Political songs in a moment of activism

I’ve been interested in political songs, as a writer and a listener, for a long time, and it seems, for reasons that may be obvious, that more songwriters are lately coming to share that interest. I want to share a few thoughts about how I think strong political songs work, and about how political songwriting, and political art in general, may be distinct from political activism.

What are political songs?

I find that my best political songs are very much like my other good songs. They are usually about a small number of characters and they spend time dealing with the events and emotions in the lives of those characters. They are lyric or narrative, rather than expository, didactic, allegorical, or persuasive. What makes them political is not their form, but their subject matter.

To me, the overarching subject of political songs is the relationship of individuals to power, and to other people, events and currents in the world that express the workings of power. That particular formulation probably reflects my own political leanings to some extent, but I think the important element for songs is that the individual is present in the song, and the song addresses the way that the individual experiences the political. In contrast, political speeches and essays rarely linger on the emotional experience of individuals, and when they do, those experiences are quickly tempered into the support of an argument.

An example of this is Woody Guthrie’s “Vanzetti’s Rock”, a song from an album consisting entirely of songs about Sacco & Vanzetti. In the song, Guthrie’s speaker visits Plymouth Rock and, surrounded by tourists invested in the history of the Puritan pilgrims, imagines dedicating the rock instead to the Italian-born anarchist who was executed for a murder he did not commit. The emotional core of the song – what makes it interesting even if the listener is not particularly invested in Guthrie’s politics – is the speaker’s alienation from the tourists around him. The other tourists are “salesman and gamblers” in dark glasses that shield them from the history that Guthrie’s speaker quietly contemplates. He imagines a different tourist attraction, dedicated to Vanzetti’s story, that would instead attract “trades-union workers” to Plymouth. This image captures the speaker’s own isolation – he is not really a part of either group, and unlike either group, his mind is invested in a world that does not exist.

There is still plenty of room in the song for more direct political appeals, but the scene sets an emotional context and transforms what would otherwise be a simple sentiment, easily accepted or dismissed, into something more complex and even a bit puzzling. Who is this character, wandering through tourist traps and imagining them transformed into monuments to an alternate history? What does it feel like to occupy that particular alienated mind?

In a moment of activism?

It can be challenging to reconcile the concerns of this type of political songwriting, which takes as its topic the particular, possibly eccentric experiences of its characters as they encounter the world and its structures of power, with the demands of political activism. The moments that make for some of the most interesting songs – moments of internal conflict or self-questioning, moments that reveal the contradictions in a character’s ideology, even moments of unexpected sympathy or agreement with one’s political opponents – are not necessarily the moments that political movements benefit from emphasizing. Political art can be slippery and defy interpretation. It can disappoint or even offend viewers and critics.
None of this is new, but to me it seems we have become more likely, as listeners and critics, to construct the writer or artist as a figure of power – someone whose position requires him or her to control the potentially dangerous or off-message resonances of the work. We are less likely to posit the writer or artist as a relatively powerless individual struggling to comprehend a complex world. Sometimes this perspective is justified – the director of a major Hollywood movie wields the bankroll and power of corporate America, and so it makes sense to treat his or her actions as the actions of a powerful entity.
I think political art is important because it addresses aspects of experience – particularly individual, interior experience – that other forms of political expression ignore. We live in a world where our daily experience is shaped by political powers far beyond our individual control, and we need art that explores that experience. If we construct writers and artists as if they were corporate spokespeople for their personal brands – as if they were part of the power structure that shapes our world – then it makes sense to react with disapproval when their work violates our expectations. This makes sense for corporate art, but applying the same model to work created by individuals who really are relatively powerless in the world may cause critics to misunderstand, or miss completely, the art that we really need.
It is easy, as a songwriter, to internalize this way of thinking about songs – to write with caution and to carefully police one’s own impulses in order to avoid appearing to cross an invisible line. But songs are a perfect place to work through impulses and experiences that can’t be condensed into a coherent position, essay, or social media post. Some of the best political songs come out of that process, full of self-contradiction, self-doubt, questions, and reality. Those are the songs that help us understand what it means to be human in a political world.

Anti-Poptimist Pep Talk for Songwriters

I picked Coke in the Pepsi Challenge

You don’t have to like pop music. You don’t have to respect it or care that other people like it. You can even enjoy it and not respect it or care about it.

