Mission Statement Songs

by Carl Wiser

I want to rock and roll all nite
(and party every day)

-Kiss

Yep, that's Kiss in a nutshell. It seems obvious now, but they needed a mission statement song to explain themselves: Were they from outer space? Demons? Some kind of clowns in a deranged circus? No, they just want to rock and roll (albeit substance free, as Gene Simmons made clear in his Songfacts interview).

Released in 1975 on their live album Alive!, "Rock And Roll All Nite" was the first big hit for Kiss and became their anthem. In his book Music, Lyrics, and Life, Mike Errico uses it to demonstrate the power of "Mission Songs." As Paul Stanley told him, "What people saw was this sense of empowerment and rebellious individuation... 'I want to rock and roll all night and party every day' encapsulated, in one sentence, what we were all feeling... once that was embraced, the band took off."

Errico is a musician and teacher with a knack for explaining complex songwriting concepts in simple terms, drawing on experts from other fields for context (like astrophysicist Janna Levin, who explains the benefits of repetition). His book covers a lot of ground, but we're going to dial in on chapter 8: Mission Songs, to examine the songs that make the statements for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Mary J. Blige, and Britney Spears.

AC/DC

Carl Wiser (Songfacts): To me, the paragon of mission statement songs is "High Voltage," where they lay it out: They're all about High Voltage Rock and Roll. This was early in their career and they never wavered.

Mike Errico: Mission Songs create a world by planting signifying flags, both literal and metaphorical, in the hopes that a listener will identify and want to be a part of it. "High Voltage" is the answer to the question, "What do you guys sound like?" and if you're into it, you're likely to stay and become a fan.

What's amazing about AC/DC is that they took a stance and stuck to it for decades: no acoustic ballads, no protest songs, no jazz odysseys... no string sections... no "disco phase"... their mission was to electrify a club with a sticky, bar-soaked floor, and they never changed their mission. Hell, Angus never changed his outfit. That's commitment.


Bruce Springsteen

Songfacts: His most famous song, "Born In The U.S.A.," is a Mission Song of sorts, but it's from the perspective of a Vietnam vet. He seems like more a composite of all his songs than a guy who can be summed up with just one.

Errico: "Born In The U.S.A." is interesting in the way it was misinterpreted; although a scathing protest song, it was used as walk-on music for Ronald Reagan. This happens a lot. "White Riot" by the Clash was adopted by white supremacists. In the '80s, people did lines of coke to "White Lines" by Melle Mel, ignoring lyrics like:

Either up your nose
Or through your vein
With nothin' to gain
Except killin' your brain


That, to me, illustrates that a Mission Song is no longer yours once you let it fly into the universe.


Alanis Morissette

Songfacts: She made quite a statement with "You Oughta Know," but that song relates to a very specific period in her life.

Errico: I think Alanis was saddled with more than she bargained for. "You Oughta Know" was her introductory kick in the pants, but the "Voice of a Generation" crown sat a little crookedly on her head.

I felt something approaching mission songwriting in her midtempo hit, "You Learn." There's a compassionate message, and a lesson, that I remember feeling glad someone with her reach could convey. As her present Broadway success shows, once a fan connects to an artist's mission, they remain loyal for the long haul.


Eminem

Songfacts: He uses different personas, but we got a good look at Slim Shady early on in "My Name Is."

Errico: In the video, Em taps on the inside of the TV, literally interrupting American culture with a nasal, grating, "HI!" Then he lays out a manifesto of who he is, where he's from, what he thinks about everything, and by the end of the song, you've either bought in, or not. But he made sure no one was left sitting on the fence. It's an ultimate Mission Song.


Whitney Houston

Songfacts: Her biopic will be called "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," and her signature song is "I Will Always Love You." Then there's "I'm Every Woman."

Errico: With "I'm Every Woman," Whitney inhabited a song written by Ashford & Simpson, shared it with Chaka Khan, who also had a hit with it, and gave it new life.

A Mission Song can do that - it can resonate so clearly that many people can unite around it. Also, since it's a concept - "every woman" - it can be interpreted many ways, by listeners as well as other artists.


Billie Eilish

Songfacts: It's still very early in her career, but she already has a Mission Song with "Bad Guy."

Errico: This is what I call a personality-driven Mission Song. We know who she is, because she told us in plain language: She's the "bad guy." She's provided decoding glasses for her art, and made it easy for us to buy in, or buy out. I use this song as an example, and I tell my students, "The world has no idea who you are, and it's your job to tell them."


Bob Dylan

Songfacts: Not an easy one to pin down, which might be why tomes have been written about his work.

