Honest songs, true songs, and other fictions

Truth is the most overrated and dubious virtue that a song can posses. You can read a hundred articles arguing that truth and honesty are the keys to great songwriting, but none of those articles will tell you what a true song is, how to make your songs more honest, or how to tell whether someone else’s songs are true or not. That is because these are questions with no answers.

People mean different things when they talk about honest songs. For some, an honest song is a song that is both biographical and accurate, like a memoir. This is the worst version of the honest song trap – the idea that, rather than exploring the full range of narrative and lyrical modes available to them, songwriters should focus on the details of their own lives, and in particular the details of their own emotional lives.

While the main problem with this way of thinking about writing is that it is limiting, it also takes a narrow and, I would argue, inaccurate view of what honesty really is. Focusing on the writer’s own perspective on and reaction to real-life situations is not a reliable way to learn the truth of those situations. We are all unreliable narrators, and writers who rely unselfconsciously on their own reactions to events are likely to misrepresent those events and to make themselves look foolish in the process. A popular recent example of this phenomenon is Drake’s painfully catchy “Hotline Bling”. As many have pointed out, the narrator of this song has moved away from a city, and wonders why a woman he had a relationship with in that city has since moved on to see other men. He belittles and insults the woman and wallows in his own loneliness. The song makes no indication that it is aware that its narrator may come off as less than heroic, and so my guess is that this is a true and honest song, in which Drake draws on his own experience in a similar situation. The problem is that even the casual listener begins to suspect that Drake’s perspective on this situation is neither accurate, complete, or the most interesting one.

Of course “Hotline Bling” is a huge hit – I can’t argue that confessional songwriting isn’t popular, especially right now. But I can say that it’s boring, and that the most popular confessional songs often rely on using a celebrity’s well-known biographical details for context, a technique you and I can’t necessarily emulate.

Drake’s music – confessional, vulnerable, but ghost-written and about as authentic as a Hollywood movie – is also strong evidence that we can’t actually tell when a song is an honest outpouring of the writer’s emotions, and when it is a carefully orchestrated performance.

Another definition of the honest song is a song that uses or resonates with the writer’s own emotional experience. This definition doesn’t limit the writer in the same way – it’s perfectly possible to write about fictional or historic events, for example, in a way that expresses one’s own experience or views. I find it much easier to write when I start from a small kernel of experience or emotional memory. But I think it’s a mistake to let faithfulness to that original inspiration become an end in itself. A song develops its own internal logic during the writing process, and it is important to listen to and follow that logic, rather than impose an external concept of truth or honesty on a song.

When songs aren’t held to exaggerated standards of truth and honesty, they are free to be other things: funny, informative, sexy, erudite, profane, political, and anything else that other forms of writing can be. Even if you have a brooding and serious side, like a lot of us do, it might not be your best side – you might be surprised what you’re able to do when you stop trying to express your emotions.