Friday, January 14, 2011


In songwriting, it's all about the "hook"—that catchy combination of music, melody and lyric that sticks in your head. The hook is the message we want to leave you with. It's what we're selling.

The trick is to find a hook that expresses a universal theme in a way that hasn't been done yet. I found myself facing that challenge with "Soar," a song that my songwriting partner Rob Hoffman and I produced and co-wrote with Christina Aguilera.

Christina wasn't given the opportunity to write any of her own material on her first album. For her second album—"Stripped," which came out in 2002—she chose to break out of the pop-princess mold and show the world the artist behind the voice. She arrived at our studio with two bulging tote bags of journals. A hit album, world tour, first love, heartbreak, betrayal—all had been poured into those journals. It was time to get it out.

Christina had received countless letters from young fans, particularly women, lamenting the pressure they felt to conform, to please others. Having faced her own struggles with self-acceptance, she asked us to help her to write a song with a message to her fans:
"Be yourself and follow your dreams, no matter what anyone else thinks."
Rob went to work on the music. If you listen to the instrumental part of the song, you get a sense of the story: scene-setting in the verse, tension building in the pre-chorus, a payoff in the chorus, a new twist in the bridge and a climactic finale. Next, Rob looped the instrumental track while Christina and I sang along, trying out ideas until we had a melody that reflected the struggle to "be yourself."

Before we began the process of fitting words and phrases into rhyme and melody structure, Christina and I brainstormed, discussed shared experiences and mined nuggets from her journal entries. I summarized from my notes:
"We all have the tendency to try to please, to be accepted, so we bend when they want us to change. But after we give up and give in, we realize that it wasn't worth it. We have to let ourselves be."
A strong opening line is crucial. It should draw listeners into the story and lead them to the chorus. How does it feel to be pressured to be someone you're not? Like being pulled in every direction. I suggested:
When you're pushed and you're pulled, baby can you hold on?
When they tell you to change, can you stand your ground and stay strong?
When we co-write songs, we edit each other as we go along. The lyrics need to sing well and sound like natural conversation, so Christina is constantly tweaking and adjusting words as she sings them with the track, even as we're recording the final vocals. She improved my lines by adding action and imagery:
When they push, when they pull, tell me can you hold on?
When they say you should change, can you lift your head high and stay strong?
The hook was frustratingly slow in revealing itself. We considered and rejected "Do Your Thing" and "The World Is Yours." As part of my research, I read teen magazines to get into the heads of Christina's audience. I came across an article encouraging young women not to bow to peer pressure, and I wrote down:
"Be like an eagle. Eagles fly alone, not part of a flock. They aren't discouraged by people who question what they're doing."
This idea gave me the first two lines of our chorus.

We continued with the chorus lyrics and had an "aha" moment when I suggested the line "What are you waiting for?" We knew it would tug at anyone who feels they're not living to their full potential. It was also a perfect setup for our hook line, the missing piece.

Don't be scared to fly alone
Find a path that is your own
Love will open every door
It's in your hands. The world is yours

Don't hold back and always know
All the answers will unfold
So whatcha waitin for…?

Here's where we needed that missing hook line, whose last word would rhyme with "for."

I opened up the rhyming dictionary for ideas and jokingly proposed "sore." Wait a minute: "soar!" Our eagle metaphor! Let's see:
"Believe you can soar"?
"Be yourself and soar"?
And at last:
"Spread your wings and soar!"

And so she did. "Stripped" sold over 10 million albums and won Christina a Grammy and four nominations. "Soar" was featured in movies such as "The Pursuit of Happyness," accompanying tales of characters who beat seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

So whatcha waitin for?

—Ms. Holley, a songwriter and music producer, specializes in developing new artists and helped to launch Ms. Aguilera's career.

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