Songcraft: How She's Supposed to Be
How a song for my daughter became my albatross
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The song I want to talk about this week has been one of the most difficult songs I’ve ever tried to write, not because it’s terribly complex but because the subject matters so much to me. It’s a song about my trans daughter.
Every song has a job to do. If it’s a good song, it will masterfully move us in a specific way. “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire can make even a person in a coma tap their foot but no one actually knows the words or what they mean beyond the fact that something amazing happened in the ninth month of the year. “Spanish Boots of Spanish Leather” by Bob Dylan tells a timeless story of love in beautiful language, but nobody’s putting that on their Dance Party mix. A great song will move us in multiple ways, quickening our pulse even as it’s breaking our hearts, and making us think about the meaning of life. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2 is a song in this category.
I’ve chosen these songs to show the spectrum of what’s possible in the loosely defined category of “pop” music and to set up what made this new song I wrote for my daughter so challenging for me. Anytime you’re writing about a real person you care about, the stakes are high. Anytime you write about a politically charged topic the stakes are higher still. Anytime you write about something you have powerful emotions about your inner navigation systems are useless dials spinning in circles. For this song, I’ve been managing all three of these problems and I still don’t feel like the song is done. It may never be done to my satisfaction.
But I think it’s much more interesting to study an unfinished, possibly even broken thing because it gives us a chance to be open and learn. So, in that spirit, let’s look at my song “How She’s Supposed to Be.”
How It Started
My daughter A. has struggled with depression and anxiety since she was a child and we’ve lived in constant fear that she would take her own life. She is the most gentle, kind, and intelligent person and I love her with my whole heart. I would do anything to ease her suffering. So, when she came out as trans at the beginning of the pandemic halfway through her sophomore year in college, I was relieved. Finally, there was something we could do to help her become the person she was meant to be.
The year prior to this, her mother and I went through a traumatic divorce after being together for over 25 years. Things were not good, but I didn’t let go of A. and we talked and talked and talked, staying up into the wee hours of the night during quarantine in our little apartment. We were discovering who she was together, and I was discovering how to be a father to a daughter for the first time.
When I told friends and family that A. was trans, the temperature of the conversation always dropped by a few degrees. Inevitably they extended sympathy to me. “This must be so hard for you,” “I don’t know how you do it.” The truth is that I did not grieve the loss of my son. A. did not change into some strange, foreign thing. A. was still my child and finally, she had a path to become whole.
In the three years since she came out, I’ve been too close to the situation to be able to write about it. And honestly, I may never have written about it except for the fact that what’s happening in our country right now threatens my daughter’s basic rights. I have very little influence. I don’t take up a large presence on the public stage, but I do have a voice and I was determined to use it in support of my daughter.
The trigger that started me writing the song was’s newsletter Erin In The Morning. I follow it weekly and greatly appreciate her and her partner Zooey Zephyr’s battle for trans rights. As openly trans women, their courage and conviction are without equal on the political stage right now. I was moved to tears watching Zooey stand alone on the House floor in Montana surrounded by so many people full of hate for who she is. After the tears, I was filled with rage. The chorus and first verse came in a rush and I wrote the words as they were forming in my mouth. I’ve not changed them since. They are the template and the scaffolding for the song that would haunt me for the next two months.
Verse 1 She was never easy in her own skin Hiding herself in bathroom stalls You’re invisible if you don’t fit in But when you don’t see yourself in the mirror It’s hard to see any hope in anything at all Chorus You know my girl is tougher than you think You know what she is made of She had to fight to be herself What is it that you’re so afraid of Do you believe in things you can’t see? Maybe your god made her how she’s supposed to be
An interesting quirk I love about the chorus is how “you think” is both the ending of the first line and the beginning of the second. It’s one of those happy accidents that happen when you’re just singing. Something like this doesn’t make any sense when you read it but the temporal magic of how words flow in a song allows it.
I’m not spending time here to talk about the melody and the arrangement for this song because those both came very easily for me. There’s so much muscle memory and instinct to playing and singing that it’s hard to dissect and analyze exactly what I’m doing. When I record it with my narration of this piece, I’ll try to provide a few insights.
How It’s Going
The problem with songs is the thing that makes them songs which is pattern and repetition. Once you’ve established a pattern, you must stick with it, no matter how quirky or asymmetrical. I established a melody for the verse that makes it tricky to put the emPHAsis on the right sylLABle. Everything I tried to write over this melody either had to conform almost exactly to the pattern of the first verse or it was completely awkward sounding. Add to that the strange rhyme scheme and I had my work cut out for me.