You’re a songwriter. You probably have strong opinions about songs. Those opinions are important. If you cultivate them, they will help you write the songs you want to write. Those opinions will let you listen to your own songs in progress and be critical of them. They will let you listen to songs that intrigue and challenge you and learn from them.

Chances are that you find certain types of songs most interesting. There might even be songs that inspired you to write songs in the first place, and other songs that inspired you to keep writing. These are the best songs. It doesn’t matter if other songs are more popular. The songs that you love are the best ones. Stick to your guns! If you think Townes Van Zandt is a better writer than Bob Dylan (like Steve Earle does) cultivate that. If everyone had the same opinions about songs, we would all end up writing the same songs.

There is a lot of pressure at this moment for musicians and critics to take top 40 pop music seriously. Don’t. It’s not serious. It’s big business, and celebrity, spectacle but, at least as songwriting, it’s not serious. It’s not ambitious. It’s not interesting. There is ambitious songwriting in pop, but I don’t hear it very often in celebrity-driven top 40.

The impulse to take chart-topping music seriously is political. It provides thin comfort in a world where the influence of corporate culture is more and more absolute. Instead of resisting that influence, even in tiny ways, music criticism argues that corporate culture can be good enough, and that, in fact, corporate pop music is the model and standard that other forms of music, either overtly or secretly, aspire to follow.

But you’re not a critic. You’re a songwriter. A mildly comforting theory won’t get the job done, and feeling bad about the modern world might be part of your schtick, anyways. You need a car that runs, a dog that will actually hunt. You need your own aesthetic, one that reflects the stories you want to tell and the ideas that you want to suss out. Unless you’re actually writing for a top 40 record, the focus group is not arriving to help you decide which version of that verse works better. You are going to have to have an opinion.

Structural issues matter. Value judgements aside, there is a simple and observable difference between a person or two sitting down to write a song and a major label production team assembling to accomplish the same task. There is a difference in the process and a corresponding, observable difference in the product. The music you make is not a lesser version of corporate pop – it is a different thing entirely.

To me, one reason that music is important because it’s a forum where eccentric, diverse, individual voices can actually make themselves heard once in a blue moon. Poptimist criticism claims to advocate for diversity, but instead it reinforces the ubiquity of corporate pop, at the expense of individual voices.

Your music is weird and awesome. It is difficult and risky. It is offensive and beautiful. It is comforting to people who exist only in your imagination. Your friends’ moms like it better than your friends do, maybe. It is more powerful than you feel. It is hard to record, or hard to play live, or both, maybe. It is struggling to exist in the world. Music critics think they have heard it before, but they are wrong. Like your life, it is a thing that you have that is actually yours.

Parts and structures of songs

You can do whatever you want in your songs! It’s great, and it seems obvious, but sometimes it’s easy to forget and feel like there are rules. One place where it’s easy to forget this is in the shape and structure of songs.

To put it simply, your songs don’t need verses and choruses and bridges. Maybe some of your ideas will work well in that structure, but others won’t, and the struggle to force them into it will be exhausting. It will feel like you’re stuck. But you’re probably not stuck – you might just be ignoring the obvious solution to your problem.

One way to deal with this problem is to know a lot about song forms from various genres. This is great if it’s something you can do – it gives you a broad vocabulary and makes sure you won’t be stuck with the limited structures available in most pop music. But it can be just as liberating to simply allow the song to grow on its own, following the story you want to tell and the musical ideas that occur to you. You don’t have to use a structure that’s been tested in other genres – you can create your own song structures and make them work for you.

Following the song in this way can lead to subtle or dramatic changes in how your songs come out. For instance, you may find that a verse-chorus forms work well, but that you get a lot out of subtle variations in the verse form – maybe one verse has a few extra bars and uses a different chord progression. Or you may develop personal ideas about song parts. I find that I get a lot out of codas and outros, on all kinds of song forms. Going to a coda at the end of the song allows you to go somewhere musically that you might not be able to come back from, and it’s a great opportunity to add a different tone or perspective to the song’s lyrics. You might even get lucky and develop an entire new vocabulary of types of parts for your own songs.

The pop song is a powerful form, but it brings a lot of baggage. If your song tells a story, how do you keep the chorus from weighing down the narrative like so much dead weight? If your idea is much longer or shorter than 3 minutes, how do you make it feel right to the listener, and not like a song that’s been truncated or artificially extended? Even if you usually write songs with verses and choruses (I certainly do), it helps to remember the range of options that exists out there. If you don’t know what goes in the second verse, maybe it’s time for the song to move on to it’s C, D, and E sections.

