The Road Map

By Michael Anderson

In Francis Ford Coppala's film Rumblefish, Mickey Roarke's character, Motorcycle Boy, says — "A leader has to have someplace to go." The songwriter is the leader in his/her song.

My initial way of critiquing a lyric has to do with how it feels when I hear / read it without thinking about it — is it clear, does it make sense? Do I understand on some level — emotional, intellectual, physical — what this song is about and what it might be trying to say to me as the listener?

Is it linear and flowing in a natural, conversational way, and telling me a story without me having to try and reconcile vocabulary, nuance, meaning, phrasing, vibe, innuendo, etc.? Can I sit back and effortlessly take in a lyric and know what it is about emotionally and/or intellectually?

Can I get an insight from it, and then feel like I have experienced something I want to experience and enjoy? Does it make me want to listen to it again — either to enjoy it or get more insight and nuance about what it is saying?

Does it take me someplace I want to go? Or does it take me someplace I don't want to go, confuse me, lose me, or worse, take me around the block for no reason, show me things I don't want to see, and then baffle me with imagery and ideas and information that don't add to the story?

Does it make me smile and say, yeah, that is true and said in a way that can't be said any better — I wish I said that?

Or do I just want it to be over?

All that in the first impression without analyzing it — pure vibe.

In that sense, anything that doesn't do that smile thing, is wandering — it isn't focused and cohesive. It is wasting my time and an opportunity to convey what the writer is trying to say.

Why it is wandering is another matter — at that point, as a writer, you need some kind of guide — internal or external — a map, to get you where you want to go in the most efficient way. Internally, that can be your gut feel — an objective, cold way of looking at your song and editing yourself. Externally, it may be TAXI, a consultant, a teacher, a book, a more experienced peer, or, least reliably, your friends.

There are some very basic directions on the map. What is your song about? That can be most succinctly found in you title / hook. Does every line of your song support, focus, and clarify / explain / expand upon your title / hook?

Think of the opening lines of Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" — "Yesterday, all my trouble seemed so far away, now it looks as though they're here to stay, oh I believe, in yesterday." He told you just about everything you need to know about the song and set you up to want to find out more.

Sometimes you can write a great line, or a great verse, but it really isn't moving your idea forward and helping your song. In film editing they are ruthless with scenes — many a great performance has ended up on the cutting room floor because other elements of the story moved the story forward better.

If you ever watch the "unedited" version of a movie sometimes released afterwards on a DVD you can see the process in action — the familiar version you know, and a version with extra scenes that had been cut from the first released version.

Many times when I watch the unedited, "director's cut" version it tells a more complete narrative — but the timing, pace, and focus feel slow and wandering — unclear. The director wants to keep his "art" intact — but the studio or producer can come in with an objective eye and unemotionally get rid of what doesn't directly help the film.

As a songwriter, you are in most cases both the artist and editor — a very tough place to be.

That is where a service like TAXI or objective professional consultants can help your process. (I will plug TAXI's custom critiques here again — best deal in show business as far as I'm concerned.)

But you need to be willing to listen and learn.

I read an interesting quote the other day — "A wise man learns from his mistakes, a genius learns from other's mistakes."

Study well-written songs, listen to people who know what they are talking about, and apply those lessons to your songs — and watch the reaction to your material — see how many people want to follow you when you know where you are going.

You can order Michael Anderson's "Little Black Book of Songwriting" from or


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