This kind of puzzling is all part of the craft and like a crossword, you can work it out given enough time especially if you’re not terribly discerning about what you’re trying to communicate. But I did not want this to be a throw-away song, so I waited. I tried many different approaches and hated them all.
The easiest trap to fall into for a song like this where you are making a strong moral or political stance is to be heavy-handed and didactic. You’re angry and you have something to say so it’s tempting to skip the romance and be direct. But while direct is great for self-help books and computer manuals, it sucks for telling a story. Everything I wrote felt preachy. It felt like 90% tell and 10% show. To give you some idea, here are a couple of the verses I left on the cutting room floor.
A baby’s gender is a timeless mystery We try to solve with names and clothes But who we are and who we’ll come to be Can’t be reduced to a paint by numbers With two colors that don’t bleed or change or flow I took a trip to put my toes in the sand A beach in Florida where our family would go She used to love to swim and play with her friends Now it’s a crime for her to use a public bathroom Blah blah blah fucking blah blah blah who knows
You can see I got a little frustrated with the hole I was digging in that last one! I was getting more specific, more story-oriented, but the story was about me. I’ve been writing so much prose lately, I was greedy for words. I wanted to have space to stretch out and say all the things. Songs do not permit that. So, I set it aside for a few more days. When I came back, I had a new approach. Sometimes it helps to be reminded of what’s possible in the form by someone who’s mastered it. Jason Isbell is one of the finest songwriters I know and listening to what he’s done on his latest collection of songs inspired me. He finds ways to tell micro-stories using only a few powerful lines that perform a lot of heavy lifting. If you don’t know his work, here’s a track from the new album that’s a perfect example of his storytelling power.
Newly inspired and galvanized, I decided it would be enough for my second verse to develop an antagonist and to provide just a hint of inciting action.
Verse 2 He was tall and white and straight as the ruler He used to measure everything It’s strange how privilege breeds a need to be crueler To the people in the margins and the shadows Walking home, my daughter never saw him coming
I think this verse provides enough of a counterweight to the story I set in motion about my daughter in the first verse. It does the necessary work of advancing the story while carrying the burden of the message and most importantly, it’s singable. No matter how clever or perfect a lyric is, if it can’t be sung in a natural way, it’s worthless.
For the third and final verse, I gave myself permission to dust off the soapbox and make my moral stand. After all, this is a song with a purpose that is important to me, and hopefully, by this point, I’ve earned the right to be direct. I did my best to invoke a metaphor to make it feel less like a PSA and I feel like it works but honestly, I still really don’t know.
Verse 3 Change is the constant law for every living thing And still it makes us so afraid But a butterfly is butterfly when it gets wings We’re all moving through some stage of transition Maybe nothing’s meant to stay the way it was made
Do We Need a Bridge?
I’ve not decided if a bridge makes sense for this song yet. Not every song needs one. A bridge typically is used as a disrupter of the pattern, a break from the repetition so that when we return, the pattern feels new again. I need to play the song through for a few more days to let it settle in before I’ll make the call. My instinct is to keep it short and spare.
Like most creative works, it’s arguable that no song is ever actually complete. I have a considerable amount of trepidation about this particular song but part of my mission with Catch & Release is to share work early and often in hopes that it can be helpful to you. You are my first audience for “How She’s Supposed to Be” and I’d love to know how it feels to you? So, here goes…
How She’s Supposed to Be (Rough Demo)
Verse 1 She was never easy in her own skin Hiding herself in bathroom stalls You’re invisible if you don’t fit in But when you don’t see yourself in the mirror It’s hard to see any hope in anything at all Chorus You know my girl is tougher than you think You know what she is made of She had to fight to be herself What is it that you’re so afraid of Do you believe in things you can’t see? Maybe your god made her how she’s supposed to be Verse 2 He was tall and white and straight as the ruler He used to measure everything It’s strange how privilege breeds a need to be crueler To the people in the margins and the shadows Walking home, my daughter never saw him coming [Chorus] Verse 3 Change is the constant law for every living thing And still it makes us so afraid But a butterfly is butterfly when it gets wings We’re all moving through some stage of transition Maybe nothing’s meant to stay the way it was made [Chorus]
I’d love to know what you think of the new song or the story behind it. Have you had a similar struggle to create something for someone very important to you? Please join me in the comments section below so we can have a conversation.
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