How To Make The Whole World Sing: “Small Stakes”
When you sit down to write, do you ever ask yourself what you want your song to accomplish? Answering this question is called establishing intent. Establishing intent is an important step in the creation of anything, whether you are writing a piece of music or building an electric car. The old maxim “Form Follows Function” is not just a catch phrase for furniture designers to dissect over soy lattes; it is a useful mantra that applies to all creative endeavors.
Most great songs serve an obvious purpose. They tell a story, pose a question or offer a solution to a problem. Sometimes their purpose requires multiple listens to discern… which might mean that their intent was just to get you to think. The possibilities are endless, of course, but the results are usually not an accident.
I love the song “Small Stakes” by Spoon and, for about five years, have been trying to figure out why. Musically, it is not really my cup of tea: A three-note melody running over two chord figures paired with a string of belligerent, snarky, insider hipster-speak lyrics, well-phrased but not particularly welcoming. As usual, principal writer Britt Daniels’ production is masterful, but not so much as to make the composition something special. To wit, I am quite sure that if “Small Stakes” were to be performed solo on acoustic guitar by your favorite troubadour it would, most likely, go over like a bag of bricks.
Which does not change the fact that the song is a really good song, the “Born To Run” for the Creative Class. This did not happen by chance. The song is a classic exercise in pure, undiluted intent.
Small stakes give you the blues
But you don’t feel taken don’t think you’ve been used
‘cause it’s alright Friday night to Sunday
It feels alright keeps your mind on the page
What are these “small stakes,” anyway? We won’t find out Daniels’ literal meaning until the end of the song but, right away, we’re curious. The stripped-back production leaves us enough headspace to wonder about the lyric, while the throbbing keyboard maintains a tension that let’s us know things are probably going to get weirder before they get better:
Oh yeah, small stakes ensure you the minimum blues
But you don’t feel taken and you don’t feel abused
Small stakes tell you that there’s nothing can do
Can’t think big, can’t think past one or two
It’s at this point that the emotion in the lyric and the music really begin to fuse. We realize that the melody isn’t going anywhere, chord progression probably won’t change for the rest of the song and that Daniels is perfectly content to keep hammering the point home in his gnarled baritone.
Remember that, on any given measure around this juncture, Daniels would be perfectly capable of going to a new chord sequence, changing time signatures or bringing in a string quartet to shed new light on his lyrical predicament. But “Small Stakes” is about frustration, the grind and, as it turns out, the need to induce a little chemical intervention:
Small –time danger in your mid-size car
I don’t dig the Stripes but I’ll go for Har Mar
The big innovation on the minimum wage
Is lines up your nose but your life on the page
So come on
Tell me I’m wrong
Would the grime and futility of a marginal, drug-fueled existence come across as effectively with more chords and an elaborate melody? Possibly, but not easily. “Small Stakes,” like most of Spoon’s music, is effective because it never doubts itself. It is a fearless number, its intent clean and open for examination as a fresh wound.
There is a certain irony in all of this: A good creative work will probably be interpreted in a lot of different ways. We won’t ever be able to completely control the way our songs are heard (or the meaning and experience that people take from them) any more than an architect can predict how people will feel after entering his new skyscraper fifty years from now. Upon a song’s completion, we have to be willing to release it into the world to affect people in whatever way happens to work for them. Our original intention may not always be the one that grabs a listener, but the confident establishment of that intention, just like any good idea, will spark an initial interest that might eventually make that listener love your song. Even if they can’t figure out why.