She’s Got Electric Boobs: On Songwriting
The first song I ever wrote was about Barbie. My dad helped me pluck the notes from the piano and drop them into notation on a tan piece of construction paper. I remember neither the music nor the lyrics now– I’m sure some rummaging through the dusty boxes my mom collected of every piece of artwork I ever produced could turn up that old, faded paper, but it would hardly be worth the allergy attack. I think there was mention of her boots. (It could have been boobs.) What I do remember about the Barbie song was that it was utter shit. It was about Barbie.
My teen years didn’t fare much better in quality song production. An old journal hides lyrics to what would surely have been a Christian-country-crossover hit, which is never something to brag about. It was a sort of TaylorSwiftian, earnestly heartfelt song with an obligatory, corny hook, and, goshdarn, it was spiritchul. Thanks be to gawd I never set music to it. It would be “Christmas Shoes” all over again.
When I began college as a vocal performance major, I suddenly had to labor with a lot of theory. Music wasn’t just about singing anymore; in fact, it was rarely about singing anymore. Music was almost exclusively studying, homework, and piss-poor piano playing. And I was so busy learning about music that I never even thought of writing songs.
But I took an advanced lit class. And I wrote the hell out of some essays. And as the study of music efficiently killed my love for music itself, the study of language grew my love not only of language but even, again, of music.
So I changed majors and schools, and I learned about writing, and I listened to the kind of music that really made me want to write because that, it turns out, is where my heart is. And I think that’s how you know when you’re listening to truly good music: It makes your heart move.
And maybe that’s the key to writing good songs, too. Not to write about the meaningless, not to fuss with formulas. But to follow the movings of the heart, to track each flutter, and to write them down really well; to be a dedicated ornithologist for those little songbirds.
And though some solid music theory probably helps, I’ll never know. But I will sure as shit not be writing any more songs about Barbie.
In Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” I always hear “she’s got electric boots” as “she’s got electric boobs.” Share one of your favorite song lyric misunderstandings in the comments!