The Localist: How to Write an Album, Part 6 – About-ness in Song and Album Writing
In Part 4, we looked at a more expansive conception of what a “hook” is, describing good songwriting as involving a multiplicity of hooks in each song. But a good song isn’t just a random series of layered hooks, no matter how densely packed. The hooks support one another in a determinate way that helps to express a clear idea or point of view that the listener finds compelling or memorable. They make the song “about” something.
Determining the “aboutness” of your music is important especially when it comes to trying to develop music that is novel and substantive (a la Part 2). After all, in order to determine if you’ve made anything novel of substantive, you have to have some conception of what its about, or you won’t be able to think clearly about how its different from other things or how it is substantive.
To get a clearer sense of aboutness, it’s good to look at how music can fail at aboutness. There’s a saying that the title of a painting often points to the painting’s weakness. The saying refers to the idea that a painting’s expressive qualities should make clear what the painting is about – and that artists oftentimes use the title of the painting as a crutch to give the painting an aboutness that was not successfully made clear through the actual manipulation of paint. The idea then is that the aboutness of a painting really comes from the medium itself. In this case, the painting failed to be about what is referred to in the title, hence the title.
In a similar vein, a piece of music’s being “about” something is not a matter of the artist simply stipulating what it is about. The music itself should make clear what it is about, just from listening to it. In some sense, this should not be too difficult, as most traditional songwriting is lyrically based, and the lyrics can give you a lot of clues about what it’s about. Though you can intend for your song to be about something and still fail. If you want a really good independent test at seeing what the music is about, give the music to a friend to listen to – make sure they give it a real bona fide listen – and they will be able to tell you what its about. If they tell you something other than what you think its about, then you have an aboutness problem.
Of course the real difficulty is not just having a piece of music be about something, but for it to be about something in a way that is novel and substantial, and here is where this exercise in determining aboutness can be a really instructive tool. What is the song about? Are you telling a story? What is the story you’re telling? Are you presenting a familiar story but in a new way that sheds light on the story in a new way? The music doesn’t need to be about anything novel and substantial in order for it to be art, but you need to think about novelty and substantiality if you want to make a mark. Maybe you’re not doing that, but now you have a conception of what you can work on as a writer to improve in the future. Chances are though if you are thinking determinately about aboutness for the first time, you’ll find that your music is about a lot less than you initially thought. But thinking about aboutness can be a guide on how to grow as a writer.
The concept of aboutness applies in equal measure to albums as it does to songs. In this case, what the album is about is going to be a function of what the songs are about. As with songs, the aboutness doesn’t need to mean a lyrical narrative. It can be a musical style, it can be a production style. But it does need to have an aboutness to it, otherwise you’ve got a problem. In some sense you might say that all proper albums are “concept” albums, in the sense that concepts are ways of talking about aboutness. I think the term “concept album” is a rather hifalutin way of speaking, and doesn’t say much more than “I’m going to be very serious in stating what this album is about”, but sure yes. In some sense, all proper albums are concept albums.
One very big and classic mistake that you should avoid at all costs, however, is relying on the idea that your song or album is uniquely about something, based on the mere fact that you as an individual are unique, and that you wrote and performed it. That fact is not enough to give body and content to your work, and is a crutch that lulls many artists into a false sense of security. Because everyone is definitely unique, the tough part is learning how to express that uniqueness in song, and that is no simple task.
The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. St. Lenox’s most recent record, “Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love” was placed on Best Albums lists at Pop Matters and AllMusic. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”