Jimmy's Buffet: Food for Thoughtful Tunes
Songwriting, Sunsets, and Sliders
Anything can be a song. I know that it sounds ridiculous, but it's true. I was looking at questions from budding songwriters in Quora's songwriting forum when I came across one that every songwriter gets stumped on at some point:
"What can I write a song about?"
Everyone who responded to this question answered with some version of "anything." Still, that kind of answer seems like it should be more satisfying. Most of us get into songwriting to have an impact. The reality of writing about something like a pair of old socks seems obviously trivial. Nevertheless, anything can be a song; I learned that lesson from Jimmy Buffett.
My parents recently invited me to a Jimmy Buffett concert, and I was sweatin'. I thought I'd be in for some of the most mediocre songwriting I've ever experienced. I've always taken inspiration from heavy hitters like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and plenty of other names that define the vocation we call "songwriting." Convinced that Jimmy Buffett was nothing but Margaritaville, I attended the concert skeptical but open.
I couldn't have been more wrong about Jimmy Buffett.
The minute the band started to play "Cheeseburger in Paradise," I realized what Mr. Buffett's talent truly is: he knows his audience. He is excellent at writing music that invites people to enjoy it. The themes aren't high falutin' and heady. It's music that even grandma can appreciate. Jimmy Buffett may write songs about cheeseburgers, but, as it turns out, scores of people, including me, appreciate songs about cheeseburgers.
At the end of the day, all songwriters should ask themselves, "who is my audience." Sometimes it's hard to answer that question honestly. If you're writing for a popular audience, your topics should consider that audience. If you're writing for yourself, then write for yourself. Consider yourself lucky if you can find a way to write something deeply personal that brings value to people by helping them feel seen. Sometimes you need to finish a song and move on to the next; in those cases, it matters even less what you write about.
Remembering that anything can be a song is important because you don't decide what someone will find meaningful. Your odds of writing a timeless classic like "Cheeseburger in Paradise" increase with every song you finish. Focus on finishing songs that will be the soundtrack for people's lives. Jimmy Buffett's success as a songwriter isn't because he is writing about the most profound subject matter possible; he is successful because his music makes a great soundtrack for a certain type of person.
It's easy to get caught up in considering appropriate songwriting topics as a beginner. We are inundated with stories of artists who changed the course of social or political events with just one song. Those types of stories, while romantic, don't describe the majority of songs that have ever been or will ever be written. And often, these stories are myths built over decades and bear little resemblance to the circumstances that initially gave rise to the song. So the next time you find yourself racking your brain trying to write a song while sitting in front of a plate of chicken tenders, remember that Jimmy Buffett is living proof that anything can be a song.