Saturday, January 15, 2011

Songs about Songs

Well now that title might be a little misleading because todays blog isn't strictly about 'songs about songs', it's about lyrics that arise from a frustration with song writing...but that's just not quite as catchy. At first when I was writing this blog I thought to myself 'I need to link these ideas together more, to draw more comparisons and conclusions...' and then I remembered it's not a leaving cert essay. If you'd like to draw a conclusion please do.

1) Fiona Apple: Waltz

Fiona Apple has written one song about writing songs, arguably two. I'm a big fan of Fiona Apple's two earlier albums, they're clever, they sound honest, the production is good BUT every single song is about boys. Not that that's always a bad thing, I mean the girl can put a clever spin on heartbreak but by the end of the second album I was thinking I hope she doesn't spend her whole life wracked by teenage self doubt worrying about whether 'he' really loves her. It's tempting to want to shout at her 'Hey Fiona, he's a douche' and hope that she'll hear you from the other side of the CD, move on and come across some new territory.

So when 'Extraordinary Machine' came out, her most recent and very possibly last album, I was excited the first time I listened to it and heard the lyrics on 'Parting Gift':

'Oh you silly, stupid pastime of mine
You were always good for a rhyme'

This song is meant as a parting gift to the men in her life she's written songs about (I don' think I'm just making that up, I'm pretty sure she's said so in interviews). Great I thought, nows when I get to hear an intelligent woman sing about something other than silly boys. Alas it wasn't to be. Instead the album closes with 'Waltz'

'If you don't have a song
To sing you're ok'

Supposedly this is her retirement song. So as soon as she decides not to write about heartbreak the only thing she has left to write about is how she has nothing left to write about?* This is my least favorite 'song about a song'. It's really more of an excuse, an explanation for bowing out. Singing about having nothing to sing about isn't really very interesting so lets move onto a song about a song that has a LOT to say.

2) Saul Williams: Surrender

The lyrics really work on many levels, a love song recognizing the destructive powers a lover can wield, and a song about trying to overcome his ego and surrender himself completely to his muse (who scares the bejaysus out of him). Now here's a portrayal of a strong woman that you don't get in songs often, even if she may be a mythical figure. Her strength doesn't come from adopting male traits, it's her openness, her willingness to love and her ability to reinvent herself that make her strong. You find this character a lot in Saul Williams music, he's the one of the greatest feminist lyricists I can think of off the top of my head.

The whole idea of inspiration coming from a muse is really very useful. Believing the creative idea comes from an external source is such a great way of tricking your brain into shutting your ego down. 'Is this lyric good? Is that melody too catchy/not catchy enough?' 'I dunno, not my problem I'm just doing what my muse tells me to, she's the boss'. But this song is more of a lovers wrestle, his muse won't stay still for him, her honesty and love scares him like a bachelor scared of intimacy.

Throughout the whole song he keeps repeating 'I need a second, I need a second to think' as if he has no control over the song writing, the muse is having her way with him (the cheeky minx), writing the song through him and he's fighting to have his say.

3) Ríona Sally Hartman (that's me): Song for the Dead, Song for the Living

Really the first half of the song is about the futility of music, the self indulgent folly of being a musician. In the face of tragedy what good can a song do? There's an instinct sometimes to rewrite tragedy in music into something heroic or meaningful but I don't think that approach is necessarily very honest.

The second half of the song is sung to the living:

'I'm another song, let me try to keep you warm,
let me hold you hand, let me try to heal what's sore,
And I'll search for the sun should a darkness overcome you.
I'm a hopeful song hopeful for and end to the suffering of young men.'

It's split into two halves, one half for the dead should they choose to listen and one half for the living. Deciding to write a song about a tragedy is a tricky one. Firstly for selfish reasons I'm not big into writing weepys. The term singer songwriter has taken quite a bashing over the last while unfortunately. People have stereotypes of guys with their guitars singing depressing music to their friends. Personally I think the stereotype is completely unfair but I try to avoid it none the less. The other more important reason I'm cautious about writing about tragedy is that I feel like you have to take responsibility for what you put out into the world and if what your putting out there is songs with no hope

But that's exactly how I felt about this particular tragedy that I was writing about. People had died, it was too late there was no hope for them and I wanted to be honest about that. Your instinct is to try to make everything ok, to rewrite history with a song, but sometimes tragedy makes you realize the very narrow limits of art.... that a conclusion? Maybe. Probably not. In conclusion go buy Sealegs on iTunes.

*To be fair the other song on the album that is arguably a song about song writing is 'Please please please' which is supposedly aimed at her record label which was pressuring her into writing:

'something familiar
Something similar
To what we know already
That will keep us steady
Steady, steady
Steady going nowhere'

So it's possible she's not a one trick pony after all, maybe she's a circus pony who's owners are big into dressage or something. Maybe given some time and artistic freedom she'll join a circus and surprise us all with her jumping through fire tricks. Here's hoping......That'd make a great children's story.

**It was hard to pick one part out of this verse to quote, Saul William's lyrics flow from one line to the next with each line revealing a possible alternate meaning for the one before it so it doesn't lend itself well to dissection. I think that's what rappers mean when they talk about 'flow', I wouldn't know though coz I'm not down with the cool kids. So here's a link to the full lyrics.

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