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Blog: Secrets Of The Pop Song

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There is a GRATE documentary series on the telly at the moment called Secrets Of The Pop Song which is so OBVIOUSLY BRILLIANT i find it amazing that so few, if any, programmes have done the same thing.

If you haven't seen it yet... well, you can watch it on iPlayer, but basically they look at the process of writing pop songs. That's it really, and you'd think it's SUCH an obvious thing to do that it would have been covered in several series every week since the start of telly. We all LISTEN to these songs, millions of us are fascinated by the people who write and perform them, and whole showbusiness industries are devoted to telling us about them, but there's very little we actually ever see about how it's DONE. I know you occasionally get documentaries about the making of an album, but they always seem to end up focussing on the relationships between the artists, rather than how they actually wrote the music.

The first episode (and only one so far, which I just finished watching) showed Guy Chambers and Rufus Wainwright sitting down together to come up with a song. It was interspersed by Actual Pop Song Writers talking about their own songs, and that itself was FASCINATING. Again, we're used to seeing pop stars on chat shows joking around about their lives and telling stories, but this time people like Diane Warren, Sting, Boy George and Neil Tennant were talking seriously but VERY ENTHUSIASTICALLY about how they actually wrote them, what they mean, and the ARCANE MYSTERIES of it all. It was fantastic - each of them was like every 14 year old who's just written his or her first proper song, wanting to share the ideas behind them and keen to share their delight in accessing The Magical Wonderland Of Inspiration. Why on earth don't TV shows ask them this more OFTEN?

The overriding NARRATIVE tho is Messrs Chambers and Wainwright's attempt to write a song, and it was BEAUTIFUL to watch them doing so, in EXACTLY the same way that everyone else does. You could see how uncomfortable they were at the start, the struggle to think of rhymes (I was shouting at the telly "RUFUS! 'Matters'! It sort of rhymes with 'Battle', use THAT instead) and worrying about whether certain lines were any good - I loved the fact that even by the end Guy Chambers was still wittling about whether "Don't bore us/Get to the chorus" was too in-jokey.

There were two bits that really stood out though. The first was when Guy Chambers was playing some riffs on his piano and Rufus Wainwright started singing along... and suddenly GOT something. You could FEEL it at the other end of the telly tube and you could SEE them realising it too. It's that moment that ANYONE who's ever written a song will recognise, when you've been piddling away for ages and suddenly HANG ON A MINUTE you've GOT something, and you know it's the RIGHT thing that's going to make the whole song work. It's a wonderful feeling and I don't think I've ever seen it captured on film before. And again, even though they're too immensely succesful very very wealthy men, you could see them getting all excited about it, just like the archetypal teenager with their first chorus.

As the programme carried on it was heartening to watch them fiddle around with the sounds, worrying about it all, and then spending ages on the Traditional Daft Idea, in this case sticking a bit of the 1812 overture over the end which, in common with most Traditional Daft Ideas, came out sounding GRATE. The OTHER best bit I mentioned tho was towards the end, when they performed the song in front of a small audience. Guy Chambers was nervously staring at the piano throughout and Rufus Wainwright was CRACKING GAGS, both obviously unsure if it was any good... and then it WAS! Afterwards they sat together in the dressing room clearly REALLY REALLY CHUFFED, also RELIEVED that it had all worked out - as I said, this is two men who have HUGE mounds of evidence that they CAN write songs that people will love, but who still a) worry about it and b) enjoy it.

It was a lovely programme all round, and I wish more TV Types would realise you CAN do programmes about music without being EITHER po-faced and boring OR silly and dismissive. I also wish I could get the bloody song out of my head too!

posted 6/7/2011 by MJ Hibbett

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It was a fantastic episode, and d'you know what, I'm still humming the song so it couldn't have been half bad!
posted 6/7/2011 by Gareth

Great call on recommending the show - I really enjoyed watching the process and hearing people talk about the craft of songwriting. Looking forward to the rest of the series now.
posted 8/7/2011 by Merman

Good programme, but the main problem with the "don't bore us/get to the chorus" isn't that it's in-jokey, or even lazy (like "why do I find it so hard to write the next line") but that Don't Bore Us - Get to the Chorus is the title of Roxette's greatest hits.
posted 8/7/2011 by Ben

Don't really care about his records, to be honest, but, fair play to him, Rufus Wainwright could sing the phonebook and make it sound impossibly doomed-and-romantic. I thought the main piano motif was 90% of the song's success. It's greatest failure was the lyric.
posted 10/7/2011 by steve

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