What (else) can songs do?

Songwriting is poorly understood, if at all. Take a critical look at songwriting advice and it becomes clear that the advice-givers are almost exclusively concerned with popular and industry success and have little regard for or awareness of the possibilities of the song itself. One popular advice listicle, for example, explains that music industry executives, who fancy themselves as song experts, can’t recognize the quality of a song unless they hear it in a slick sounding demo, because they listen to slick sounding demos all day. But how can it be that our song experts are actually unable to hear songs?

Songs are undertheorized. We don’t know what they are. I have read reams and reams of music criticism, journalism, and history, and the amount I’ve read that was actually about songs could probably fit on a few dozen pages. We understand the records, the recording process, the industry, the personalities, the costumes, the packaging, the tours, the TV appearances, but what about the songs?

In the music industry, songs are raw materials, like uncut diamonds to a jeweler or cows to a butcher. One of the music industry’s activities is the transformation of songs into industrial products. A record is like a sausage – there’s a song in there, but it’s usually been mixed up with a lot of salt and spices and wrapped up in its own intestines. I don’t intend that as a criticism – I love sausage and I love records – but I do think that this practice, of turning songs into records, blinds both listener and musician to other possible uses and lives that songs might have.

There are several assumptions about the lives of songs that go unstated in nearly all songwriting advice:

  • Songs are potential records. The goal of songwriting should be to write songs that make good records.
  • Songwriting is a craft. There might be some arty bits floating around it, but they are slightly embarrassing and best discussed in hushed tones or not at all.
  • A song on its own – without a record or an arrangement – cannot make its way in the world.
  • Songwriting is a commercial art. Regardless of genre, success is a meaningful concept.
These are observably true facts about the world, but it’s possible to ignore them and create something different in the world. What if songwriting were not a commercial art, but whatever the opposite is – a fine art, a pure art, an art for art’s sake, any of those romantic concepts that cynics say are outdated – what they don’t know is that they’ve always been outdated, always been laughed at and dismissed, and always stuck around, like the awkward party guests you keep inviting because they’re the only ones who bring good booze.
And if songwriting were truly an art, and not a craft or a raw material for commerce, wouldn’t a song be enough? Couldn’t a song stand on its own and speak in the world? Couldn’t a song say all of the crooked, asymmetrical, complicated, unknowable things that a record just isn’t the right place for? And what would that look like? How do we sit and listen to pure, bare songs?