In Search of the “Bulletproof Song” | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

In Search of the “Bulletproof Song”

Lately, it seems I’ve been on a mission to get as much feedback about my songs as possible — beyond sharing my work with family and friends, I’m involved in two songwriting workshops and have been getting some one-on-one coaching.

Being the inquisitive type, one question that occurred to me during this process was whether I could refine a song to the point where it would get virtually no criticism.  In other words, was there such a thing as a “bulletproof song”?

Adventures in Criticism-Getting

To figure out the answer, I took one song and played it for twenty different people.  Each time, I’d incorporate the suggestions I got from the listener into the song.

As it turned out, every person who heard the song, from the first listener through the twentieth, had ideas for making it better.  More strikingly, a few people heard the song twice, and gave me feedback on the second listen that contradicted what they told me after the first.

Maybe, if I’d been patient enough to go through this process with a thousand people, I would have eventually ended up with a “perfect song” that would have been met with nothing but contented silence from my listeners.  But I doubt it.

I Guess I’ve Learned . . .

What this exercise showed me is that the “bulletproof song” is probably a myth, and that there’s no point in trying to create one.  Not only is it impossible to please all the people all the time — probably, it’s also impossible to completely please one person with my work.

This makes sense when we think about all of the factors that play into a person’s reaction to a song — things like what genre of music they like best, how much they enjoy hearing themselves talk, what they had for breakfast, and so on.  These factors can change from day to day, which explains why the same person can have different, and conflicting, opinions about a song at different times.

Remembering that it’s impossible to write a criticism-proof song makes the creative process much more efficient.  The less I focus on staving off every possible critique while I’m writing, the less time I’ll spend second-guessing myself, and the more progress I’ll make.

Do you find yourself trying to come up with, and address, every potential criticism somebody might make while you’re writing?

23 thoughts on
In Search of the “Bulletproof Song”

  1. Patricia

    I think what I learned in DARING GREATLY is that it is far more important to please yourself with your project and song then trying to please others with the perfect song…

    What you want is something that communicates what your value message is to more people and so that they feel good about hearing the message and it touches them and they can respond back with – yes that felt just right to me too….that wholehearted experience.

    Just put your heart into it and the elbow grease of your knowledge and the song and music will touch others and they will hear the message.

    I wish I could write a song…but that is not one of my talents…( I still wish I could still sing too – but I can not dwell there)

  2. Ruth Schiffmann

    I’ve learned this same lesson when seeking too many opinions on my writing. If belonging to one critique group is good, then two should be even better, right?! Not so. I end up with conflicting advice and in the end I have to trust my gut either way.
    Bulletproof or not, I hope YOU are happy with the song, Chris.

  3. Kelvin Kao

    Interesting experiment! I do think it’s a myth. And sometimes it’s not even about the song. Some people just don’t like anything you put in front of them. What a sad, sad life.

  4. Chris - Post author

    Hi Patricia — yes, I’ve come to see that the process of writing the song is actually the most enjoyable aspect of it, and that happens before anyone gets to hear it.

  5. Chris - Post author

    Hi Ruth — yes, it does seem like we not only get diminishing returns from adding more critics — we actually start to create more confusion for ourselves if we add too many people to the peanut gallery.

  6. Chris - Post author

    Hi Kelvin — yeah, I think we probably couldn’t count the number of factors that go into the comments a person makes on a song or other kind of artistic piece — starting with their experiences in the womb.

  7. Andrea Stephenson

    That’s an interesting experiment Chris and I think the results demonstrate that, while constructive criticism is valid, in the end we have to be true to our own vision to create something worthwhile. I do occasionally worry about the impact of something I’ve written, but ultimately, I have to be happy with it.

  8. Sara Healy

    Every time you hear music/songs they will cause a different reaction. I know there’s no bulletproof song.

    Regarding the criticism question, I have done this, but it’s too exhausting to keep it up. Again, when writing each person who reads it will have a slightly different take. I think the key is try to find what truly feels constructive, test it out and if it feels right… use it. BUT with the knowledge that someone will not approve of it. That’s why there’s that A. Lincoln quote that ends with, “You can’t please all the people all the time.” :~)

    Personally, I really enjoy your music and your wonderful creativity!

  9. Evan

    I do think there are standard forms in different traditions (the power a chord in rock, triplet stanzas in blues, symphonies resolving by using the same chord to end as they began and so on).

    But to communicate meaningfully I think these forms need to be filled with coherence and feeling.

