This is Not a Love Song

“No one wants to hear you singing songs with your guitar about how your girlfriend doesn’t love you.”

I’d like to meditate on this phrase for a moment, and its subsequent implications. I’ve heard composers say this all the time as a means of degrading a talentless singer/songwriter, and have used it myself on several occasions. But as someone who got my start as a singer/songwriter, where once upon a time I was that girl, with a piano, writing songs about unrequited love, I can’t help but feel a little hypocritical each time I say it.

Though I’m a little ashamed to admit it, most of the time I feel like I’m still writing glorified love songs. I’d like to think I’m in good company: look at Berg’s Lyric Suite, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, or Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, all of which are works of the classical canon written, mostly, as an expression of love for a significant other. So what distinguishes Berg, Wagner, and Berlioz from the dude with the guitar? It’s not what they’re saying; it’s how they say it. Berg, Wagner, and Berlioz have found creative ways to express their feelings that transcended the traditional, pushing the boundaries of art.

Composing (writing educated, theory-gesture-and-orchestrationally conscious music, as opposed to intuitive singer/songwriting) gives you more freedom to evolve your style and voice with age and to move past the teenage love-sick songs into works about more mature topics: family and children, death, country, politics. Composing is a transcendent art, with a larger vocabulary for expression than mere intuitive songwriting.

But transcendent art can also lead to distancing the art from the artist. I can’t remember the last time I was at a concert where the composer totally ‘fessed up and admitted in his/her program notes, “Yeah, this was written for my wife/husband. That’s about it.” It seems like there’s a trend towards taking as much emotion and personal investment out of the program notes as possible, instead opting for a passive, non-committal, and objective writing style. I suppose putting our music into the public forum is already making us vulnerable enough, why compound that by adding personal investment to the notes?

So ultimately when a composer uses this phrase about what “no one wants to hear,” he’s critiquing the songwriter’s lack of originality in terms of how he chooses to express his emotions. The songwriter has a lot to learn from Berlioz. But maybe there’s something to be learned from the naivety of a songwriter; at least the lovesick guitarist owns up to the emotional confession of his music. Granted, not all composers take an emotional approach to music; some instead see it as more of an intellectual exercise. I don’t mean to undermine that practice; I’m just saying that for those of us who are putting emotion into our work, why are we embarrassed?

What do you think about this critique? Am I making too many uninformed, sweeping generalizations?

4 thoughts on “This is Not a Love Song

  1. rtanaka

    No matter how broad the subject matter might be, music is always going to come from a personal point of view so I don’t think anybody should be afraid to draw upon their experiences as their source of inspiration. But at the same time, meaning is largely dependent on how the artist chooses to present the material, and to whom.

    Freud might say that putting these neurotic thoughts into an abstract form helps to distance ourselves from the intensity of it, hence allowing yourself to transcend the experience. So I think that on some level, even the most self-centered, self-indulgent piece of art serves a positive purpose in some way. But people who make the decision to show their artwork in public have to contend with the fact that other people are going to be giving their time to listen to what they have to say. I’d say that the main difference between the professional and amateur is that the former is cognisant of the needs of the audience members, regardless of what style they might be playing in.

    Amateur writers tend to portray characters who function as idealized versions of themselves, paint themselves the victim when something goes bad, and generally have no awareness of what’s going on beyond cliches and stereotypes. Same with musicians, I think. I’d go listen to Tony Hayward if I wanted to listen to someone gripe about how the world is treating them unfairly, really.

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  2. davidwolfson

    If I heard a composer say “No one wants to listen to you sing songs about how your girlfriend left you,” it would make me want to punch the composer, not ignore the songwriter.

    Originality and expression, and the quality of being compelling, are what captures the imagination about music. If the songwriter is a good songwriter, her song is going to be more interesting and more worth listening to than the composer’s piece will be if he is a bad composer. Complexity is no guarantee of quality. Neither is simplicity. Neither is membership in any particular branch of the music fraternity.

    Full disclosure: I am both a songwriter (though I mostly collaborate with lyricists, so it’s not my own girlfriend I’m writing about) and a composer. My song and my concert catalogs have pieces in them I’m very proud of, and others not as much. But the music of mine which has my heart furthest out on my sleeve is an art song cycle on original texts, Six Love Songs, which was written for my wife. There’s nothign to be embarrassed about.

    David Wolfson

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  3. micahelx

    don’t be — a very famous musician once told me that the best music is that which is heard by the composer and the composer then has to figure out how to write it down as opposed to the composer who uses an intellectual process to discover the emotional life of music —

    either way, the only difference between you and Berlioz is levels of performance complexity —

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  4. composerprov

    Lovesong Article
    I’ve been composing for many years, mostly atonal, serial Avant Garde music. I’ve written a lot of music that expressed love, for a woman, my family and friends, and others who have affected my life. Even in the style of music I write, there’s still an emotional element that I feel is essential in all music. I think the guy writing about his girl friend not loving him anymore has as important a thing to say as any composer from any period and in any style. Even in my serial work, which is usually highly structured, contains a piece of my heart and soul.

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