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Morally proper song lyrics / Sense of life in my music . . . help want

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I'm a songwriter.

I am sometimes inclined to write lyrics that are not exactly, say, "uplifting." This is not to say that my doing so is the rule rather than the exception, it is only to say "sometimes." My bass player (Groovenstein) sometimes objects to my doing so.

If any of you would like an example of what I'm talking about, please visit www.myspace.com/poormansoperamusic and click on the song entitled "Another Disaster."

Also, I have read "The Romantic Manifesto" and pretty much everything Ayn ever wrote. Thus, one might expect that I'd be able to hammer out this issue on my own and with relative ease. Regrettably, I'm not terribly bright. *wiping drool from my chin*

A couple points that perhaps you could help me resolve:

1. When I'm in a funk (in the emotional, not musical sense), I find that penning a song about it helps me to deal with it. Though it may seem counterintuitive, the help does not come from penning a song that amounts to "I'll get through it." Rather, the song will generally be a description of the situation or general mood that I'm in, like a "snapshot in time." The lyric may not address any forward thinking at all in either the positive or negative sense. For example, I wouldn't say, "I'm miserable and I always will be." I also wouldn't say, "I'm miserable, but I won't be for long." Rather, I would say, "I'm miserable right now."

For the life of me, I don't see anything terribly wrong with doing so. There are many things, however, that I would NOT do. Some examples of things I would NOT write about: using drugs to be evasive, suicide or some other willful act of self-destruction, that life is hopeless (though there would be instances where I would not affirmatively state that "life is hopeful"), etc. Am I being inconsistent?

When my car breaks down, I want to sing, "Damn it! My car broke down. I'm going to be late for work. This car was really expensive, and you would THINK that, for that much money, the thing wouldn't stop running every 15 miles."

I don't want to sing, "Damn it! My car broke down. Gladly, I have a good job, so I can afford to fix it. Also, the guy at the repair shop is really friendly and punctual, so it won't be a terrible burden to get it fixed."

I simply want to be pissed off at a situation that can properly result in me being pissed off! And I want to sing about it*.

2. IF it is okay for me to write such songs, does it follow that it is okay for someone to listen to and enjoy them? Can I put them on our next record, even though the negative situation will likely have passed by that time?

I think the answer is "yes." Of course, if I was terribly confident in my answer, I wouldn't be asking for help now, would I?

Some people can't or don't write songs. Thus, they depend on others to do so for them. This is much akin to my innate inability to do laundry. Thus, I depend on my wonderful girlfriend to ensure that I have clean skivvies. So, is it wrong for me to give these people songs that they may relate to and, as a result, enjoy? Again, they may relate to feelings of suicide, but the won't get a song about it from me, because I don't think that suicide is a rational choice (except in very, very rare situations). However, I don't think that being situationally downtrodden is necessarily irrational in every instance.

*I would never actually write a song about that situation as doing so would be incredibly corny, but you get my drift.

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The End Of The Road

Damn it, my car broke down; damn it!

Oh, I'm not head'n to a distant star

And not even goin' to the local bar,

But I can't slowly spin around

This little country ten-block town.

Damn it, my car broke down; damn it!

Motor won't run, motor won't start;

Sittin' real still, I'm doin' my part.

Ha ha ha and ho ho ho,

Giddee-up feet, it's time to go!

Damn it, my car broke down; damn it!

Hee hee hee, yeee-ha!

Come on, shoes, now lead the way;

I'm gonna make these pavements pay!

Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up!


My gosh! Was that immoral, or what? :P

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I started writing lyrics over 20 years ago, and I started studying Objectivism about 2 years after starting the lyric-writing. I've also received positive comments for my writing from a progressive rocker, a classical director, and two gospel singers... all professional music veterans of many years, so I would think that I'm qualified to speak to this general issue.