    Communication gets tricky – it is the meeting of the performer and the audience (in person or via media). As our education tends to emphasise developing the form (a friend of mine in music school was told they could show him how to develop a tune but not help him figure out if the tune was beautiful or any good) there is a rebellion to emphasis on the (emotional or sometimes intellectual) of the writer or performer. However if the composer is ignored we get hollow and sometimes cynical performance; if the audience is ignored we get the artist in their garret performing for their own amusement. In either case meaning is lost and no communication happens.

  10. Chris - Post author

    Hi Andrea — yes, I’ve definitely found that, if I’m not happy with something I’ve written, it’s not going to matter to me how many people say they enjoy it or that I should run with it.

  11. Chris - Post author

    Hi Sara — I like that way of putting it — it’s definitely liberating to say to myself “someone is always going to disapprove of this, so I might as well do it the way I want.”

  12. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evan — what you said definitely brings to mind the fact that, although I think I’m writing them in a unique style, the songs I’m working on at the moment are clearly pop songs — they are structured in a traditional, Western contemporary way and use traditional time signatures (say, 4/4 and 6/8 as opposed to 5/8 or 9/8). Sometimes I bridle at this and sometimes I’m convinced that it’s necessary for communication with my audience to be possible.

  13. Coleen Patrick

    I think it’s best to go with your gut overall, including your gut response to the feedback. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a bulletproof song–or anything really. One look at reviews for books, movies, or tourist spots shows me opinions are all over the place. I think creating something you can be proud of is important. :)

  14. Chris - Post author

    Hi Coleen — yes, just having released an episode is going to be, by far, the most satisfying aspect of this, regardless of whether anyone sees it (although I think a lot of people will enjoy it).

  15. L. Marie

    Everyone’s a critic! I know next to nothing about what makes a good song, so I couldn’t offer an informed opinion. Maybe that’s good. :-D I agree with Coleen–you have to go with your gut.

  16. Alarna Rose Gray

    I’ve just been playing catch-up on your posts! Great to read the story behind the Quest… because there’s always a reason that we tell the stories we do. The one thing about creativity that is hard to hold onto is the confidence that what you feel, others also share. My relationship to music is based solely on feeling, which changes with the wind. So never mind us critics…follow the feeling. It’s all that matters.

  17. Kourtney

    I once tried to implement every criticism in a piece of writing. I ended up with a blank page. The very things some people hate are what others love. I think it’s critical to figure out who your target audience is and write to them.

  18. Chris - Post author

    Hi Linda — yes, I think it may even be impossible to “know” what makes a good song, despite the number of people who may say they have that knowledge.

  19. Chris - Post author

    Hi Alarna — I like your way of putting it when you say it’s important to be confident that “what you feel, others also share” — some amount of that, I think, is going to be necessary, no matter how much research we may do on the people who we are hoping will enjoy our work, since people’s reactions can never really be predicted.

  20. Chris - Post author

    Hi Kourtney — well, my target audience at the moment consists of me, and I’m pleasing myself fairly well, so it seems I’m doing something right. :)

  21. Jannie Funster

    Yeah, I do find myself thinking about what other people will think, about my lyrics especially, since I’m so word-driven in my tunes. Like you!

    I guess what it comes down to each time for me is liking the song MYSELF, I have to be able to feel to sing it. That “Love Is The Answer” tune has changed so dramatically from my initial write of it.” (I think I’m done it now, as of yesterday morning.) Even the title has been tweaked so I like it better. So… when Jannie is happy with a song, there is a greater chance that the ones who like my style will be happy too. The same will be true for you. And I like your style!!

    I know what you mean tho, about the listener’s mood, and what not affecting his or her listening experience. Even performances of well known songs I like can hit my ears differently depending on what I’m experiencing at the time.

    I think bullet-proofing is a good thing — there are definitely ways to craft a song and we do want them to be pleasing to ourselves and others. A lot of times it’s in the re-writing that songs really end up shining.

    Above all — enjoy the creating and sharing.


  22. Jannie Funster

    Oh, and good on ya, mate for sharing with 20 people and for being so open to critiques, the best songwriters are. Know when to go with your gut, that flow you are naturally born with, and keep an ear open to what others think — only the best will filter up, anyway.

    have a happy day!!


  23. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jannie — yes, the question of whether I actually like and am invested in a song is actually something I explore often with one of my songwriting groups — sometimes people in the group express the opinion that, even if my song sounds polished, it doesn’t sound like I’m emotionally behind it. Some of that might have to do with how it feels to perform in front of one of these groups, but I think it’s valuable feedback.

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