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Genre Top 5: Songwriters

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Today Genre Top 5 is one that’s not usually associated with writing, but can lead to a great deal of inspiration- music. Now, I don’t plan to turn this into a list of my favorite bands, but rather songwriters (and their subsequent groups) that have inspired the formation of characters for me. As I’ve said in my music inspiration post, all music has its own type of character, and listening to it can allow a writer to form a person in their mind, just from the subject matter of the song. So today is a list of five extremely personal songwriters who have inspired me, and will hopefully lead you to dig through your music in hopes of creating great characters.

#5 Doug Hopkins (Gin Blossoms)
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I put this writer early on the list because of his relatively short career, but the music he created and is still maintained by the Gin Blossoms today, shows a dark, intelligent, and surprisingly tuneful mind. Hopkins is famous as the original Gin Blossoms guitarist, writing many of their early hits like “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.” Unfortunately, he suffered from depression and alcoholism, and was eventually forced out of the band by their record label and committed suicide some time later. Ironically, his hook-filled, jangle pop songs often reflect this; beneath its sparkle, “Hey Jealousy” is a man begging an ex to just let him spend the night and try to recapture the days he threw away. Other songs like “Found Out About You” also bury darkness under a strong hook (listen to the song for a tale of a man bemoaning time wasted on an undeserving girl, but then taking a turn into possible revenge), and “Lost Horizons” is a clear reference to Hopkins’ alcoholism (‘drink enough to make this world seem new again’). The Blossoms were never able to recapture Hopkins’ ability after his dismissal, but have kept his themes, touching on regret and isolation in many songs (“Not Only Numb” “My Car”). Still, listening to the Hopkins material is a fascinating look at darkness and pain hidden behind jangling guitars and singalong hooks, and can form the basis for a character hiding their own pain in any number of ways.

#4 Bon Scott- AC/DC

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As a member of AC/DC, Bon Scott was not chosen for his lyrical depth. However, he did make for the immense character he put into his songs and roguish persona he made with them. His main appeal was his lyrical cleverness, being able to piece together phrases to great effect (“she had the body of Venus, with arms!). And while his voice brought a great deal of character to his songs, his lyrics and titles, (“Big Balls,” “Live Wire,” “Ride On,” “The Jack,” ”Highway to Hell,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,”) cemented him as a perfect pirate rogue, and a essential listening piece for anyone looking to make that kind of character come alive.

#3 Mike Ness (Social Distortion)

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One of the great underrated songwriters, Mike Ness’s catalogue is a perfect example of anger, growth, shame, love, and defiance. Listening to each album in sequence is literally watching a man grow before your eyes. Early SD songs focused on punk defiance and hatred of the privileged (“Mommy’s Little Monster” “The Creeps,”) but as Ness entered rehab for his crippling heroin addiction, his lyrics touched on regret and perhaps bettering himself (“Prison Bound,” “Ball and Chain,” “Cold Feelings”). He later branched out into the passage of time (“Story of My Life”), acceptance of faults, (“I Was Wrong,”), the difficulties of love (“Footprints on My Ceiling,” “Angel’s Wings,” “Writing On the Wall,”), while still maintaining a healthy level of defiance (“Still Alive,”). Like the best kind of music, it has grown with the audience and paints the picture of a person growing up, and learning how to hold onto what matters, like the best of characters can do.

#2 Bruce Springsteen

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As a Jersey guy, it was a given I’d have to include the Boss on this list. However, his inclusion is far from a location-based bias. Springsteen’s strength as a songwriter is his ability to craft real-life, in-depth characters in his songs. He can compose epic story songs about the boy finally making good (“Rosalita”) the loss of youth and its promises (“The River”), the hopes of the young against hard times (“Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” “Wrecking Ball,”) and how much home is something to escape from and something to find again (“Born to Run,” “My Hometown,”). Every time he writes a song, the listeners finds a touch of a person or an experience they know firsthand, and they feel themselves drawn into the realism. To quote Jon Stewart, “When you listen to Springsteen, you aren’t a loser. You are a character in an epic poem… about losers.” That common thread of realism make Springsteen’s characters people you see everyday, and as such, they are people that you relate to.

#1 Shane McGowan (The Pogues, The Popes)

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My all time favorite and most complicated songwriter. Shane McGowan, leader and songwriter of the first Celtic-punk band, the Pogues, is as much a character as the people in his songs. McGowan’s songs speak of alternating joy and misery. His songs generally have jig ready Irish music, but the lyrics are wrapped in death and rebellion (“Sally MacLennan,” “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” “The Sunny Side of the Street”). Yet when he writes a ballad or slower song, he can access the mind of an old solider and a young kid (“Pair of Brown Eyes”), his own misery growing up (“The Old Main Drag,” “Boys From the County Hell,” “Dark Streets of London,”) and the most tender, lovelorn lyrics ever committed to music (“Rainy Night in Soho,”). Perhaps nowhere is this dichotomy better realized then his greatest composition, “Fairytale of New York.” In this Christmas song, McGowan captures the realism of an old, worn out couple at Christmas time, regretting their lost years and blaming each other for their failures, yet with a small spark of love still apparent at the end. It’s a rich, memorable, realistic, and gripping tale, filled with two characters that like Springsteen, we can see everyday. But unlike Springsteen, McGowan dives into the darker underbelly, which makes his characters echo and resonate even more.

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Points of Light: Music

Last week, I discussed how a video game gave me inspiration for the worlds and diverseness of Lightrider. And since I’ve already discussed TV and literature, I’d like to discuss another aspect that helped in a particular area of the book’s development- my love of music. Obviously, this didn’t mean I was now writing about rock stars, but as Zelda helped me to create a diverse, rich world, music helped me to create real people to populate it.

Points of Light: Music

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