Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The role of self in songwriting

Part of a series. See the intro here

For most of my life, I've identified strongly as a songwriter. Starting out at the age of 14 as a drummer in punk bands, I took over the bulk of the lyricist's work. I, like many teenagers with an idea, was utterly convinced that I was treading completely uncharted waters. Who ever heard of a drummer who wrote lyrics?

Well, people even vaguely familiar with Rush, for one.

Still, I enjoyed some success, and really dug into the role. I taught myself other instruments with the primary goal of composing my own songs from top to bottom. By the time I graduated high school, I was thoroughly convinced that my future lie as a songwriter, and this was my professional destiny. In retrospect, while that didn't mean what I thought it would, I wasn't entirely wrong either.

HOT TAKE: the world is different than 18-year old me thought
I know! I was surprised too.
Have I been successful? It depends on how you want to measure that. I made enough as an artist to not starve to death, I played my music in front of crowds in a couple different states, and had some people tell me that my songs had been genuinely meaningful to them.  I'd often said that that was the criteria by which I'd judge my success, so it seems disingenuous to go back on that now.

On the other hand, I did kind of get chewed up and spit out by the music business. Many do!

The tricky definitions of success aside, the experiences definitely cemented my self-image as a writer. I'd go on to write plays, essays, journalistic articles, press releases, websites, college textbooks and role-playing games. And through it all, I never stopped writing songs. So it's safe to say that the role of songwriting in my concept of self is pretty established. 

Ah, crap. This is about the other thing, though, isn't it? It's cool Killstring, nobody reads the intro anyway.

Putting yourself in your music

So, for instrumentalists, this is less relevant. Can you really tell if I was thinking about my lost love when you hear the cello come in? Man, I hope not. 

Because that would be incredibly uncomfortable for the listener.

Think about it: you're watching a film, and we're coming up on the climax. Jack is just about to face his brother's killer; he's beaten, bloody, but determined. We're with him! We're rooting for him! We're suddenly thinking about how the composer got dumped in 9th grade, right before the prom! Righteousness is on our si- wait, what? 

Of course, that doesn't happen. The story we're experiencing is enhanced by the music - whatever was going through the composer's mind when they wrote it doesn't matter now. Now, it's about Jack and his struggles, this journey we're on with him. It would, of course, be incredibly jarring to have that journey disrupted with a bit of trivia from the artist's past. 

Believe me when I say that the same is true for lyrical work.

Now, this is not to say that you can't write about yourself. Indeed, many songwriters do exactly that with great success! But you need to be cognizant of the story you're telling. Your audience will often create their own meaning in a song, and that may or may not be anything like what you originally envisioned. This is, in fact, good! It means that your work is resonating with people on some level.

And there are plenty of "story songs" that talk about a events from a particular person's point of view. Folk music is full of examples, as are hip-hop and country. Even so, this is a pretty fine line to walk, and not everybody does so successfully. Let's look at two examples.

Kanye West is primarily known for his Cool Jackets.
You can trust me, I was a music journalist for a hot minute.
First, here's some lyrics from Kanye West's Famous. (Full disclosure: I feel that it's far from West's best work; while I'm usually a fan, I find Famous to be alternatingly uninspiring and cringe-worthy.) My normal word substitution rules apply when transcribing hip-hop - for those unfamiliar, racially sensitive words tend to be replaced with pop culture/geek references. So, where my ninjas at?

We don't know. We can't know. They're ninjas.

Anyway. the first few lines of Famous
For all my Southside ninjas that know me best
I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex
Why? I made that bitch famous (God damn)
I made that bitch famous
For all the girls that got dick from Kanye West
If you see 'em in the streets give 'em Kanye's best
Often, music reviewers will talk about how regardless of your opinions of [Artist] as a person, [Artist] as a musician does some pretty great work. This is kind of inverted, insofar as if you don't know about Kanye West's Rapper-as-Reality-TV-Star shtick, this song isn't going to make any sense. We're not introduced to the characters - the audience is assumed to know who Kanye is, and about his interactions with Taylor Swift - enough to know that of all the Taylors in the world, that's who he means.

Now, it's Kanye West. He can probably get away with you knowing who he is! But it does make the song about him, and not about you. Contrast that with this verse of his from Power:
I’m living in that 21st Century, doing something mean to it
Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music
No one man should have all that power
The clock’s ticking, I just count the hours
Stop tripping, I’m tripping off the power
That song could be about anyone. If you know the artist's background, it's a pretty safe bet that he's still talking about himself here. It's clearly very personal in its way. But it's sufficiently broad in topic that it doesn't have to be about Kanye. Indeed, you don't need to be Kanye West: Famous Rapper to identify with this song; being human will probably do the trick. 

And so the song becomes entirely appropriate for anyone who has a little swagger in their step. 

I call this approach the Mythic Personal. Yes, it's coming from a personal experience. But it's sufficiently diffused that the audience can take it, and apply it to themselves. As consumers of music, we love this stuff - we crank up the stereo and belt out the lyrics at the top of our lungs, we softly sing the refrains to ourselves in moments of quiet reflection, we mouth the words before attempting athletic feats. 

They become uniquely ours.

I didn't read the rest of the article; what are you getting at?

Wow, you must be confused! Kittens and Kanye all the way down. 

Look, songcraft is a volatile art. But good writing has the potential to make something really powerful, something that connects with people on a fundamentally human level. That, to me, is deeply, intensely beautiful. That we can share our joy, our pain, our hopes and our vulnerability in this way... I mean, damn.

I am deeply humbled to be a part of this tradition.

And if you want to tap into that power yourself, you can! And the best way to do it is actually to put yourself into your work. Draw on your experiences; your joy, your pain, your hopes and vulnerabilities. and put them in play. Talking about real things lends a sincerity, an earnest quality, that absolutely resonates with people.

Just keep in mind; what you create belongs, in some way, to everyone now.* And if you try to take it back, people will let you have it, sure. But if you're creating music for someone besides yourself, you'll want people to feel some ownership in it. And that's space that you have to ensure exists.

So, how much of yourself is enough? Too much? Ask yourself: can this song feasibly be about anyone but you? If no, are you a big enough deal that this becomes a feature? If not, it might be time to mythologize your story a little, and let it be about the listener too.

Without them, after all, you don't have an audience; much less a career.

* - Of course, I mean this in a cultural sense. By no means is anyone obligated to make their art available for free, and people who decide to take it anyway are doing violence to an individual's ability to feed themselves with their trade. What should or should not be free is a topic for another time, as is fair recompense for artists. Just wanted to make it eminently clear that Killstring's Squishy Feeling Timetm is not me condoning piracy or any such thing. 

Though hey, if you want to pirate my first album, be my guest. I just have one request - can you send me the link? I sold the masters, and I don't have any CDs around. Thanks!