Can Good Production Save Bad Music?
There’s a sort-of old saying: “You can’t put lipstick on a pig.” Meaning dressing something up doesn’t change its inherent nature. Let’s sort this out for real.
First, I’m betting you actually can put lipstick on a pig. It might take sedation or some form of restraint, but it can be done. Second, has anyone ever asked the pig if it even wants lipstick? I have a feeling it’s totally fine being what it is. Third and pretty crucial, does the lipstick’s ineffectiveness mean the pig itself is not worthy? Finally and most relevant to this podcast, is this even true? If you put enough “lipstick” in enough areas, can you change the impression the pig makes enough to render its inherent nature virtually irrelevant?
Okay and fifth, what does this have to do with music? When you listen to a song, all that really matters is how it makes you feel. Do you like it? Does it evoke the emotion you want it to? Will you want to listen to it again? When it comes to gut level reactions, all the steps the song went through to get to its finished state are immaterial. If you think a song is good, it’s good. If you don’t care for it, it’s not. This is why it’s not just hard but futile to try to judge the quality of any kind of art.
But we do. The curious – those of us who take music seriously – do. We’re not satisfied with first impressions. We know instinctively – and often from direct experience – that we’ll find as many people who agree as disagree with our opinion of a song. If consensus says a song is trash, there are likely millions of people who think it’s great. If the accepted wisdom is that a song is genius, there are millions of people who are indifferent to or flat out hate it.
This is what makes the process of creating music magical, even illusory. That general impression – trash or genius – is shaped by more factors than most of us are aware of. When we absorb a song, we tend to gravitate towards the big three: lyrics, music, performance. But it doesn’t stop there. There’s the arrangement & instrumentation (does it have guitar, drums, keys, backing vocals, etc.). The recording quality & aesthetic (lo-fi or hi-f, crisp or warm). The riffs & hooks (melodic lines or power chords or anything else not fundamental to the original written song). And the style itself (strictly one genre, a mix of sounds, consistent & comfortingly predictable, all over the place & excitingly experimental).
All of those are part of the music production process. I’ve stated often that if a song is good, then it can be played & recorded in just about any way and still be good. It’s why I like to do song covers that are different from the originals. But what if a song isn’t good? What if, when you get down to the basics of the song – music & lyrics – there’s not much there, or what is there is kinda not great? Can all that production work save that song? Can good production turn a clunky, threadbare, or otherwise poorly conceived song into a gem?
Yes. Yes it can. It has done so thousands of times. I don’t often point blank answer the questions I pose. Most of the time they’re red herrings put up as entrees into a wider discussion. And sure, that discussion is happening here too. But this time around I can say unequivocally that good production – innovative & intuitive use of all those elements above – can create the near universal impression that a bad song is a great song. It can even cause you to question what the nature of a well written song really is.
Now, there have been just as many instances where the best of production intentions couldn’t make a cozy hearth out of a dumpster fire. Production is not the be-all end-all. But the cleverest producers/arrangers – the true geniuses – have given clear purpose & massive substance to songs that started out with neither. It’s when purpose & substance go hand in hand that the best results are achieved. Substance without purpose is meandering & self-serving. Purpose without substance is artificial and often masks a hollowness at the core. When you have both, then a flimsy song – a song that might even be ridiculed in its purest state – means more & moves more people. In short, great production can make a bad song good.
A quick note about the vice versa here, because not much needs to be said. Bad production has ruined way more good songs than good production has saved bad ones. And while “bad production” is also in the ear of the beholder, and oftentimes what was once considered bad becomes fresh & innovative – whether on purpose or purely by accident – on the whole, poorly conceived & executed production will sink a song. . A solid & understandable framework matters.
It matters well beyond music too. There have been plenty of world-changing ideas that in their original concept sounded ridiculous to a lot of people. In fact, as a wise companion of mine said, it’s probable that ALL world-changing ideas began not fully formed and outrageous to most people. It took perseverance, the willingness to shape & reshape, more clearly define & redefine, and the development of a strong & accessible framework for those ideas to take root & succeed. Abolition of slavery. Voting rights for women. Affirmative action. Gay marriage. Defund the Police. These and thousands of others began as wild propositions that had to be formed & framed & sold to convince enough people that they were the only acceptable future.
And just like with music, the converse doesn’t need much discussion. So many great ideas for social & political change have died painful deaths because they were communicated & executed exceedingly poorly, or coopted by “producers” who didn’t understand or care about the true purpose. We’ve seen this time and again, and are living through it right now. It’s heartbreaking to watch ideas you believe in so strongly get shot down because the organizers & communicators didn’t understand how to frame it & connect it with the majority.
All this is to say that delivery matters. Delivery can add value and substance to the thinnest of ideas. Follow-through makes a huge difference. If you care about something, no matter how runty & unformed, then figuring out how to make others care about it too should be just as important. Frame it so everyone else gets it. Make the truth & passion shine through.