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Page last updated at 11:41 GMT, Tuesday, 22 July 2008 12:41 UK

Secrets of writing a 'wallpaper' hit

Daniel Powter

By Alan Connor
BBC News Magazine

Bad Day by Daniel Powter has been the most played song in the UK over the past five years. What is it about this track and others that keep popping up everywhere we go?


Daniel Powter is not, it's fair to say, at the top of the celebrity A list. In fact, he could probably pass most of a day in public in the UK without being pestered for an autograph or dogged by paparazzi.

So the relentless success of his song, Bad Day, which has come to soundtrack our lives like sonic wallpaper, is down to the tune rather than any loyal fan base. But what makes it so playable?

A glance at the title shows this is clearly no feel good anthem. But then again, it's not about enduring a bad life, or even a generally bad time - it's just a bad day. And even then, it's not that bad.

Examine the lyrics, and it's by no means the worst day anyone's ever had. The "you" of the song queues for some takeaway coffee, kicks around some leaves, sees some grey skies (unsurprising, since the fallen leaves tell us it's probably autumn) and, in the chorus, "you go for a ride".

Apart from that, the listener knows very little about "you" and why your day is bad. You could be young or old, single or married, male or female. "You" could be anyone.

The five most played tracks, 2003-8
Bad Day - Daniel Powter
Because of You - Kelly Clarkson
You're Beautiful - James Blunt
I Don't Feel Like Dancin' - Scissor Sisters
Chasing Cars - Snow Patrol
Source: PRS

It's impossible not to see a connection between Bad Day's everyman breeziness and its "most played" status.

Breezy dirge

The song is one of a loose ilk of mega hits with sentiments that can be universally understood - think Beautiful Day, by U2, Ready To Go by Republica and Simply The Best by Tina Turner. Although in Bad Day's case, there's even less detail.

Not for Powter the pomp and portent of U2, the question after wide-eyed question of Coldplay or even the mawkish blokishness of Oasis. Bad Day is so low on the specifics, there are some couplets that feel like they've been translated from a foreign language, possibly by a computer.

It's certainly not alone in addressing the theme of bad times. But Bad Day is no Don't Give Up, Everybody Hurts or Bridge Over Troubled Water, where the singer holds and comforts "you" - this is more like a sympathetic shrug from a mate.

In fact, there's very little about it to put anyone off, apart, of course, from its ubiquity.

Alvin and the Chipmunks
American Idol montages
Coca Cola advert
Right Guard advert
Singstar karaoke computer game
Covered by crooner Paul Anka
As performed by Alvin & The Chipmunks [above]
As performed by Emmerdale's Matthew Wolfenden on Soapstar Superstar
Parodied on MySpace as "Overplayed" [see links, right]

These days that means turning off the radio isn't enough to escape the tune. It can be heard everywhere from in shops, on mobiles and especially on TV: Bad Day has been used by advertisers [see box on right] and became the first double platinum digital single in the US after it was used as the theme for the montages of losing contestants in the talent show American Idol.

Irony factor

So what is it that propels this, a handful of other songs, in the prosperous league of wallpaper music?

"It's got one of those three- or four-word lyrics that means something to everyone's everyday life," says Russell Hier of SonyBMG. "No-one wants a bad day, but everybody has one."

Another tune that's heard everywhere from football stands to soap operas is Fairground Attraction's 80s hit Perfect. Its writer Mark Nevin is still reaping the benefits 20 years on. "I just had a call about using it in a Japanese oil advert," he says. "When that happens I go downstairs and tell my wife it's been a good day in the office."

The enduring appeal of that song, reckons Nevin, is that "it doesn't say what it is that's got to be perfect. There's also the irony factor. It's there in things like EastEnders when there's a scene of absolute trauma."

Simple structure

It's about phonics. It's about words that sing great. I was mumbling something, and those words came out
--on writing Bad Day

I need every opportunity that I can to get the music out there
--on its use in American Idol

It spread slowly like some horrible seeping virus - like bird flu
--on Bad Day's European success

The song dwarfs me. But that's a good thing because it gets people interested in what I do next

The use of songs in montages like those we see in big sporting events and reality TV shows is called sync licensing, and is an increasingly important part of the entertainment business, along with use in adverts and computer games. So what should a budding songwriter do to try and maximise the chances of living off providing the soundtrack for the tennis highlights?

A generally applicable lyric is probably a must, but it's not enough in itself.

"You've got to be quite simply structured," says Brian Kelly, creative director at music consultancy Soundlounge. "Something that it doesn't take long for your ear to grasp - you only have 30 or 40 seconds to make your impact."

Matt Biffa of Airedel, who places music in films, agrees. "There's a certain minor-key-to-major modality that works well to picture," he says. "And it has to build - to get bigger and bigger and get the hairs on the back of your neck up."

"Certain words are useful, too: a 'we' in the chorus makes it more anthemic, and anything to do with shining, being beautiful or having a broken heart."

And as certain tracks become "standards" of montage, familiarity breeds re-use. Steve Hills of EMI Publishing cites I'm Too Sexy as something we now associate with fashion imagery and Heather Small's Proud, originally composed to advertise a car, and latterly used in "montages beyond belief when we won the Olympics bid."

"For that kind of mainstream audience", says Alex Lavery of the agency Pitch N Sync, "you need to flick an easy emotional switch - something that does what it says on the tin."

Other key phrases seem to involve aspects of the weather, coming and going, speed and time and being "together" - you may have other suggestions.

But don't expect to knock off a song called We're Going Home Together and wait for the royalties to automatically flow during the UK's next sporting disaster.

"The science seems easy, but it isn't," says Hier. "If I knew the answer I'd be a much richer man."

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