I’ve already legitimized the offspring of one celebrity in recent weeks, by writing of the controversy surrounding his latest hit. I will not mention the name of the young second-generation star that has this month dominated headlines, on the platform heels of a controversial appearance on some music awards show or other. I will not weigh in on the overweight discussion, but allow me to say in her defense that no amount of crass voyeuristic sensationalism can possibly inflict as much damage to contemporary popular culture as her dad did with a single song.
Which I will also not mention by name. Apologies, though, for putting it in your head. I’ll admit that’s rather cruel.
I would, however, like to take a moment to consider what the young star of no fixed talent did not achieve with her headline-grabbing performance — i.e., catapult her latest single to the toppermost of the poppermost. On the contrary, in the days following the sensational televised stunt, said song actually fell 19 places, having peaked at no. 10. This, in only its third week on the chart.
The moral: controversy for its own sake will take a desperate-for-fame individual (I was going to say artist, but under the circumstances I’ll refrain from offering that dignity) only so far. No one remembers the song Janet Jackson performed at the Super Bowl, much less Sinéad O’Connor’s pre-Pope-tearing toe-tapper from Saturday Night Live. If your game is achieving notoriety in front of millions, fine. But if you, as a professional musician and all, are hoping to make a splash with your music, perhaps a different approach is called for.
To that end, I direct her, and your, attention (on the off-chance that she reads this blog; at least I know you do) to a few lessons in how to make the lowest common denominator work for you in the world of pop music. Great moments in opportunism, if you will. True, as mentioned in a previous posting, the quickie single designed to cash-in on the latest fad seems to be as dead as the dance craze. Yet, the hungry artist willing to sacrifice every shred of decency — to properly sell one’s soul — for that one hit, will forever be with us. And not just second-generation ones.
Indeed, as you read this, countless would-be-hit songwriters are working furiously on that can’t-miss hit, refining a simplistic composition by dumbing down the already dumbed down. Most will miss.
After all, it is not as easy as it sounds. Right?
Consider, for a moment, the great Chuck Berry, perhaps one of the three or four greatest songwriters in the history of rock and roll. Chuck hit (or has hit… he ain’t dead yet) the top of the charts but once in his 50-some-year career. And it was with the dumbest, most sophomoric song he ever recorded. (Or, as Chuck put it, “a Fourth Grade number.”) But then, when you sing about playing with your Ding-a-Ling, well, there are countless adolescent and college boys that live for that sort of thing. So good on ya, Chuck. You made great records; you topped the charts. If the two things do not exactly correspond with each other, so be it.
Let’s take a moment now to celebrate a selection of additional opportunistic triumphs. Again, it’s not as easy as you’d think. Heck, in context some might even call these artists heroes. Not many, thankfully, but some.
“I was gonna go to class / Before I got high.” Brilliant. And dumb. Very dumb. Don’t you wish you’d thought of this song first? No need to explain why you didn’t; it’s there in the song.
2. Cee Lo Green
Not since Shaving Cream have the masses had so much fun not saying a bad word. See, what Cee Lo pulled off is a particularly neat trick in the world of lowest-common-denominator songwriting. A not particularly memorable song called Fuck You guaranteed a certain amount of notoriety, but little airplay. But, remarkably, when the song was turned into the radio-friendly if emasculated Forget You the momentum failed to slow. The result: millions thrilling to a formulaic kiss-off that was not even the song they were hearing in their heads. Nice one, Cee Lo. And pity poor Harry Nilsson, whose You’re Breaking My Heart expressed the very same sentiment nearly 40 years earlier, but lacked a radio-friendly counterpart for the kids to sing in public.
3. Brownsville Station / Mötley Crüe
Same hit; different decades. A great dumb song can have a shelf-life that spans generations. Few, however, are worthy of a return to the charts. Leave it to the band savvy enough yet dumb enough to pay homage to Girls, Girls, Girls and urge us not to go away mad (just go away) to spot the potential in a 12-year-old celebration of juvenile delinquency. You say your band needs a hit? Problem solved.
4. Katy Perry
Remember, the idea here is to take the most shameless excuse for a sentiment and work with it. A rather appalling bit of opportunism, this. But that’s what makes it so great.
Well, pretty much everything Pink has ever recorded qualifies. Sorry, no clip. That would just be encouraging her.
So there you have it. How to write a hit that will earn you enough money to enable you to ignore the inevitable question: How do you sleep at night?
It is important to remember, of course, that these are highly trained professionals. Your results may vary.