Welcome to my Blog called, “So What Makes It A Hit?”
It’s helpful to study hit songs to try to understand their appeal. Why did it work commercially? Why did radio play it and why did people respond to it? These are important questions to ponder as we study songwriting.
One of my favorite songs on country radio over the last couple of years has been “Better Man,” written by Taylor Swift and recorded by Little Big Town. This was a #1 single for the vocal quartet, and has been nominated for Song of the Year, Single of the Year, and Music Video of the Year for the 2017 CMA (Country Music Association) Awards, which will air on November 8, 2017.
So, what makes “Better Man” a hit?
I think there are several reasons, but to start, let’s look at the first line. The first line of any song is the listener’s introduction to the lyric, so it’s crucial that the line is strong enough to get the listener’s attention. “I know I’m probably better off on my own,” gets my attention because it tells me that the author has a story to tell, and probably a really interesting story. It tells me that she has been through a difficult situation, she has something to say about it, and is inviting me to hear her story. If she had said, “I broke up with my boyfriend,” I don’t think it would have the same punch. It sounds more common and just isn’t as attention getting. A great first line can make your listener “all ears!”
Next, let’s look at the lyric as a whole. It’s wonderfully conversational. It literally sounds like she is having a conversation with the man whom she wished was a better man. Women relate to this because most of us have been in that situation where we would like to have that conversation with an X. The entire lyric is strong and passionate, but lines like, “You push my love away like it’s some kind of loaded gun,” and “I gave you my best and we both know you can’t say that,” really tug at a woman’s heart strings and pull her into the lyric emotionally. Taylor spelled out, in plain language, this woman’s heart toward the man who did her wrong, but she did it with dignity and integrity, and without name calling. I think this is also an important point. “Better Man” is a classy, heartfelt lyric more than an angry, finger-pointing lyric. We feel the woman’s true emotion of sadness over the lack of love she received as well as her need to end the relationship. Isn’t that the point of any song? To make us feel something?
If you just look at the lyric, it appears to be long and wordy - maybe too wordy for a radio hit. Economy of words is important in song writing – you only want meat, not fat. So why does this lengthy lyric work? It’s all in the phrasing. Taylor did a terrific job of marrying the lyric and melody in such a way that the phrasing works brilliantly with this conversational lyric. “Better Man” is almost 5 minutes long – most hit songs are around 3 or 3.5 minutes – yet it doesn’t feel too long or wordy. The phrasing made all the difference. Spend some time studying how this lyric and melody easily flow together, as phrasing is an important part of song writing. And by the way, this lyric is all meat – no unnecessary words anywhere.
Now let’s look at the form: “Better Man” follows the classic Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge Chorus format. This is a common format for many commercially successful songs, and for good reason. It gives the listener a feeling of completion; that everything that needs to be said has been said. The hook (“Better Man”) is strong in this form which is imperative for a radio hit. We know exactly what this song is about. The verses give us the story and the bridge gives us a little more information which makes the story that much more interesting. Not all songs need a bridge, but it works well in this case.
So far I’ve only mentioned how women respond to “Better Man,” but I believe that men relate to it as well, which broadens its appeal. There are men who would see themselves as the X in this story and know that the woman is justified in the way she feels, or know a woman who has experienced this heartbreak and feel empathy for her, or know another man who would be this X. The situation could also be reversed and a man could see himself in the same position as the female in this scenario. In any case, a great lyric can reach anyone regardless of gender.
The way a record is produced is a significant factor with any hit record. The right production can make the difference between a hit or not a hit. While this aspect is often out of the songwriter’s hands (unless the songwriter is also the recording artist), it is worth taking a look at the production of “Better Man” to see how and why it worked. Producer Jay Joyce created a soft but hollow and lonely feeling in the track that works well with the lyric. There is not an over-abundance of instrumentation, just enough to create the overall mood of the lyric. The track never gets in the way of the lyric. It leaves plenty of space for the vocal harmonies to soar in the chorus and cause the listener to feel the heart and soul of the lyric. This is extremely important, and done very effectively on this track. Of course, Karen Fairchild’s emotional delivery of the lyric is also spot on. She convincingly sells her story and the emotion behind it.
Well, there are my thoughts on “Better Man.” You may have your own reasons for why you think this is a hit, and that’s good. We all hear a song in our own way. A well-written lyric with a sing-able melody is a winning combination, and Ms. Swift achieved both with “Better Man.” We may see her receive the Song of the Year Award in November!
I know I’m probably better off on my own Than lovin' a man who didn’t know What he had when he had it And I see the permanent damage you did to me Never again, I just wish I could forget when it was magic I wish it wasn’t four am, standing in the mirror Saying to myself, you know you had to do it I know The bravest thing I ever did was run
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again But I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man And I know why we had to say goodbye Like the back of my hand And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man A better man
I know I’m probably better off all alone Than needing a man who could change his mind at any given minute And it’s always on your terms I’m hanging on every careless word Hoping it might turn sweet again Like it was in the beginning But your jealousy, I can hear it now You’re talking down to me like I’ll always be around You push my love away like it’s some kind of loaded gun Boy, you never thought I’d run
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again But I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man And I know why we had to say goodbye Like the back of my hand And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man A better man Better man
I hold onto this pride because these days it’s all I have And I gave you my best and we both know you can’t say that You can’t say that I wish you were a better man I wonder what we would’ve become If you were a better man We might still be in love If you were a better man You would’ve been the one If you were a better man Yeah, yeah
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man And I know why we had to say goodbye Like the back of my hand And I just miss you and I just wish you were a better man We might still be in love, if you were a better man Better man
Songwriters: Taylor Swift