Errico: Whatever he says he is, he has also said he isn't, and I think part of who Dylan is lives in the aggregate of his work: sort of here, sort of not.

He reminds me of quantum theory - the idea that nothing is anywhere specifically, but only probably. But you know? Being enigmatic is also a signifying flag. Some people love that, in the way they loved wondering who was under the helmets in Daft Punk.


From the book: Mike's idea board for writing a Mission SongFrom the book: Mike's idea board for writing a Mission Song

Lady Gaga

Songfacts: She leaned into her ethos of acceptance with "Born This Way."

Errico: This is a destiny-driven Mission Song. These songs establish a backstory that grounds the artist in an aura of inevitability. They say, "Something about me is predetermined. It is beyond my control; it is beyond all of our control. Fate has spoken, and here I am."

Gaga's story is that she had no choice in the matter. She was born to be who she is, and all alternatives are out of her reach, and out of ours. Using this song, I ask my students, "What are you born to do? What is your birthright, real or imagined? Now write it."1


Mary J. Blige

Songfacts: An artist that really bares her soul and connects with her audience. Assigning a song to an album title gives it extra weight, and that's what she did with "No More Drama."

Errico: I've loved her from the early days, and Mission Songs are part of that reason. On What's The 411, and My Life, she laid it out: "I'm looking for a real love"; "Take a look at my life and see what I've seen..."

Mission Songs teach us how to understand artists by learning what they stand for. Mary was brave, and vulnerable, and listeners couldn't help but sign up for the ride. Add to that her raw, throaty delivery, and it's an undeniable package.


Bill Withers

Songfacts: When I interviewed him, it became clear that "Lean On Me" was his mission statement, and he explained how hard it was to say something so profound in such simple terms.

Errico: "Call to Action" Mission Songs have titles with active verbs that address "you" directly. Withers offered a generous take on the Mission, and it said so much about him as an artist. His voice was also perfectly suited for the generosity of the sentiment. It has shades of "You've Got a Friend," in that the verses outline a problem, and the chorus offers the solution.

And there's another characteristic - the use of the imperative, "lean." You see that a lot. "Lean On Me," "Come Away With Me," "Take Me To Church," etc.


Public Enemy

Songfacts: "Fight The Power" is a call-to-action mission statement.

Errico: 100%. It's a manifesto, a directive, and a dialectic, all in one. After listening to this song once, do you really not know what it wants you to do? Do you really not know what Public Enemy is about? I doubt it, and that's a result of strong, committed writing. If you want to be understood, be understandable.2


Britney Spears

Songfacts: "Toxic" has aged well and was part of her Vegas show. An interesting artist because we now know how little control she had over her life and image.

Errico: Good songwriters - whether or not they're the artist - can follow a career arc and interject signifying flags that draw a line through a career. "Toxic" is one of those flags, but she had to plant "I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman" to get there.

A career artist narrates their journey, one Mission Song after another. If you're a fan, the journey is as rewarding as the stops along the way.

October 15, 2021
Get Mike's book Music, Lyrics, and Life: A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter at Amazon.

Further Reading:
Songwriters Workshop, Part 1
The "Three Things" Rule And More Songwriting Tips From Jim Brickman

Footnotes:

  • 1] Gaga was able to change her mission from "Just Dance" to the more substantial "Born This Way," but many artists make dancing their mission. Good examples are "Gonna Make You Sweat [Everybody Dance Now]" by C+C Music Factory and "Pump Up The Jam" by Technotronic. (back)
  • 2] Some artists make call-to-action mission statements they later regret. When Beastie Boys released "You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party," they took a stand for puerile fun, which made it hard to get taken seriously when they had something important to say. They distanced themselves from the song and found a path that led to Cleveland, but many will always think of them as the belligerent hooligans they portrayed in the video. (back)

More Song Writing

Comments: 4

  • Fx from GtKnow Your Enemy -- Rage Against the Machine.
  • Rl from Nyc John Lennon - Imagine please sums him up a bit.
  • Steve Rhodes from ChicagoI forgot: "Fight for Your Right" was a "goof," as Songfacts notes, so hardly a mission statement. It was the opposite of what the Beasties were about.
  • Steve Rhodes from Chicago"Born to Run" is clearly Bruce Springsteen's mission song. "Born in the USA" isn't even about himself, but about dispossessed Vietnam vets returning to America. It wouldn't even be on the list of dozens of possible Springsteen songs. As for Dylan, "It Ain't Me, Babe" is as personal a declaration as he's made about being perceived as having a mission. (I'd also argue that "Back in Black" is the mission statement of Brian Jones-era AC/DC.)
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