I think that you are certainly on the right track, so I would suggest that you keep going with your "gut". Aside from _R.M._, I would remind you of the last chapter in Dr. Peikoff's _O:PAR_. Likewise, I'm getting a bit of "mileage" from A.R.'s _The Art of Fiction_. Further, I've read and heard some wonderfully pithy comments from veteran songwriters such as Jeff Lynne, Suzanne Vega, and Frank Zappa.

Actually, the reference that might be more immediately relevant than any other is A.R.'s "The Simplest Thing in the World". ...so to start to address your questions 1 and 2, I would say that the one true sin for a songwriter is for him to subvert his creative efforts by raising _anyone's_ agenda over his own. (Obviously, if you are working in terms of a group or for a commission, then you have to attempt to either fulfill your cohorts' requirements or you have to find work elsewhere.) In other words, it is _your_ job to write your songs as you see fit. As far as the matter of how music listeners receive your creative ideas goes, that is the _patron(s)'_ business.

You can be concerned with what your songs' consumers think, but their ideas can't be the primary motivating factor. In essence, you are being sought for your application of your mechanical methods. If your supporters are contracting with you, then they have to accept your work on your terms.

While it may not be at the front of your mind or a matter of immediate concern, there's another aspect I must mention. The music industry has witnessed enough personal manipulation that you really need to remain on guard. Read Fredric Dannen's _Hit Men_ at the least for more on this.... Remember that while your bandmates may be the first to review your work, they (ideally) will be far from the last. There are A & R people, executive producers, music journalists, fans, et al. If you want to do professional writing, then you will need to recruit an iron-clad constitution for what's to come. As against all those aforementioned people, the person who ultimately must be convinced by your writing is you, the songwriter.

To return to songwriting itself, as you likely recall, art has two major facets. One is the metaphysical or philosophical, and the other is the aesthetic or mechanical. The good or easy news is that both writing aspects can be consciously developed over time. The tough news is that, since your personal psychology is much more tightly tied to how you address metaphysics in general, the ideological aspect of your songs will be substantially harder to guide into a new direction.

...so as far as "negative" writing goes, you can _not_ simply will yourself to completely overhaul your writing approach. Also, depending on what your agenda entails, it may not even be good to try to change creative directions as an immediate high priority. Further still, there is "negative", and then there's "negativism". That is, you not only have to deal with the subject matter in your songs, you also have to deal with how they are presented i.e. what A.R. refers to as the "selective re-creation" aspect.

As far as specific mechanics go, there are myriad techniques that you can use. In our current time of narrow-casted content, you can actually go to a local bookstore and find more than one magazine concerned with the specific art of lyric writing and song craft in general. This leads into one final mechanical concern that connects you with a given song-producing musical entourage. Unlike with poetry, lyrics aren't really meant to be read, they are meant to be SUNG. _That_ is where the power is delivered. If you aren't singing the songs yourself, then you will have to reconcile a given song's presentation with the singer as best as is possible.

For mechanical examples, if I am thinking in terms of a writer's evaluation, then I would ultimately (and perpetually!) ask myself, "Is this _what_ I really want to communicate?" When I'm considering the terms of a singer, the focus shifts. I would ask myself, "Is this _how_ I want to communicate these ideas?" Obviously, these concerns greatly overlap considering that (ideally) the song which you write is to remain as the song which is sung. In other words, qua writer, your concerns are similar to a movie scriptwriter or a fiction book writer. On the other hand, in order to envision how a song is to be performed you have to be focused on musical constraints. There is a careful balance to be struck. Too much emphasis on a lyric's sound i.e. the timbral or textural aspect can lead to "sound candy" or even nonsense. On the other hand, too much emphasis on a lyric's content can lead to pedantry or even propaganda.

Every music group fights over these issues. Only you can determine what creative limits you are willing to sustain based on your own personal values.

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The eloquence of your lyrics, and the quality of the music and the beat of the whole thing together (I'm talking about 'Another Disaster' here)... it's a 'negative' song, but it's far from nihilistic (the ultimate irrationality). I see what you mean by the snapshot thing, and honestly, I love these sorts of songs, but I'm a broody kind of guy when I'm on my own. You say your goal is to make good music, and judging from everything you've read, then I'm guessing your goals and values are pretty much in-line with getting what you want out of life. There's no reason why you should think, "Am I being morally right with my music?". Morals are about doing what you want, rationally of course, and there's nothing irrational about journalising (Is that a word? I dunno) a state of mind.

