March 24, 2011

Week 27: Keep It Real

Keep it real

By Sean Claes
You don’t need a guest spot by Kanye or a producer like Timbaland in order to write a hit record. What you DO need is finesse for words and a unique view on a subject that almost everyone can relate.

Take for instance, Susan Gibson’s greatest hit. She talks about heading out into the world. That final moment when you have everything you own in your little car and back out of the driveway while your parents are giving you that last second advice.

Do you know who Susan Gibson is? Perhaps not, but I bet you’ve heard The Dixie Chicks rendition of her song, “Wide Open Spaces.”

Here’s the deal. Today, people can spot fake a mile away. Why do you think the Vanilla Ice’s of the world have gone away but the Marshall Mathers’ are still around? Why do you think Johnny Cougar transformed into his real identity, John Mellencamp? Why do you think Howard Stern is on the cover of Rolling Stone

Actually, I think that last one is to make up for putting Justin Beiber on there the previous issue… but I digress.

Fake no longer sells in music. Justin Beiber will fade away soon. I read his interview in Rolling “Swagger” Stone last month. I hope his parents are investing wisely. I want to root for him, but all I saw in that article was a kid trying to be the teen pop star his handlers have made him out to be in order to satisfy the image they think the fans need to see. Now, he was “discovered” via YouTube.. so that was real… but I think he was thrown into too much too fast and made to “be” something he isn’t. When the public figures that out, he’s going to be thrown to the wolves. Then we’ll see what kind of support system of “real” friends he actually has.

Hopefully it’s a strong one and he makes it out the other side. We’re still watching and waiting to see if Britney Spears can pull off the “new vs. old” her.

There are plenty of people out there who make it by being real. In the 1980s the Grunge movement was all about being real. My favorite quote from that era comes from Loverboy lead vocalist Mike Reno. “Nirvana basically ruined my career.”

When your career is based on fun, poppy, not-a-care-in-the-world songs of overindulgence, I’ve got to tell you Mr. Reno… it wasn’t grunge that stole the brass ring from you, it was reality.

Let’s compare, shall we?
“You want a piece of my heart. You better start from the start. You wanna be in the show. Come on baby, let’s go.” – Loverboy
“With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us.” – Nirvana

Nirvana didn’t just talk about putting you in the show… they MADE you the show. Yes, Kurt Cobain was a sick and twisted individual who was not made for fame and couldn’t handle what came with it and killed himself while Mike Reno is still touring with Loverboy for anyone with $20 and a need to recapture the “glory days” of red leather pants so I guess Reno gets the last laugh on this one… but musically, Nirvana produced Toulouse-Lautrec’s while Loverboy gave us cartoons.


Your music should connect with the inner core of your audience. If you write about love, make that person in the audience feel that love. If you write about hate, make the listener angry with you by the end of the song. Don’t write about things that are so deeply personal that you can’t relate, in words, the meaning.

Ever in the situation where you know you’re the bad person in the relationship and the person you’re with has endured so much that you need to let them go for their own good? Then you’ve lived the scene that’s expertly described in Blue October’s “Hate Me.” The song makes you root for the underdog while hoping the girl moves on.

Barenaked Ladies scored a HUGE hit with a song about an argument. Sure, it’s got some funny lyrics, but “One Week” is a song that anyone who’s been in a relationship can relate to. Especially the final lyrics where he admits “It’ll still be two days ‘till we say we’re sorry.”

Austin band One-Eyed Doll has a story about a boy who died in her arms on the street. The otherwise crazy – hair flinging – spitting – slapping lead vocalist Kimberley Freeman transforms a club with about 100-200 people in it into a street corner in New Orleans. Throughout the a capella “New Orleans” Kimberly softly describes the scene so vividly that you feel like pulling out your cell phone to call an ambulance for the poor soul.

How many people choked up when they saw Eric Clapton struggle to get through “Tears in Heaven?” The pain and hurt in his voice was amazingly heartbreaking. He was able to bring us all together to mourn the loss of any loved one just as he wrote the song in mourning for the loss of his 4-year-old. “Would you know my name, if I saw you in Heaven?”

One of my favorite all-time songwriters struck country gold with Travis Tritt with a song he wrote about the simple act of being in a good mood. Darrell Scott somehow captures the oddity of a good day when it’s surrounded by crummy ones in “Great Day To Be Alive.” It’s the mundane made spectacular. Growing a fu man chu. Looking long in the tooth, but harmless. “I got rice cooking in the microwave / Got a three day beard I don't plan to shave / And it's a goofy thing but I just gotta say / Hey I'm doing alright.”

Other songs off the top of my head are The Fray’s “How to Save A Life,” Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” and let’s not forget “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston which was actually written by Dolly Parton.

And say what you want about Marshal “Eminem” Mathers… but the dude is honest. And he can write. He makes simple lyrics seem complex and can break complex things down to the bare essentials. And when he yells “I’m not afraid / to take a stand / Everybody / come take my hand / We’ll walk this road together” in his single “Not Afraid” there’s a nation of people reaching out and ready to walk alongside him.

That right there is just it. The songwriters I respect aren’t interested in being leaders but they definitely aren’t followers. They are lost in this mish-mash world just like you and me. The difference is, they have the ability to put on paper what is weighing on our hearts. They have a way of making something that is so deeply personal into something that weighs on all of our hearts.

And for that, I thank them.

So, if you’re writing lyrics, do me a favor and don’t just write a song. Have a meaning. Have a plan. What have you gone through in your life that could be shared in a way that everyman can relate? Kind of like blues music, You can’t sing songs without living the songs. The current world smells out fakes and leaves them on the side of the road like the apple core you threw out your window on the highway last week (at least it’s biodegradable).

And, when you do write and record that song, make sure I get a copy.

Sean Claes is the owner of Austin's INsite Magazine and has been a freelance entertainment writer since 1996. For an introduction to his "52 Weeks of DIY Music Advice" visit this link - If you like what you read... please share. To visit Claes' homepage, go here -

1 comment:

Tony Barker said...

Great, great stuff, Sean. I've finally gotten to a place where I can appreciate the "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" for being successful at what it was intended to do, but you could spend all the money that song made on a Walt Wilkins CD and come out "WAY ahead.

Love the new project, by the way. I read all 52 reviews, and I'm digging the solid advice in this series.