What makes a relatable track?

Since I joined the moderating team at Fresh On The Net, a few people have asked me what makes us choose one song over another when the overall standard of submissions is so high. It’s a subjective question without a clear answer – even if I could give a reliable formula for a perfect submission it’d become old and boring after the sixth or seventh “perfect” song and we’d have to change it again. Not to mention the tastes and moods of different moderators – it’s not uncommon for very good tracks to miss the cut just because no-one was feeling that particular way that week. But hey, that’s showbusiness.

This did get me thinking, though – are there common threads that influence my choices on a subconscious level? Some kind of cheesy mnemonic all ready to be made into a powerpoint slide for music and media courses, perhaps…

Here, then, are five rating categories I’d use if I was going to use rating categories, based on the thinking process I find myself following when considering new music I hear. This is not definitive – I reserve the right to change my mind utterly at any point without notice and cannot in any case speak for any of my fellow mods (Tom Robinson has written at length on his own process at http://freshonthenet.co.uk/listeningtoinbox/ ) – but I have whimsically presented it in homage to the Bill Oddie classic Blimpht.

R is for… Relevance!

Specifically, relevance to whoever’s going to be listening. The purpose of any piece of art is to make the audience feel something, so if you’re writing a song about a messy breakup you’re better off focusing on feelings others in the same situation might identify with rather than venting specifically about how mean your ex was. Sure Taylor Swift does it, but those songs are hardly her most acclaimed work and you really have to be Taylor Swift before anyone will give a damn.

While it doesn’t do to be a slave to fashion, some sensitivity to time, place and changing zeitgeist is in order. Mike Read’s UKIP Calypso got it wrong spectacularly in 2014 – apart from the clumsy racism and terrible politics of the thing, a calypso parody in 2014 is pretty much the opposite of being on the pulse of popular culture, with or without the misplaced accent.

A is for… Authenticity!

It’s got to feel real and sincere.  But if you do fake or imitate, put in the effort to do it well, accurately and convincingly.

I’ve written before about my views on cultural appropriation in music (in a nutshell, I’m all for it so long as it’s based on genuine respect rather than cynical theft) and we should reserve the right to present constructed personas, fictionalised stories and differing points of view if it makes a more interesting experience for the listener. Often as artists we explore dark themes, stories and emotions that do not at all define us in everyday life and there are psychological tricks involved in getting deep into these characterisations and back again safely (something Alice Cooper famously grappled with).

The relevant theatrical term here is “willing suspension of disbelief”. If you present a fake nationality, persona or backstory, you won’t seriously fool anyone indefinitely however good you are at doing it – especially in the age of social media, fans expect to have some idea of the “real you” and woe betide your career if the “real you” is a phoney or a terrible human being. But you can establish a contract where everyone knows you’re playing a part and goes along with it for sake of the experience.

I once knew a really good rhythm and blues singer from Birmingham, England (still active), who presented onstage entirely as a mid-west American crooner. You’d be talking to him offstage and he’d be all soft spoken brummie, then as soon as he crossed a line on to the stage he’d suddenly transform into a grinning gregarious yank yelling “hot dickety dawg!”. It worked because he and his band were meticulous about making every aspect of their music as faithful to the source material they were presenting as possible. And honestly, if he’d carried on his onstage persona offstage it wouldn’t have worked as well.

C is for… Concept!

What is the statement or idea you’re trying to present here? It could be to explore an emotional experience, to present a political viewpoint, to demonstrate new and innovative musical techniques or just to make the listener get up and dance. But there should be some kind of intention on display – if all there is is three minutes of bland filler music and I’m not standing in a moving elevator I’ll probably put something else on instead.

As part of the creative process it’s perfectly normal for the concept of a work to change over time. You might set out to create a song with a certain theme in mind, only to change direction later on as things develop. Sometimes you’ll put out a song which takes on a whole new meaning after others provide their own interpretations, it’s up to you how much tolerance or credence you give to those reinterpretations.

Q is for… Quirkiness!

As I stated before, there is a lot of really good music out there. As the cultural power base shifts away from the traditional entertainment industry to an independent culture where anyone can build their own brand creativity counts more than ever to make yourself stand out. Being good is expected. Being distinctive is what separates the wheat from the chaff.

What makes you distinctive? Well, that’s up to you to figure out, and it might not be what you expect. It may be an obvious aesthetic or gimmick, it might be a particular approach to music making, it might be a unique combination of elements. It could well be the thing that makes you distinctive is the same thing every music teacher you’ve ever had told you not to do.

The old cliché compares the process to throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks (many have observed that what ends up sticking tends not to be much different from the thrower), so don’t be afraid to bomb early on and pay attention to anything that does get a response, good or bad (you can then decide what to do with that observation).

The most dreaded audience response for an artist is not to be slagged off or booed – it is apathy. If the audience start talking amongst themselves, clear off to the bar or otherwise ignore you, it’s time to try something new.

E is for… Execution!

The quality of performance on display. But this does not necessarily equate to technical prowess.

Basically, I want to hear the right kind of performance for the job at hand. If you’re doing jazz or prog rock you’re going to need to demonstrate precise playing chops, but at other times it’s not so clear.

Though ridiculed for her simple playing style, Meg White was the perfect drummer for The White Stripes, giving a driving framework for Jack White’s playing that would have been ruined by John Bonham-like intricacies. Punk and indie bands frequently downplay musical complexity in service of message and emotion and as noted in the section on ‘Quirkiness’, the thing that makes your style might well be the sort of thing to make your vocal coach quit in protest (step forward Bob Dylan and Shane McGowan).

But whatever it is you end up doing, practice hard and do it well. Looseness is not an excuse for lack of rehearsal, just the same as intricate technical chops are no excuse for having nothing to say.

Put it all together now and it…

spells…

RACQE.

No, I’m not going to tell you how to pronounce it.

1 thought on “What makes a relatable track?

  1. This is really helpful. I think that a lot of artists struggle with how to be true to themselves while at the same time wondering if what they are doing is relevant. It can be slippery slope with sliding down into total self indulgence on one side and out and out pandering on the other. I think that “RACQE” could be a way for artists to check themselves. It can also be a way to listen to other’s music. Listening to music with “RACQE” in mind can give you insight into what makes a song work or not. Maybe you could do a series where you critique songs from different genres using “RACQE” so that we can see it in action.

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