Maps, Terrains, And Pop-Songwriting Tips

since you been mapped, I can arrive on the first time

Maps, Terrains, And Pop-Songwriting Tips

The map is not the terrain. The map is a version of the terrain, but it’s not the same thing. It physically can’t be.

The little graphic on my phone GPS that says where I am going and tells me how to get there is useful, but I can’t (and choose not to) live in phony maps-land.

A map is always all metaphor. Sometimes useful. Sometimes misleading.

Take the song, “Maps” - which is a life metaphor, but also only one perspective on a very nuanced bit of relationship terrain.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs classic track is one version of how to write a song (if we can keep tings at the cartography level for a minute).

Like a physical map, you can imagine it as a song that’s got all the required component parts. And, like a physical map, that means we can re-observe the terrain and redraw it. Which is exactly what happened when it became the source material for Kelly Clarkson’s wayyyy bigger hit, “Since U Been Gone.”  

How does “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you” turn into “Since you’ve been gone, I can breathe for the first time” exactly?

Imagine you’re in a quiet room, in a comfy chair, with headphones on. You are instructed that as the song progresses, you are to dial a knob up and down based on the vibes/intensity the song gives you. It’s a 1-10 range, and you start just to the left of 1. 

You close your eyes. “Maps” comes on. The tremolo guitar immediately pushes your dial to 4. 

The drums and vocal begin, with that perfectly punctuated guitar part entering, and the “Say say say” thing. You’re dialing it up, maybe all the way to 7 or 8. 

And then the chorus washes in and washes you out. “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you” is a total exhale. You gloriously slip the dial back to 4 or even 3. 

It feels good. The feeling of the punctuation getting sucked out into a sea of fuzz. It’s early 2000s indie rock at its anti-dynamic, post-climactic, 90s soft-verse with a loud-chorus reversing, best. 

Max Martin and Dr. Luke heard the song in 2003 and focus-grouped it like this. Martin was ready to move on from boy bands and total teeny-bopper music. He was looking to get back into something that rocked. He was playing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song as homework. Studying where everything was on this map.  

They knew the song was magic. They knew the song was an indie-rock-success-map for the times. And, they knew the chorus slipping down the intensity dial hurt them in their shiny-pop making souls so badly that they had to do something about it. 

You’re back in the quiet room and comfy chair with the headphones on. The same instructions apply. The dial is in your hand, rolled left. 

A gently chugging guitar begins and you’re aware of the pace. The dial hits 4. The drums and vocal start. There are pauses, much like in “Maps,” positioned between each line of lyrics. There’s a heck of a pause before you hear, “Yeah, yeah, since you’ve been gone” the first time. The dial is creeping up to 6 almost on autopilot. 

At “An all you’d really hear me say” you’re at 7. There’s a new version of the punctuating guitar again. Well, not again. But kind of again. We’re ramping. The tension is palpable until everything drops but the vocal, out of nowhere, like we’ve tripped over a threshold and come crashing onto a new room only to look up and hear…

“But since you’ve been gone,” with a giant - albeit brief - gasp of space, “I can breathe for the first time.” 

You check your hand and realize you broke the dial clear off. You went so hard right you turned it straight past 10. These dials do not go to 11, and you tore it off exactly like the song pushed you to. 

The terrain of “Maps” and “Since U Been Gone” is rock music and love stories. You can start to zoom in, you can even make it female-led, early 2000s rock band music if you want. But this is where the map-making takes over. 

In the hands of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the map is a response to their non-90s new-alternative aesthetics. 

In the hands of Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Kelly Clarkson, the map is a GPS-guided missile straight to the top of the pop charts. 

The map is never the terrain. It’s always a story the cartographer who made it wants to tell. It’s true in music, and it’s true everywhere else. Studying different maps of similar terrains can be tremendously insightful. Just listen and you’ll see: 

Ps. Worth mentioning this too - originally the song was intended for P!nk. She turned it down. Then, Hillary Duff was an option, BUT, she couldn’t hit the high notes. Kelly Clarkson was the third and final option. Martin worried she was too teenybopper still, coming off of American Idol fame, but once they met and they talked about her desire to rock out, and of course - once they heard her sing it, the song became hers. Magic. 

This song ended up on my PNL for a Purpose playlist in response to Ben Hunt talking about maps in the media and markets. We got into it at a broader level, as well as with this story, on this episode of Breaking News too. Which, all that collectively, inspired this very post.