Singing to Just You?

No matter how much I write, I never feel like I am the author. This may sound strange, because I clearly am. I have the copyright on the books I published, and yet when I read them after some time, it feels like someone else wrote them, and it feels like that at the time. I have no idea where the ideas and the words come from, but they never seem to come from me. Is this something like the notion of Divine Inspiration? Or is that just one of my many confusions?

In terms of songs, how is it that we connect with them? How is it that we listen to a song over and over, convinced that it could have been written just for us, just how we are feeling now? Part of this comes from the fact that most songs seem to be sung in the first person, whereas most fiction is not. And we sing along to the songs, they become part of us, the soundtrack to our lives in a way that poetry may well have come close to in the past. For those of us who grew up with the singer-songwriters, we tend to assume they are writing about their lives, they have felt those deep passions, known pain , joy and loneliness, but why should that be? Novelists are not assumed to have lived through what they write. Thank goodness Stephen King has not witnessed scores of grisly murders, and J R Tolkein probably never saw a hobbit. And actors are not assumed to have lived through any of the roles they have played, with is useful for those who do Shakespeare. So why do we put all this baggage onto songwriters?

This is from David Byrne’s book, How Music Works:

In the West, the presumption of a causal link between the author and performer is strong. For instance, it’s assumed that I write lyrics (and the accompanying music) for songs because I have something I need to express. And it’s assumed that everything one utters or sings (or even plays) emerges from some autobiographical impulse. Even if I choose to sing someone else’s song, it’s assumed that the song was, when it was written, autobiographical for them, and I am both acknowledging  that fact and at the same time implying that it’s applicable to my own biography. Nonsense! It doesn’t matter whether or not something actually happened to the writer – or to the person interpreting the song. On the contrary, it is the music and the lyrics that trigger the emotions within us, rather than the other way around. We don’t make music – it makes us. Which is maybe the point of this whole book.

Granted, a writer has to draw on some instinctual understanding of a feeling in order to put something with some emotional truth down on paper, but it didn’t necessarily have to happen to them. In writing  and performing music we are pushing our own buttons, and the surprising thing about My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is that vocals that we didn’t write ourselves, or, in the case of the found vocals, didn’t even sing, could still make us feel such a gamut of emotions.

Making music is like constructing a machine whose function is to dredge up emotions in performer and listener alike. Some people find this idea repulsive, because it seems to relegate the artist to the level of trickster, manipulator and deceiver – a kind of self-justifying onanist. They would prefer to see the artist as someone with something to say. I’m beginning to thin of the artist as someone who is adept at making devices that tap into our shared psychological make-up and that trigger the deeply moving parts we have in common. In that sense, the conventional idea of authorship is questionable. Not that I don’t want credit for the songs I’ve written, but what constitutes authorship is maybe not what we would like it to be. This queasiness about rethinking how music works  is also connected with the idea of authenticity. The idea that musicians who appear to be “down-home,”  or seem to be conveying aspects of their own experience, must therefore be more “real”.It can be disillusioning to find out that the archetypal rock-and-roll persona is an act, and that none of the “country” folk in Nashville really wear cowboy hats (well, except during their public appearances and photo shoots.)”

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