Over the last few years, I’ve had countless in-depth discussions with friends and fellow songwriters about the diminishing percentage of songs in popular music these days that contain one very crucial (some might even say essential) element. I’m referring to the big moment that happens in most of your favorite songs after the intro, verse and perhaps even pre-chorus. That clarion message or phrase, intertwined with a strong melody that ties it all together. I’m talking about the chorus.
Choruses used to be standard protocol for any serious songwriter trying to get his or her message across. But the growing ranks of unmotivated, untalented, lazy guys and gals who continue to pen one forgettable effort after another seem to have neglected that. Simply put, we aren’t receiving the great gift of memorable choruses that nearly every other decade has enjoyed.
Even the last decade, 2000 to 2010, produced enough catchy choruses (especially from overseas) that it feels like 10 years of glorious artistry when compared to our sad current decade. For clear examples of impactful, well executed choruses, check out Beck's "Girl," Audioslave's "Like a Stone," The Sounds' "Living in America," Ryan Adams' "Go Easy" and Mando Diao's "TV and Me." The choruses in these songs sound like a surplus of energy so great, it can no longer be contained. These artists put in the time and effort to figure out how to do that.
The sensation you get from a song without a good chorus is much less satisfying, and there's no shortage of recent examples. Someone should tell the band Beach House that dynamics and melody are the key to a distinguishable chorus, which you won’t find in a song like "Levitation." "Lionesse" (and most songs) from White Rabbits contains no chorus, yet apparently requires six members onstage to get the song's message across. The title of the song "White Blank Page" by Mumford and Sons is a good description of the track's generic, unimaginative melody for what they are probably calling the chorus — which is in actuality somewhere in between a tasteless refrain and a setup for their predictable onslaught of wordless banjo and fiddling. You get the idea.
Lately, this problem has infected our once-prominent local indie music scene. From the Satellite and the Echo to Bootleg Theater and Hotel Cafe, from every stage comes a seemingly endless flow of one wordless chorus after another, or songs with no chorus at all.
Sorry, y’all, but adding an amateur horn section and hitting your ride and crash cymbals with more ferociousness isn’t enough to make us aware that your song has reached its summit. In fact, it is just unacceptable. You just made us listen through your moody, drawn-out intro and first verse, which we thought would never end and all but ensured a fireworks display of a chorus, because surely something is going to happen here, right? But no, instead we get a wordless, melody-deprived cymbal show, or perhaps a disco beat if all else fails. Many of these songs play like a movie that ends midway through, long before we ever get to experience any semblance of an interesting turning point. Sorry, next trend please.
I suppose I understand the logic of how easy it is. With the no-chorus formula, almost anyone can crank out an unlimited number of songs with no real substance, record them onto their Macs (sorry, you're not engineers either) in their converted “studio” space, and label themselves artists and songwriters. And since it appears to be accepted in this barely alive, gasping-for-oxygen music scene, why not?
But here’s why not: At a time when music is overrun by TV music writers, knock-off composers, computer-generated beats, the club DJ and one talentless drone after another, you’re supposed to represent what’s still real and true in music — the serious, independent artist. But you can't do that if you can't even write a chorus.
Is it because you have nothing to say, or because you don’t have the courage to say it? Or are you just lazy? Real artists work tirelessly and when necessary, they travel to painful, sometimes desperate, emotional realms in order to figure out what it is they're meant to channel.
One key element of great songwriting that I don’t hear very much anymore is vulnerability. Artists should not be ashamed to be vulnerable in their music. On the contrary, this is something that songwriters should strive for. Vulnerability can be the ultimate form of expression; it’s telling your listeners how you truly feel and making them feel it in return. We are, after all, supposed to be giving the listener something they can relate to.
Songwriters like Dylan, Lennon, Jackson Browne and Bob Marley are (or were) talented beyond belief in many different ways, but what makes them the best of all time is that pure, courageous vulnerability that is apparent in so much of their greatest work. And those guys never allowed their incredibly thoughtful, poetic messages to be compromised by a weak melody. They constantly sought epic, history-making melodic designs for their honest, life-changing words, and when they found them (often in simple, four-chord progressions) they projected enlightened, emotional realms with their phrasing and stripped-down vulnerability. Then they sang those words and melodies from the mountaintops.
Paul Simon described what he tries to do with each song as “making it expand” from the starting point. Allowing it to open and become bigger and more vast as the song goes on. He, too, often did it in the form of one great chorus after another. In fact, Simon’s choruses are so great, it feels like you’re taking flight or elevating when they arrive.
I wish songwriters would aspire to be as great as their heroes, not just assume that’s out of the range of possibility and settle for emulating the band with the most buzz-worthy residency that month.
Remember all the great chorus bands of the ‘90s like Gin Blossoms, The Wallflowers and Oasis? Like ‘em or not, you know the words to all of their hits and have sung along to them more times than you're willing to admit. Know why? Because they're catchy and genuine. And those artists toiled long and hard enough over their craft to figure out how to make them stand the test of time.
Guys that mock Oasis songs make me laugh. You try and write a tune that you don't even have to sing onstage because the quarter of a million fans at the festival already know every word. Then write a dozen more like that.
If you want to call yourself an artist, then do the damn work. For a moment, forget about updating your social media and trying to jump aboard every bill at every local venue you can think of and write a fucking chorus and a song that’s actually worth performing.
I do have hope that we’ll see a resurgence of the chorus. It hasn't been very long since it’s become defunct, and I believe it’s too integral to what the listener naturally wants to hear. Plus there are still some great, heavy hitters keeping the formula alive. Amos Lee and Julian Casablancas, though both are very different in their approach, are among today’s veteran yet relevant songwriters who give the newer generation of aspirants a good template for how it can be done.
And once in a while, I even stumble across a pleasant surprise in one of our local indie music venues. I went to the Echo a couple weeks back with my good friend and musical collaborator, Jerry Borgé. The plan was to scoop up some people we knew there and head to the next spot. But just as we were about to leave, a band named Vug Arakas began their set and our plan came to a sudden halt. We were drawn in by their songs and the sincerity of the delivery. They appeared as a wonderful ray of passion and charm in a dwindling, chorus-less music scene, and I really do look forward to their next performance.
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My favorite quote from Borgé is, “I leave the room at the arrival of the first wordless chorus.” He didn’t leave the room once during Vug Arakas’ set that night. Neither did I.
Patrick Duniven is a singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles. The latest song from his band Duniven, "Oh My," does feature a chorus. You can catch Duniven live at Good Times at Davey Wayne's on Wednesday, Jan. 20.