Tuesday, October 31, 2006

how to write a song by a would-be writer

My favorite writer and fellow alumnus in education and occupation, Joel Hartse, wrote this interesting post about the clever and ambiguous nature of contemporary lyricism.

So sayeth Joel: "I consider it my mission in life to combat willful obscurity."

For the most part, I agree with Joel's sentiment. When you grow up listening to bands like MxPx, Elvis Costello and Billy Joel, it's easy to find yourself gravitating toward similar songwriting. You want to internalize the emotions of your song, while letting anybody who hears it know that it could be their story, too. As a result of this type of back-and-forth, pop music is singularly the most confusing genre.

But then you age and start to diviate from pop-rock and as you start to enter new stages in your life like high school, college, a girlfriend or whatever, and you find yourself seeking out bands that are a little bit more estoeric. A little weirder, if you will. If you look back on the pop music that you listened to prior to your progression, often you'll shudder and think "Why did I listen to that?" Nobody likes admitting to their own shortcomings, but it takes a fairly strong person to accept that we all start from somewhere, even if your reference point is Blink 182 and not the Misfits.

For example, let's take Death Cab for Cutie. This band has had their two biggest hits with "Transatlanticism" and "Plans," two albums that rest on singer Ben Gibbard's ability to break out of the indie rock box of writing songs of a fictious nature or based on other works (i.e. "No Joy in Mudville" is loosely based on "On the Road"). Obviously the name drop on "The O.C." had a little to do with their success, but those albums are the most vunerable you get to see Gibbard, and thus the masses are able to connect with the quartet. The back end of the "regression" in Gibbard's writing technique is that "Transatlanticism" and "Plans" were largely panned by critics, myself included. I suppose, personally, I felt a little betrayed because this band had put out these great songs about various things, but were all shrouded in mystery. It's interesting how pretentious you really are when you think about it.

As for myself, I can say that I'm of two minds when it comes to writing songs. My earliest bands were of the heart-on-my-sleeve kind; many of the songs that I've written about were autobiographical. With my current band, I've tried to use metaphors and allusions, really using writing devices to convey a story. I'm not carrying the Flaming Lips' torch or anything, but I feel that it's part of growing up as a songwriter and a lyricist. Many of the lyrics are still largely autobiographical and I could easily tell you what it's about. Shit, who else would write a song about William Steig's "Dr. Desoto," as a metaphor for our president? At the same time, however, there's still a certain amount of personal integrity I want to keep in the lyrics. I don't write ambiguous lyrics for the sake of being weird, but I don't necessarily write with a sweeping generalization to pander to people's feelings.

I guess in the long run, it's about building a connection. Topically, Lessons in Regret's songs hinge on world politics and scrutinizing society, but its origins rests on actual events: people (not necessarily girls) that have broken your heart, relatives' obsession with celebrities, working retail and seeing people just throw money away on stupid superficial things, etc. Obviously when you write and record music, it's a snapshot of where you are in your life. When I was 18, 19 and in the Transfer/Shoes for Imelda, I was writing songs about girls and drinking; when I was in Season of Death and Breathless Mahoney, I was writing songs about suicide, rejection and people who betrayed me; now I'm writing songs about people that I miss, people who've hurt me and books that I enjoy reading to my kid. But if anybody ever asked me what specific songs meant -- unless I know you -- I would never tell because I want whoever is listening to the song to form their own meaning. Not because I'm trying to be obscure, an ass, or indie, but because if that song means something different to another person, then they've made it their own and I accomplished what I set out to do.

As I wrap this up, I feel that I've been trying to defend myself from Joel's idea of songwriting, but that's not the case. At the core of his argument, Joel is absolutely right. Why write lyrics that no one will understand because you wanted to be eccentric? But sometimes, you have to get through the weird to get to the heart of the matter.


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