On Wednesday, April  22, pop songwriter and former “American Idol” judge Kara DioGuardi visited Eastman School of Music to offer constructive feedback to aspiring singer songwriters. DioGuardi has co-written songs with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Hilary Duff, among other artists. In the seminar, six participants performed their original music for DioGuardi. Participants included Take Five scholar Ethan Lipkind and Eastman  School of Music (ESM) senior Ben Fang.

Using her experience co-writing commercial music, she offered incisive viewpoints on how to craft a song that can appeal to, as she shamelessly put it, “the common denominator.” In particular, DioGuardi stressed clarity in songwriting. She would probe each participant on their song’s central purpose, starting from its title and working into the lyrics. DioGuardi made songwriters confront precisely what they were trying to communicate in their music–after one performance, she made a comment to the audience where she compared a chorus to the thesis of an essay. With this kind of focus in her mind, DioGuardi left some participants  questioning what they really intended to say through their songs.

DioGuardi also stressed cultural relevance in music. At one point in the night she went on a brief tangent explaining why she doesn’t like to shop at the Gap for her clothes anymore—she feels the brand is old at this point; in fact, she expressed contempt for all the people she sees on the street who wear Gap clothes.

DioGuardi’s mentality on staying current was especially prevalent when she critiqued a song which had an obvious Broadway influence. After listening to the song, DioGuardi was quick to remind the songwriter what finding love is all about in a modern pop song: “getting drunk at the club.”

DioGuardi’s expertise lays not just in songwriting but also in finding chemistry in collaborations which have the potential to draw in many demographics. In fact, to two performers whose songs had particularly light and folky energy, DioGuardi suggested they work together. DioGuardi also made the point that strong pop music is seldom written by one person, telling the audience that “it’s hard for one person to be good at everything.” With this in mind, DioGuardi was quick to identify a participant’s strengths—she was also very quick to identify their weaknesses.

DioGuardi’s visit to ESM is significant—it’s a bold move for a top tier music school to embrace a viewpoint like hers. That’s because while DioGuardi’s visit was fascinating, it was somewhat disenchanting to see how behind the scenes, modern pop music is so much like a commodity. Still, this is what made the seminar so exciting to watch: it was a glimpse into the pop music machine, and as I sat in Messinger Hall listening to DioGuardi speak about target demographics and the lowest common denominator, I felt that machine’s cogs grinding under my feet.

Howard is a member of the class of 2017.

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