So here’s a song that sometimes feels like a pop song, and was even a little bit of a hit, but abandons that structure halfway through, before picking it up again at the end:

Folk music

“Folk music” is a dense, important, and contested concept. It doesn’t mean any one thing, so you may as well make it mean something that works for you and your songs.

The two best books I’ve read on the concept of folk music are The Old, Weird America by Greil Marcus and How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey. The Marcus book is pretty well known – it’s about Bob Dylan and the Band writing and recording the music that became the Basement Tapes, and tells a convincing story about exactly how certain themes and styles from obscure depression-era performers entered the pop music vernacular through Dylan and the Band.

The Fahey book is a collection of semi-autobiographical vignettes which, taken together, give a clear and complex picture of the guitarist’s relationship to folk music. Assembled from clues sprinkled throughout the book, Fahey’s history of folk music might start with the invention of folk music as an academic project of 19th century Germans and break apart with the ascendance of radio and television, which essentially dismantles the oral culture that the academic song collectors saw as the hallmark of the folk. By the time Fahey is working the folk festival circuit, very few of the performers can qualify as true members of the vaunted folk, attached to a pre-modern, oral culture.

Though Fahey is skeptical about the category of folk music, both as an abstraction borne out of academia and as a commodity marketed to a middle-class audience, he is clear that his own music is grounded in aesthetic concepts closely associated with folk music. One set of these concepts revolve around the guitar, around the importance of playing with a mix of open and fretted strings and, relatedly, the value of playing in a range of tunings to unlock the potential of the instrument. This approach to the guitar is not simply a matter of technique, a neutral way of achieving a pre-determined goal. Rather, it strongly favors certain approaches to harmony – choosing a tuning becomes the most critical step in composition or arrangement, and each tuning contains a certain unique set of possibilities and tendencies.

One implication of this approach is that guitar techniques, rather than being shared among all instrumentalists, are deeply personal – a player might guard his personal tunings and chord shapes jealously, or share them with a select few. For Fahey this secrecy introduces an enduring mystery around the music which shapes its aesthetic impact, and is only enhanced by other trappings of the genre, especially the improbable pseudonyms used to escape record contracts, or in Fahey’s case, to deliberately reproduce that mystery.

There are a lot of interesting things about John Fahey’s music, but to me one of the most interesting is this idiosyncratic relationship to folk music. Taking a step back and thinking about Fahey’s approach to genre in general, we see that this approach – at once self-aware and visceral – might be available in a wide variety of settings and genres. Moving past a superficial understanding of genre is like learning to play in a new tuning – it opens up a new world of creative possibilities.

Question your relationship to genre

Genre is critical to songwriting! To my ears, no songwriter is truly above genre – no songwriter I’ve heard is so unique that a critical listener can’t place the genre or genres that gives the songs context. Performers can transplant songs from one genre of music to another, but this is often an interesting move because the song retains the flavor of its original setting. Moving the song to another genre produces an interesting musical moment because of the tension between the song and its setting.

As a songwriter, genre is one of your most powerful tools, but harnessing that power will require a sophisticated view of the genres you work in. The ways genre works musically – the characteristic chord progressions, melodic turns, and rhythms that define musical genres – are often discussed. What is often left out are the ways that a song’s lyrics and lyrical themes are equally a part of its relationship to genre. Genres of music carry characteristic lyrical concerns. These are not rules – your country songs don’t have to be about trucks, and your ballads don’t have to be about love. One way to think of these characteristics is as audience expectations: if you start to play a certain type of song, listeners will immediately have their guesses as to what the song will be about. But you aren’t trapped by those expectations – understanding genre allows you to fake left and go right. You can do this gently, delighting your audience by tweaking their expectations, or take it a step further to really shake them up.

One reason this kind of writing can be difficult is that we are deeply invested in the genres we write in, and it can feel awkward or even painful to look at them with a critical eye – it’s a little like hearing your speaking voice recorded or seeing a candid photo of yourself. Take folk music – a genre I feel a certain commitment to. What does it mean, in 2015, for someone who lives in an urban setting to profess a commitment to folk music? What’s the connection between various related sub-genres, between coffee house singer-songwriter fare and ballads passed down through an oral tradition? Can I write the songs I want to within the expectations set by a specific genre, or do I need to bend and twist the boundaries to get where I need to go?