Take The Eels for instance. They're probably my favourite band, and so much of his stuff is 'negative'. Even an upbeat song like 'I like birds' is all about him being a recluse who doesn't like dealing with 'the turds' around him and instead just feeds the birds. Misery isn't the standard of his music, and that's what I think you've got to realise when you're doing something like that. It's about taking that feeling and producing something productive out of it. You're not wallowing, you said yourself, you find writing this sort of stuff therapeutic. I can't tell you how many times I've been in a good mood, and listening to 'Electro Shock Blues' (What Mr E. describes as 'That phone call in the middle of the night you don't want to answer') has been a totally mellowing and uplifting experience.

Let people get what they want out of your music - they're willing to hand over the money in the first place. It's all about what you see, think and feel anyway, and how you're going to let that influence your creation. I'm just speaking as a humble listener, and what I've observed from consuming tons of music over my (short) lifespan. I write as well though, so I have some idea how writing 'negative' stuff is actually, in the end, quite positive.

Edited by Tenure
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Only my humble opinion...

I wouldn't trouble yourself too much about it. I like a particularly angsty songs, especially when I'm in that mood. Some of what you say about what you would and wouldn't write about would indicate to me a fairly healthy perspective on it.

However, you should ask yourself some of the things that tps already suggested. Also consider a couple of things from a psychological point of view.

a. do you find that you are not able or have no desire to write songs with more positive lyrics? i.e. you say you only write snapshots, but are hte only snapshots you take when you're angsty?

b. writing as therapy is great. Is that what you want your art to reflect? sometimes you get through somethign so you can write about it from the "other side" rather than being in it.

I'm thinking here of introspecting on why it is that you write songs like this. Certainly if you can find a market of peole who want those songs, you can be productive as such, but what does that desire say about your psychology. I don't have a lot of data here, but speaking from past experience of my own, pre-Rand, I used to love all this angsty stuff, but realized after a while, I had a tendency to wallow in it, which was psychologically unhealthy. I still like the music, but tend to keep it very much in perspective and make sure that I know what I like it for.

In generally I agree with TPS up to the part about subverting one's agenda. While I think this is generally true, that does not mean that any agenda is objective, or healthy, etc. Yes, write it as long as you feel it, but ask yourself why you feel that way. You can't will yourself to change the lyrics if the lyrics have a fundamental psychological cause. However, if that fundamental is not healthy, you can will yourself to change that, and I think your songwriting will shift commensurately.

Edited by KendallJ
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  • 2 weeks later...
In generally I agree with TPS up to the part about subverting one's agenda. While I think this is generally true, that does not mean that any agenda is objective, or healthy, etc.

To clarify, I didn't (and wouldn't) suggest otherwise. I was responding to the specific context of the original post (in _this_ forum) where (presumably) 2 Objectivists were having this related argument. I didn't see anything in the original post that would cause me to not give these musicians the benefit of the doubt.

Yes, write it as long as you feel it, but ask yourself why you feel that way. You can't will yourself to change the lyrics if the lyrics have a fundamental psychological cause. However, if that fundamental is not healthy, you can will yourself to change that, and I think your songwriting will shift commensurately.

Also to elaborate, in the course of a rehearsal or recording session, no one is going to change psychologically at root. (While it is often the case that musicians' tendencies can become exaggerated due to fatigue, frustration, or a sudden creative breakthrough for examples, those tendencies aren't going to completely betray the basic nature of the respective persons.) Several musicians have considered their albums as "snapshots". I think that they tend to emphasize the nature of the work in this regard, but it also so happens that the same "snapshot fixes them i.e. the musical personnel in time" as well. That is, the musicians' respective states of mind are reflected in their work as well as their mechanical abilities.

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