwriting Academy ‘UK Songwriter of the Year’ competition. One of the judges approached me afterwards and highlighted something very important in my song’s lyrics. He said, “The song is good, but the story might be more palatable if the protagonist didn’t come across as such an arsehole” (or words to that effect).
My immediate reaction was to try and defend it as a “character piece.” Even as I spoke, I had the sinking feeling that this was one of those Learning Moments I would look back on and write a lengthy blog post about one day.
He was, of course, absolutely right. The song was about a smartarse stringing a girl along, evading talk of commitment, and dismissing the idea of love. Not quite the stuff Michael Bublé’s dreams are made of.
Recommendation: Don’t try to be clever and end up with a song where the protagonist is an insensitive arsehole. No artist will go near it.
Bad Example: I could link to my song here, but I won’t.
2. The Cheat
Would Dolly Parton’s Jolene have the same emotional resonance if it was written from the cheating partner’s perspective? When it comes to love-cheat scenarios, the betrayed partner will always garner the most sympathy. It’s therefore the easiest perspective to write from.
Writing as ‘the cheat’ is a challenge. It’s hard to make the character sympathetic, hence why few major artists try it. One of the more notable attempts was by Usher in his 2004 hit Yeah!* In it, the protagonist is tempted to cheat on his girlfriend with a girl he meets in a club. However, the narrative doesn’t progress beyond temptation: we’re left none the wiser as to whether he ultimately cheats or not. It’s a cop-out, but it’s also the only way of dealing with the topic while maintaining Usher’s ‘nice guy’ reputation.
Recommendation: Singing about being tempted is fine as long as it comes with a side order of guilt. Singing as a remorseless cheat is a no-no.
Good-ish Example: Usher – Yeah!
Better Example: Dolly Parton – Jolene
*With thanks to Beth Keeping for highlighting this example, an artist/writer who you should definitely be following.
3. The Sleazeball
Half a billion views? Jayzaz.
Back in 2013, Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ was a watershed moment in the public’s acceptance of sleaze in pop. Setting aside the wildly misjudged ‘Unrated’ video, the song itself is a brainless litany of lecherous catcalls from a mid-30s misogynist. Although the song was a massive hit, the eventual backlash tanked Thicke’s career. (How Pharrell escaped unscathed still amazes me to this day).
Is it possible to get away with sleaze in pop today? Only if you’re Pitbull, the master of ‘so-dumb-it’s-harmless’ perviness. While his overall performance style suggests ‘nightclub sex pest’, it’s hard to pin any particular thought crime on Pitbull when his lyrics are no more complex than “Baby baby, la la la la la.”
Recommendation: Don’t be sleazy, but if you have to, be Pitbull.
Bad Example: Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines ft. T.I., Pharrell
Marginally Less Bad Example: Pitbull – Hey Baby (Drop It To The Floor)
4. Mr. Angry
All you need is love and thinly-veiled death threats
Hope is important. Optimism is important. People want to feel good hearing your song, and more importantly artists want to feel good singing your song. Sadness and melancholy are fine topics too, as they provide catharsis. The only emotion that’s really off-limits is anger. As tempting as it is to write a song bitterly venting about an ex: don’t. It makes for an unpleasant listen, and few artists will want to sing it.
Recommendation: Unless you find an artist whose entire musical persona is that of ‘angry misanthrope’ (see John Grant, Father John Misty, etc.) avoid bitterness and try to stay positive.
Bad Example: The Beatles – Run for Your Life
Bonus Bad Example: Taylor Swift – Look What You Made Me Do
I hope the above gives you some guidance on what perspectives to avoid when writing songs with other artists in mind. Keep things positive and optimistic. Of course, the above are largely from the male perspective. If you’re a female writer and would like to write about some female personas to avoid, please get in touch!