Chances are that, whatever genre of music you write, your relationship to that genre is complicated. To borrow a phrase, musical genres are often copies with no original. You might see a performer who deeply inhabits the persona and culture of a particular genre and say, “that’s the real deal, for sure,” only to have the illusion broken when you find out where the person grew up, or where he lives now, or what her politics are, or any detail that reminds you the performer is a whole person and not just a stage persona. But that is as real as it gets.

What this means for songwriting is that the most interesting and authentic moments may come when you break your own chosen genre’s rules of authenticity. In order to say the things you have to say, you may need to develop a deep and idiosyncratic relationship to the genres you write in.

Songwriting is writing

If I were teaching songwriting school, I would only have one punishment for naughty (or boring) students: write 100 times on the chalkboard, “songwriting is writing”.

Thinking of songwriting as a form of writing is an important and powerful idea that pushes and pulls our understanding of songs in two unfamiliar directions. First, if songwriting is writing than it deserves the respect that other forms of writing get. One sign of that respect is that we should care about the literary quality of a song, rather than only its commercial appeal. Another sign of respect for songwriting as writing is the amount of time we expect to spend on it – not on individual songs, necessarily, but on developing the skills needed to write interesting and original songs.

On the other hand, thinking of songwriting as writing may cause us to cast a more critical eye on songs. We may look at certain songs with a newfound disappointment, realizing that, while they may make nice sounding records, they don’t accomplish very much as writing. Maybe they rehash worn-out ideas, both musically and lyrically. Maybe they are embarrassing or off-putting when we listen to them critically.

Songwriting is different from other forms of writing, of course. It uses music. It is more compressed than many other forms, though there are poetic forms, like haiku, that are even more compressed. Like traditional poetry, it often relies on established forms.

Still, songwriting has the potential to treat as expansive a range of themes and topics as any other literary form. It can be narrative and lyric, sometimes in the same song. It can be fictional or non-fictional, personal or anthemic, political or introspective.

It can be a struggle to think of songwriting as writing. Your parents and friends probably won’t think of it as writing. Even the other songwriters you know might not really think of themselves as writers. But if you remind yourself that songwriting is writing, you may find that it opens up musical and lyrical possibilities for your songs that you had never considered.

If you’re still not convinced, I’ll offer this song as proof:

Along with this interview where Gillian Welch explains her process for writing this song and its companion, “Ruination Day, Part 2”.

Why do people write so many love songs?

Often, when I hear a bunch of songwriters play their songs, I am struck by the near-total dominance of songs about love, sex, relationships, and other romantic entanglements. It’s not that I don’t like those songs, or that I consciously avoid writing about those topics. But to me there is something out of proportion about an entire evening of songs devoted to love.

Why are love songs so popular with songwriters? They seem to be popular with listeners, but other types of songs are popular as well. More than just the market, I think the main reason for the ubiquity of love songs is what I tend to think of as the honest song trap, a mindset where the best songs are honest evocations of the songwriter’s own emotional life. A songwriter caught in this trap is forced to mine his or her own emotional life for material. But something about the trap leads the writer away from writing about mundane emotional experiences. So, instead of getting a thousand songs about how it feels to go to the supermarket or visit the in-laws or watch the seasons change, which might actually be interesting and varied, we get a million songs about the pursuit and loss of love.

The honest song trap doesn’t just favor songs based on emotional experience – it favors songs based on strong, unequivocal emotions, the type of emotions that a singer can really let loose on. Unrequited love, in all if its shades from hopeful to desperate, becomes the prototypical emotional experience. It is one nearly all of us can relate to, one that implies familiar narratives and allows the writer to easily create an appropriate level of drama and tension in the song. In a love song, the stakes are clear from the outset.

The ubiquity of the love song affects other types of song as well. I am often aware that, for many listeners, all songs are love songs until proven otherwise. Some genres of music are so dominated by romantic themes that listeners may barely listen to the lyrics of a song, since their concerns don’t vary much from one song to the next.

While it can be an obstacle to the ambitious songwriter, this set of expectations carries its own possibilities. Literature is dotted with poets who used the idioms of romance to write in a nuanced and sophisticated way about other topics. There is a great power to working within an established form in a self-aware way. Common’s “I Used to Love HER” is a good example of this technique, and of some of its pitfalls. The song is a simple allegory in which the speaker describes his romance with a woman who represents Hip Hop. This framework raises the stakes of the speaker’s relationship to Hip Hop, taking advantage of the established palette of emotional states associated with romance – elation, obsession, betrayal, jealousy – to communicate the speaker’s close personal association with a commercial genre of music. Even if we haven’t experienced either love or obsessive music fandom, we know, as part of our basic cultural literacy, the significance of these states. More than relating, we understand the emotional language of the song.

