I have written a total of three pop songs, all within the last two years. They comprise nine minutes of my life’s work. This hardly makes me a songwriter. Furthermore, I have no idea if I’ll compose any more songs. Part of the attraction is that it is a marginal activity. But I think my pop songs warrant mention for three reasons: first, they are included for purposes of completeness (and more pertinently because I have a vague belief that everything I do is somehow synergistic, so they probably have some bearing on the other parts of my creative cosmology); second, because it has hugely (and unexpectedly) impacted my ability to teach my music appreciation course Rock, Sex, & Rebellion and my Songwriter’s Workshop; and third, because my willingness to share this nascent interest in highly consumptive (see Aesthetic Dichotomy), completely vernacular, and purposely derivative work signals the radically subjective, culturally relativist (and possibly under-stimulated) composer I am.
But first let me explain that when I say “pop song” I don’t mean what most professors of composition at august institutions of higher learning typically mean when they say that they are playing pop music: some kind of Grateful Dead / Phish jam-band endeavor; a fetish with Radiohead; or—weirdly—playing in a bluegrass band. What I mean is trying to write Top-40 hit songs according to the rulebook (however cynically monetized)—the one that says there should be two verses, that the chorus has to be bigger, that the bridge comes just so—the one that Marx said was just a bunch of commodity fetishism and Horkheimer and Adorno claimed was pseudo-individuation (and rightly so). Unlike my songwriting partners (more on them below), the point for me is not to make money from these songs. But it is to try to write a song that could plausibly make money, a demo version that could be sold to a popular artist and turned into a hit single. I identify such communion with extant stylistic norms and forms the epitome of consumption; ironically, my graduate students claim that this is the most experimental thing that I could do.
These are indeed demos. As such, they are not only semi-rough in their mixes, they are purposely “under-saturated” expressively—that is, they leave room for a famous artist to inject his or her own personality (an industry technique with which I was formerly unfamiliar).
I learned about the process of pop songwriting from Swedish friends of mine, Johan Becker and Fredrik Thomander, who are professional songwriters. (In case you have been living under a rock, a huge, unfair number of “American” hit songs since the late-1990s have been penned by Swedish songwriters. Max Martin alone has had 20 number one Billboard hits, and, according to the oracle that is Wikipedia, his 54 songs to reach the top ten charts places him above Madonna’s 38, Elvis Presley’s 36 and the Beatles’ 34.) My involvement with writing these songs started as a lark. I invited Becker and Thomander to visit Stanford to give a guest lecture to my rock appreciation class. Afterward I asked tenuously if I could try writing a song with them, and in a couple of days we banged out Back off Bitch. Later I composed All I Want Is You with Becker and Swedish writer Anderz Wrethoz. In June of 2015 I composed Because I Said So, the most recent piece, with Becker and Thomander during their latest visit to my Stanford class.
There are almost no pop songs today that are not “co-writes”—songs with two (or usually three or four or five) collaborators, some specializing as track writers and some as top line writers, some as both. Despite its dissonance with the ethos of the current pop co-songwriting world, for the purposes of this review I’ll try to enumerate my contributions to each song below.
Back off Bitch
By Mark Applebaum, Johan Becker, and Fredrik Thomader.
Pitched to P!nk (or an equivalent strong female artist with a retro-rock orientation).
I wrote the main guitar riff, most of the lyrics, and the harmonies (except for the pre-chorus). I played the main guitar part and all of the piano. I wrote almost none of the melody (largely composed by Becker).
By the way, this is a hetero-normative breakup song: the hook is that the guy is the bitch.
All I Want Is You
By Mark Applebaum, Johan Becker, and Thomas Wrethoz.
Pitched at One Direction (or an equivalent boy band). It is a song that invites “Glee”-like a cappella treatment.
I wrote most of the lyrics and contributed a very small number of melodic ideas. I made no other contributions; the track (as opposed to the top line) was already complete when I was brought in as a lyricist. While offered 33% of the songwriting credit I accepted only 20%.
Because I Said So
By Mark Applebaum, Johan Becker, and Fredrik Thomander.
Pitched at The Hives (or another quirky, noisy, irreverent band). This one is the least generic (or the most hybridized), in part because, as a compositional challenge, I wanted to combine a hard rock, Van Halen-like guitar riff with a perky, pop-oriented bass line reminiscent of the B-52s or Devo. As such, it is a weird alchemy, one that will likely have a harder time finding the right artist.
I wrote and recorded the entire instrumental track before Becker and Thomander arrived: I played all the parts and made a preliminary mix. When Becker and Thomander arrived we developed the “because I said so” concept (largely attributed to Becker), developed melodies (mostly Thomander but some significant ones by Becker and the bridge by me), and wrote lyrics (mostly me). Thomander edited and mixed the final demo version.
Consumption | Why Consumption?
The songs can be heard on the Supplemental Portfolio CD.
Finally, please don’t share these songs. They are being pitched through a business mechanism that I don’t fully understand; for example, negotiations are underway with a Japanese band for a translated version of All I Want Is You, and Back off Bitch is being represented by Red One (who wrote many hits for Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull, Nicki Minaj, etc.). Thank you for your discretion.