In Part II of the “Song Contest 2014 Tips” blog, the Song Doctor explores tips and strategies to consider when submitting a song in one of the five new “song topic” categories.
As previously noted in Part I of this series, this year’s Song Contest has 12 total categories, comprised of 7 genre centered categories, and 5 song topic categories:
This is the first time ASG’s annual Song Contest has featured song topic categories, and the purpose of this blog is to add some thoughts on these categories for your consideration as we count down to the submissions deadline of September 28th. If you have already submitted your songs without the benefit of this blog, we apologize it wasn’t posted sooner. It has been a busy summer for ASG’s volunteers overseeing ASG’s move and renovations; and, we have been running a little behind in keeping up with the website and emails during this period However, if you became aware of the deadline extension to September 28th and chose to continue putting your submissions together, some of the thoughts in Part II may be helpful to you.
When ASG’s Board of Directors was considering adding Song Topic categories to the contest, more than a dozen broad categories were considered. There was a moment where we actually considered doing the entire Song Contest as a song topic, rather than genre oriented, contest. It was decided that was too big of a leap to make all at once, but there was a lot of excitement around the song topics considered, and it was tough whittling the longer list down to the five categories that made the cut. So, here are some thoughts to consider on each of the five song topic categories that may be helpful in deciding, which songs to submit in which category.
The first thing you need to know about all of the categories is that being “topic” driven, submissions to any of these categories will surely include songs from many different genres or musical styles. For example, it is pretty easy to see how love songs could be country, blues, jazz, pop, rock, folk, reggae, comedy, tejano, cajun, or any number of other genres. This means that the winning “love song” would be the best song in the category, regardless of genre or musical style.
Love Songs: Out of all the possible topics for songwriters to write about, love is the #1 topic of all. The vast majority of hit songs are love songs, no other topic even comes close when the subject is hit popular music. More than 75% of all popular hit songs in the modern era are love songs of one stripe or another. Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. Falling in or out of love. Coming to the end of a relationship with love still burning, and learning to love yourself again after a failed relationship. Love songs to the world. Love songs to your favorite spiritual deity. All of these and many more can be the basis of a love song. Toss in the wild card of the wide range of genres and musical styles that can be the musical basis of a love song, and for my money, this is one of the most exciting categories of all. If I were able to submit to the song contest, the love song category would be one of the ones I personally would most want to win. Think about it! With love being the most written about topic, to have your song named Best Love Song is a pretty nice feather.
Family Songs: To me, songs about family are, in many ways, closely related to love songs. But, that is not necessarily exclusively true. Love among family members is often complex, because the relationships play out over a long period of time. As a result, there are often trying circumstances that may strain the relationships, grievances carried for years that require forgiveness to heal. Some examples of family songs that come to mind for me are Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band” and Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle.” But these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Family songs don’t have to be heavy, they can be funny or nostalgic, too. Think Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” They don’t even have to be about bloodlines. There is the family of man. There are adopted families. There are the families of people we choose in life. Families can be longstanding, or they can be broken by divorce or other circumstances. Probably the best quality a great song about family needs to have is authenticity. It needs to be grounded in truth; whether that truth is poignant, wistful, nostalgic, funny, hardscrabble or otherwise. The song needs to be honest if it is going to have a shot at connecting with an audience, or a song contest judge for that matter.
Social Activism Songs: The easiest way in to this category is the old standby, the “protest” song. There have been protest songs in all kinds of musical genres. “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, “War” by Edwin Starr, “Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, “Rocking in the Free World” by Neil Young, these are just a few of the many great “protest” songs of all-time. The social activism song is a song type that the folk genre helped to create, but as musical history evolved in the 20th century, the protest song began showing up in all genres. These are political songs, songs that call for change, songs that seek to shine the light of truth on injustice, and songs that inspire people to want to change the world, or even their own backyard. The best social activism songs are the ones that educate, elucidate, inspire and motivate people to change.
Songs About Places: When I think about this category, the first “place” I think about is home, which is kind of weird to me, because when I think about “home,” I don’t really think about a specific place as there are many “places” I have called home. There are all kinds of “places” that can be the subject of a song, like a bar, a prison, a hometown, an exotic foreign place, a real place or a fictional place of the imagination. A desert, an ocean, the sun and the moon, or the top of a mountain or the bottom of a well. Use your imagination! However, for a song about a place to be effective, it needs to contain vibrant visual details to give the listener a sense of the place. Songs about places need to have a major visual component so that the listener can visualize the place, whether real or imagined. Some great songs about places that come to mind are Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Dave Loggins’ “Please Come To Boston” and about a million others.
Holiday Songs: When we think of holiday songs, most of us probably think about Christmas songs first and most of us probably know more Christmas songs by heart than any other kind of holiday songs. Christmas songs are sort of like the “love songs” of holiday songs in that they probably outnumber songs about virtually any other holiday by a wide margin. However, songs about New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving or any other holiday, even obscure ones, are just as valid in this category. Another thing to consider here is that the song doesn’t necessarily need to be written like a traditional Christmas carol, intended for group singing, although those are certainly fine. The song can just be set around the holiday, but have other themes going on. However, like “songs about places,” there needs to be good detail to give a clear sense of the setting or backdrop for the action that is happening in the song. A good example of this kind of “holiday” song is Slaid Cleaves “New Years Day,” co-written with ASG member Steve Brooks. One of the best aspects of a well written holiday song is its potential to become a seasonal evergreen, a song that gets played every year when the holiday rolls around.
There are many other points that could be made about songs from any of these “topic” categories and I hope you got a sense of how wide a berth you have in writing songs in any of these categories. There are many ways to approach writing any of these type of songs, but if you need a nudge in the right direction, some of the ideas discussed should be enough to get your imagination and creative energies moving.
We look forward to hearing your song submissions in any of the categories and wish you the very best in all of your songwriting endeavors.