On the other hand, in this song the use of romance as a metaphor imposes surprising limitations. One structural feature of most love songs is that we hear the perspective of one party in a romantic situation, while the experience(s) of the other person or people involved are hinted at or more often ignored. If you are interested in venting your own emotions, this makes sense, but if you are more interested in telling stories, it is worth reconsidering. Here, the fact that Common’s feminized Hip Hop is seen from a distance, animated but not quite personified, introduces complicated resonances around gender which probably enrich the song for some listeners while alienating others.

This is an important lesson to take back to our love songs. When we write about love we inherit a set of ideas, images, clichés, and myths, which listeners will apply to our songs. If what you want to express is not already contained within this mythology, it will take a lot of additional work to communicate it. It is often not enough to simply tell your story, for whatever you say will only be seen through the frame of thousands of previous love songs. If you want to say something different, you may first need to loosen the listener’s grip on received ideas and familiar stories. This is why it takes more than honesty to write a really new or interesting song, one that does more than add a drop to the flow of familiar, comfortable narratives. It takes more than honesty to write a song that is original and moving. It takes, among other things, awareness of your audience’s biases and assumptions, as well as your own. Self-awareness, rather than simple honesty, may be the key to moving your songs forward.

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.

If you want to change your songs, change your process

Once you understand the process you use to write songs, you can start to think about how making changes to that process might change the songs you write. Those changes could be anything. You could write on a different instrument or with different collaborators. You could introduce limitations, or prompts, or outside inspiration from something you have read or seen.

Stepping back, it’s worth thinking about the reasons you might want to change the way you write songs. It’s probably smart to figure out what it is you want to change about your songs – that way you can start to think about what you can change in your process to achieve your new goals. Some scenarios I can imagine or relate to:

  • You need to write songs to be performed in a different genre than you normally write for, or for a new band
  • You have ideas that you are finding difficult to express in a song
  • You keep writing about the same things and want to introduce new types of themes, narratives, or characters to your songs
  • You feel stuck or aren’t able to write as much as you normally do
  • You heard new music and want to try to incorporate some aspect of it into your own songs
  • If you understand your process, it is easier to make minor adjustments and incorporate new elements without getting disoriented while writing, or worrying that your own voice will somehow be lost. 

Making changes to your process can be an important way of growing as a songwriter and of pushing your songs in new directions. You may find that you develop multiple, parallel processes, each or which tends to produce a different type of song. Experimenting with process can help to demystify the process of writing songs and open up new possibilities for your songs.

Know and respect your process

Most of the time, songs don’t just appear – you have to write them. Even if you are so lucky/brilliant that they emerge fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, you might worry that it won’t always be so.

There are many, many ways of writing songs. For example, the process that comes naturally to me is to write a song, music and lyrics, in a single sitting on guitar. This usually takes me one to two hours and works best first thing in the morning or late at night. Others may find a different process most effective: writing lyrics first, or music first, or writing music and lyrics over a beat, or co-writing with a collaborator, or writing with a band, or collaging bits and pieces of songs on a computer, or improvising into a live mike, or any one of dozens of other options.

I really don’t think any one process is better than another, though I do think that different processes tend to produce different types of songs (more on that in the next post). I do think that finding your process and coming to understand and accept it is an important step in becoming a songwriter, and especially in continuing to write songs. The more you know about how and when you are able to write songs, the easier it will be to fit songwriting into your life. Take a very simple example – if I set aside two hours on Saturday mornings, I can write songs in that time. If I substitute four hours on Sunday afternoons, I might write half as many songs in twice as much time. But in order to save that time, I have to know when I am more likely to be able to write.

It’s also important to respect, and even have some pride in your process. If you are happy with your songs, your process is working for you. One thing I have seen in others and experienced myself is insecurity around songwriting processes. A writer who writes more slowly might feel intimidated by a more prolific songwriter. But there’s always a flipside – I write a lot of songs, and I often feel jealous of writers who seem to write more deliberately and focus more energy into a single song. I end up with throw-away songs and songs that are different versions of the same idea. It may be impossible to avoid a little process-envy, but in the end it’s important to value and respect the process that works for you.