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?