Influence, people think about it as someone you like but influence is also what you’re revolted by. In fact, often it’s what you’re running away from.
– Marc Ribot
An answer song is a song written in response to an earlier song.
When rappers battle, they’re actually tapping into a tradition that dates all the way back to the 3rd century BC, when Sumerian language poets argued in verse.
More recently, Woody Guthrie wrote the American classic “This Land is Your Land” as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which Guthrie thought was sappy and self-congratulating.
As a first draft, Guthrie called his answer song “God Blessed America”, but he changed the lyric while rewriting, replacing that line with “This land was made for you and me.” Guthrie’s song has since taken on a long, successful life all its own.
Finding a song to answer
Find a song whose topic you connect to – then write a lyric covering ground that the original lyric didn’t. Song lyrics are quite short, so there’s always something more that you could say about any given topic.
You could write as a character answering the original singer, telling a different side of the story. This could mean outright confrontation and argument, or it could just involve adding context and dimension to the original.
You could also write from personal disagreement, being as courteous or as confrontational as you like.
You can blatantly reference the song you’re answering, or you can keep your song’s origin as purely subtext. To write something more original and unique, though, and to avoid being cheesy… I’d encourage you to be more subtle.
You could even write an answer song in response to one of your own earlier songs. I know I’ve had the experience of opening an old notebook and wondering what the hell I was thinking back then.
Draft one this weekend
Go ahead and find yourself a song to answer – either one by an established recording artist or by a fellow aspirant – then draft a lyric in response this weekend. It can be a fun exercise, and a great way to show that you’ve got a mind and a voice of your own.
Photo of a friendly debate by Sonny Abesamis