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Songwriting isn’t lyric writing, even for Bowie

This morning on the today program I heard an interview with Nick Troop, a songwriter who claimed to be doing a psychological study of songwriting to investigate psychological health or… something.

A brief investigation took me to Nick’s websites, and the first thing to point out, as Nick does, is that his analysis is not supposed to be scientific, and not supposed to be taken to seriously. It’s a bit of fun, although I’m sure it would be interesting to genuinely investigate the interaction between psychological health and songwriting.

His website ‘The Gospel According to David Bowie‘ analyses Bowie’s songs from a number of different angles. Unfortunately where I think he misses a trick is that he’s only analysing the lyrics. He even talks about the difficulty of analysing Low because it has so few words.

When I was still studying I wrote a dissertation on genre in heavy metal, which brought me into contact with a lot of pop music analysis. Almost all of it is useless, for the simple reason that it refuses to engage with the actual music. Sociology related to pop music seemed to have similarities (though I read far less of that), and I can’t comment about psychological work related to pop music, except to point out that lyrics are a small part of popular music, and most certainly not the primary conveyors of meaning.

I’m a little dissapointed that Nick hasn’t teamed up with a musicologist to properly analyse Bowie’s music.

Bowie, as far as I am aware, has written only one song that is directly about his personal life (the excellent Jump, They Say). His lyrics have always been distant, and he has rarely worn his heart on his sleeve. The whole point of Bowie’s music has been to explore the interplay of character, theatre, artifice. He has also often written for other people, with all the implications that might have for self expression, and made use of various word randomising techniques which suggest a minimal regard at times for the literal meaning of the words. He has also referred to his deliberately commercial 80s albums as his ‘pension plan’ and written accordingly. I’m not sure how one could ever tell which of Bowie’s lyrics literally reflect his emotional state, and which are pastiche or parody, or simply far less to do with his own psychology.

And more importantly, lyric writing is not songwriting. If you want to analyse Bowie’s music, and you’re not going to talk about the gospel chord changes in Word on a Wing or Space Oddity, the use of improvisation and the use of the studio as a tool, his showcasing of excellent soloists, the riffs of Carlos Alomar, the tension between Bowie’s and Eno’s approach to arrangement… then really you’ve missed so much I wonder what the point is.

I know, I know, Nick Troop is only having fun and I’m not saying his articles aren’t interesting. I just think Bowie’s songwriting has always been about much more than his lyrics.

PS. Nick Troop is also a pretty good songwriter in his own right. Have a listen to the tracks on nicktroop.com

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