Oligarchy and Premature Dynamics in Songwriting

People say musicians don’t necessarily have much right to weigh in about politics, at least not just by virtue of being musicians. I beg the question to viva la differ!

I think, firstly: musicians are citizens, and as such have the same right as any other citizens to speak their mind. Ah—but, so goes the argument­—they are handed an extra “megaphone” by virtue of their artistic visibility and influence. They should be careful not to use that extra resonance to actually speak their minds, support and champion their beliefs and values. Say wha’?

The “Shut Up and Sing” humiliation of the Dixie Chicks during the run-up to the Iraq invasion was not just a public shaming of that band alone, but a new brand of intimidation tactics that had the likely desired effect of stifling much other dissent in the country—including, I’m not proud to say, my own efforts, as I’ve described in my memoirette “A Coward’s Confession.”

Meanwhile, today in other news—the Supreme Court continues to re-sew the tatters and shreds of our what was once presumed a democracy into the fool’s motley of a more baldly acknowledged oligarchy—control of the state by wealth. Limits on campaign contributions by individuals are challenged and weakened; limits on contributions by corporations are next in line. Public campaign finance seems a lost cause. The prospect of endless floods of money pouring into an already compromised system of governance seems inevitable, unstoppable.

First off, note the ironic juxtaposition of the points above. Those who gain influence through sheer financial power are left unimpeded. Those who gain influence by virtue of their own artistic abilities are prevented from doing so, not by rule of law but by unabashed thuggery and brutality. (Tactics protected in their own right, by the way, as “free speech.”)

That’s music in politics. How about politics in music?

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Embrace the Mess

I’ve been reading a great book by one of the founders of Pixar, Ed Catmull: Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Although he’s describing things he’s learned about fostering creativity in a large complex organization (an animation studio and technology development company), many of his lessons apply to songwriting: especially to the kinds of smaller-scale collaborative interactions that happen in co-writing, and even in solo songwriting.

Here’s one powerful insight from the book. After completing one film (Toy Story 2) on a crushing deadline, Pixar’s leadership had resolved to work everyone at a more sustainable, human-friendly pace on subsequent projects. But they found they were taking lots of time, in part because story lines kept changing all through production. On Finding Nemo they tried to change that. It didn’t work. The movie was successful, in fact very successful—the highest-grossing animated film ever. But (page 134):

“The only thing it didn’t do was transform our production process… By insisting on the importance of getting our ducks in a row early, we had come perilously close to embracing a fallacy. Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.”

There are big implications here. When we think we’re getting it all figured out, we’re often in danger of losing sight of the big picture. That’s true for any creative work, I think, happening at any scale. It certainly applies to songwriting—with a vengeance.

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Brothers and Sisters of the Shoulder of the Road

Just heard Irl Hees’ amazing upcoming cover recording of a song of mine, “Time Has Humbled Me,” from my 2003 album Crazy Faith. More on that truly head-turning recording later, when I can share it. Before I heard it, I asked Irl if he was happy with the recording. He told me a story that I count as about the highest compliment a songwriter can get. He said the husband of one of the musicians on the track was listening to a rough mix of the song in the car, and had to pull over onto the shoulder of the road to finish listening.

Now that’s what I’m talking about. As songwriters, our mission in life is to disrupt traffic any way we can.

We songwriters are part of a secret society I like to call Brothers and Sisters of the Shoulder of the Road (or maybe, for that old-time feel, Brethren and Sistren—always thought that should be a word!). The rites of passage into this tribe are three moments in your life involving cars and roads, moments that can tell you something about whether you’re meant to be, or are becoming, a songwriter.

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