As one of the most enduring names in alternative rock music, it’s unsurprising that Dave Grohl has a thing or two to say about the art of songwriting. After rising to fame with the seminal 1990s grunge outfit Nirvana, and losing his bandmate to suicide, Grohl refocused his efforts to create Foo Fighters, a project which saw him emerge from the cloister of his drum kit and take up the role of frontman with ease.
After five studio albums, Foo Fighters hit new heights with the release of 2006’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, an LP which combines furious dirt-driven guitars and quiet acoustic numbers in a way that went on to become something of a cliche. At the time, however, it marked Foo Fighters out as a band with the power to cater to every kind of rock fan. Nowhere is Grohl’s attempt to galvanise his fanbase more evident than in that 2006 album’s number one single ‘The Pretender’, which saw him link gently strummed, ‘Stairway To Heaven’-inspired acoustic passages with explosive, fuzz-laden choruses to blood-boiling effect.
In an interview shortly after the release of Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, Dave Grohl was asked to break down the lyrics to ‘The Pretender’, with the interviewer picking out the song’s central refrain “what if I say that I’ll never surrender?” as one of its most irresistible lines. The answer Grohl gave serves as an excellent piece of advice for any songwriters out there, especially those looking to bag themselves a stadium rock hit. “There are songs that are very specific, and there are songs that are written with a very general emotion in mind,” Grohl began. “Sometimes I’ll write a song that’s so vague that an audience will sing along for 16,000 different reasons. I’d hate to exclude someone from a song because it’s about someone they don’t know”.
Here, Grohl pinpoints an essential feature of good songwriting: that it needs to tap into something universal. If you’re playing to 3000 people, all of whom have led different lives, do different jobs, and approach the world around them from different points of view, it’s essential that one’s lyrics capture something that every single one of those 3000 people will be able to resonate with. Grohl’s line “what if I say that I’ll never surrender?” is a perfect example of this kind of tactical vagueness, conjuring up connotations of defiance and strength in the face of adversity; ideas that strike at the heart of our desire to overcome life’s obstacles.