Songwriting Part 25 - In Defense of Passion

by SaskMusic

August 4, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

Popular music is not rocket science. It won't save the world. It can't cure cancer. It will never take Lassie's place, and inform us of Jimmy's plight in the well. It doesn't feed many people, and ironically musicians are low on the list of those people it does feed. Nonetheless, popular music has a purpose within our society. That purpose seems to have been forgotten.

Popular music, as an art form, is meant to serve as a forum for discussion; a level playing field for ideas; a proverbial round table where the rich, poor, Muslim, Christian, male, female, gay, and straight of all ethnicities and creeds can voice our opinions. It is a place where we can reconcile ourselves to one another. What are we doing with it? We're trying to see how many times we can use "crazy" as a rhyme for "baby" in top 40 songs before the public notices the trend.

If you weren't sure about it before, let me assure you: There is a place for passion in your songwriting. There is room for opinion. Here are some of those who have dared to opinionate in the past:

Neil Young (then a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young) used his hit song "Ohio" to protest the slaying of four youths by the U.S. National Guard at Kent State University in 1970. It was released as a single eight days after the shootings, and peaked at #14 on the charts.

U2 protested the U S bombing and occupation of San Salvador with the sneering live favourite "Bullet the Blue Sky".

Stevie Wonder ridiculed anti-interracialism with his quirky soundtrack hit "Jungle Fever".

Dire Straits painted a satirical picture of the rock music scene in the often misunderstood hit "Money For Nothing".

The list goes on and on.

"...rock music was the lightning rod of cultural change...responding to (societal) upheavals more instantly than any other art form."1

Ever since the "golden age of pop" in the 1960s, popular music has become moreciety. It has been made more accessible to common people, yet has also become glorified as wisdom for the grassroots. Simultaneously, less snobbish, and yet more pretentious. Its perceived importance far outweighs it intended impact on society. In other words, we have a big responsibility to our audience because they may take us more seriously than we do.

Times have changed somewhat since the 60s. Rock musicians aren't quite the "philosopher-poets of the new religion"2 they once were. We no longer have the public's ear in the same way we did then. Why? Possibly because today's musicians lack some of the reactionary qualities that made the formative years of rock so interesting. Granted, we are better at PR now, but we tend not to make waves about anything in particular. We just make waves in order to sell records.

We also have a new responsibility to maintain at least a loose allegiance to our nation's newest social norms of pluralism and political correctness. We can no longer bull-headedly speak our minds and expect to be taken seriously. Times have changed, but our responsibility has not lessened.

So how are we to communicate our passions? Must we tiptoe around opposing ideas? Is it safe to have an opinion anymore without being labelled as stodgy or closed-minded?

I believe that the bold expression of opinion is as critical now as it has ever been in the past. With so much pacifism in the arts, only the extremists are heard above the murmur of our complacency. Their voices must be heard, but not to the exclusion of the rest of us.

Go ahead. Pick something that you are passionate about. Write about it. Here some tips on how to go about that process.

1. First we establish the bottom line: respect. We must respect both those who subscribe to opposing views and respect ourselves enough to seek the truth, even if it means finding fault with our present beliefs. I believe (some would say foolishly) that there is such a thing as truth. The key to approaching this truth is in allowing our ideas to conflict, not attacking the person they belong to. We can let our ideas "have it out" in a proverbial ring, allowing us to observe and refine our own beliefs according to the strengths of both opposing ideas. Therefore our first guideline would be: Be passionate, but don't make it personal unless you want to start a fight.

2. Time for an ego check. Are we arguing a point in an effort to reach a more satisfactory conclusion, or are we arguing to satisfy our need to be right? If we are so sold on the idea that we are right and that arguments to the contrary are futile, then we might as well stay home. Just look at how long Israel and Palestine have been arguing over that tiny piece of land. It's not even 21,000 square kilometres. It's smaller than New Jersey. [3] Yet both sides, both powerful, are so convinced that they have inherent title to "their" land, that they are willing to kill to possess it. I will never claim to know how that particular dispute should be settled, but I do know that if we approach issues as dogmatically as these diametric opponents, we will never convince anyone worth convincing, and more importantly, we will never learn or grow. Always, always, always leave room for the possibility of you being wrong.

3. Now that I've just finished advising caution, let's not forget that passionate writing is usually unbridled. Art is by nature inflammatory and often misunderstood. So don't be afraid to draw on strong emotion as you write. One of my favourite professors in college had a gift for making me really mad. He would push my buttons in just the right order and as I was about to explode, I would "wake up" from the complacency of my beliefs and I would actually consider his opinion. Sometimes it takes a wake-up call to gain a person's attention. If you're willing to bear the brunt of some backlash: Be bold. Be dangerous. Be thought provoking. Don't be afraid to "stir the pot".

4. Finally, a word of caution regarding our relationship with those new social norms I mentioned earlier. Political Correctness is simply a system of inclusive language. It is meant to clarify, and eliminate insensitive idiom from our speech. Even though its most common uses would tell you otherwise (i.e. politics), it is not meant to obscure meaning, nor is it an excuse to say nothing at all for paragraphs at a time. Be clear. Be fair. Be inclusive in the words that you choose, but above all remain honest. All of these remain true to the core values of Political Correctness that society demands.

Pluralism, like Political Correctness, is a social mechanism with a purpose. The basic purpose is to allow more than one opinion to occupy a room without a boxing match ensuing. It is the notion that opposing ideas can co-exist, debate, and even agree to disagree while maintaining decorum on all sides.

I would also like to be very clear on what Pluralism is not. Pluralism is not the idea that there is no truth. It is not the idea that all dogma is bad. It is not an effort to completely neutralize conflict. It does not infer that all sides in an argument are right. Those ideas form the basis for Relativism, a perversion of Pluralism. Relativism removes the need for dialogue by stating that every opinion is right, even though we know that despite our best efforts, our experiences prove our sometime-wrongness. Relativism emasculates truth, makes us apologise for belief, and destroys the basis for rational thought. I don't buy it.

Pluralism allows us a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation with minimal turmoil within those sectors that subscribe to it. It is the idea that everyone is welcome to their own opinion. I stand by that. So speak your mind respectful both of yourself, and your listeners.

Enough philosophizing! Go! Write! Tell the world what it needs to hear, but don't be surprised if you learn something in the process. Find your voice and make it heard above the murmur.

Of course, there is more to writing than activism, so have some fun. While you're at it, write a few songs with "crazy" and "baby" in the hookline. Who knows, you might have a hit single on your hands and you could get some SOCAN money along the way. I hear that hit singles are a great way to pay the bills while you're writing the next "Heal the World". Thanks for reading, and drop me a line if you feel the need to tell me I'm wrong...or right. Either one is quite possible.

Much love,
Ben Reynolds
1 Turner, Steve. Imagine. (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2001)

2 Leary, Timothy. The Politics of Ecstasy (London, Paladin, 1970)

3 (2004) 

By Benjamin Reynolds for SaskMusic. Originally published February 2004.

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