How To Write A Song


First find your problem.

Find something that interests you because you don't know what you think about it. A little grain of sand that itches and irritates your inner oyster.

Maybe it's homosexuality. Or necrophilia. Or child abuse. Or money or death.

Go to culture's crisis areas, choose topics which set off alarm signals.

Have you got your ingredients together? Are you sure you're unsure what you feel about your selected subject? Be quite certain that you're in a genuine quandry, divided against yourself, both attracted and repulsed.

Okay, now devise a small scenario which dramatises your ambivalent feelings about your subject. People it with characters, up to three. In the song, one of the characters is going to be a first person narrator, an 'I'.

It doesn't matter which character you choose to animate with your own voice as the 'I'. In fact, you should probably choose the least sympathetic character. This will stop you getting too certain about things, because if you find out too quickly what you really feel about your subject, your song will lose its life-giving ambivalence and fall flat as a pancake.

Now sit down with an instrument. A guitar, a sampler, a keyboard. (Those Casios that do autopilot country and western backings are useful here). Sing the fragments of plot you've scribbled down, pasting melody lines this way and that across chord sequences.

The music should be melancholy and European, or it should be a pastiche of aggressively commercial chart music. Dip in and out of genres. Listen to trashy gimmick records like 'Doop', 'Short Dick Man' and 'Cotton Eye Joe' for styles people have been taken with recently.

Remember, you are going to make sense out of nonsense. Although you're trying hard to avoid closure, you are ultimately on the side of meaning and content. Whereas most pop is runaway formalism with greetings card sentiment pasted on as an afterthought, you are exploring your own uncertainty to achieve some higher, more complex level of certainty at the end of it.

Read what Marcel Duchamp said about Delay. A work of art must hold the promise of meaning. But it must throw some delay in our paths, give us the pleasure of some difficulty. (Like a good computer game).

Okay, fill up one side of a cassette with your cut and paste melodies. You can be working on the words in your favourite word processing software at the same time. Listen critically to the cassette as you go, selecting the good bits, rejecting the bad. A song will start to come into view.

From being a sort of intellectual game, the song should now start to become a thing in its own right. As such it will move you. Use the emotions you feel to make a beautiful arrangement. The arrangement should be like a Hollywood score, it should give emotional pointers to your audience, help them to feel their way into the drama of the plot.

But you don't have to make a scary arrangement over a verse describing scary events. A nice trick (you could call it an extension of Brechtian alienation) is to make warm feelings well up at precisely the coldest, most disgusting parts of your plot. You will then plunge your listener into exactly the sort of uncertainty you felt when you began.



Soon your song will be finished. Rewrite it so it runs smoothly, and appears to have a beginning, middle and end, with a critical event somewhere in the middle. An event that's only suggested is usually more powerful than one described in detail. If you've put any value judgements into your song, now's the moment to take them out. Leave it to your listeners and critics to sort out the morals.

Record your song, preferably on your own 8 track digital deck. (Any more tracks and the arrangement will get cluttered. Use a studio and the engineer will pour patent leather reverb over everything - then get hurt when you tell him to take it off. Also, if you record at home on a shoestring you won't have any tedious pressure to have hits. You'll be able to recoup easily).

Release it. (Record companies are still necessary for this. In a couple of years you'll be able to stick it straight up on the Web, saving six months of queuing in some busy label's release schedules).



Don't expect to be loved. If you've hit any targets, if you've put your finger on a real area of danger and uncertainty in culture, you'll at best be tolerated. Culture, says Jean Luc Godard in his new film 'JLG/JLG', is the rule, art the exception. It is the habit of the rule to destroy the exception.


Your work is now out there, inflaming people, worrying around in their heads, extending their dreamworlds, bringing them out in hives or hot flushes.



Have you followed my instructions? Have you released your record? Congratulations. You have become Momus.

Now, if you really want to get anywhere, abandon everything I've told you. Forget about seductive perversion. Embrace instead 'Aggressive Normality'. In your words and music, emphasise certainty ('I will always love you', 'We are the champions', you know the sort of thing).

Good luck. I'll be looking out for you on Top Of The Pops. We get it on cable here in Hell.


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