When studying the origins of anthropology in college I learned that the origins were not necessarily lofty and academic.
Early ethnographic writings arose out of what were called at the time “travel writings”: personal accounts by Victorian-era travelers of their encounters with different cultures around the world.
One important element of this was the notion that authenticity was derived from the ability to say that you were there: authorship and authority are one. Early travel writings were fairly straightforward, chronological accounts, but later ethnographic writings tended to push the subjective portion of the narrative to prologues and afterwords, or even entirely separate books detailing the personal experience of encountering and living in another culture. This is because ethnographic writings were supposed to be science and therefore objective, and subjectivity needed to be pushed to the margins.
In that context, more modern ethnographic writing takes into account the power dynamics involved in the negotiation between cultures that is part of ethnographic and anthropological study, and makes space for it.
In songwriting there is a similar principle at work that says that in order to have authenticity or credibility one needs to have been there, seen it, done it… lived a real authentic life.
However there is an alternate force in action: accessibility of the product or artifact. This is true in ethnographic writings as well: there are “hits”, books that even become popular outside of the field of anthropology.
Yet these books also receive criticism from within the field of anthropology for being unscientific and/or targeting a popular audience, not unlike music artists who are viewed as being overly commercial, or worse, selling out after having street credibility.
So it seems that there is a general tension in the whole business of writing between Artistic Integrity and Commercial Appeal.
On the one hand, one wants to be true to oneself, and true to the song and true to the truth itself.
On the other hand, what good is a truth if nobody hears it? Could this be the real meaning of “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound”?
Like everyone else I want to change the world with my songs, but I have to gain their ears first.
Artistic Integrity and Commercial Appeal
So can one balance being true to the message of the song and the idea that you’re trying to convey yet putting it in a fashion that can be easily digested by the masses?
Should one even try to do that? I think the answer for me is: sometimes.
This first week of my blog I posted a link to a somewhat irreverent yet truthful and I feel empathetic Christmas song, written in response to a prompt to write a holiday song. I resisted the standard approach to Christmas music, which is to say a commercial approach, yet in my opinion the song could be enjoyed by a lot of people.
Our first musical quotation for this Monday was a lengthy one from Woody Guthrie regarding his feelings on commercial music. He felt that it was the content rather than the genre or style that determined if a song was worthy or not, in his view.
My taste in music are not particularly unusual or extremely eclectic, although it is very broad. I have a great love for pop music and I think it’s important for anyone composing music to understand a variety of genres.
So in that context if the truth of the song is best expressed with an easy to digest pop melody or simple three chord structure, so be it: I’ll follow that where it leads.
I think I have to draw the line at writing a song that has no real meaning in the lyrics and just a catchy hook with nonsense words or something like that.
I also agree with Woody that too many pop songs express unhealthy ideas, and I don’t want to participate in that either.
However if you are a pop songwriter or someone who needs to write commercial songs all the time I do believe it can be done with Artistic Integrity. If you have something real to say….just make sure your lyrics ring true.
A big part of that is making space for subjectivity: trying to tell a story “objectively” will leave your audience cold, but showing what it really looked and smelled and felt like is what people respond to, in my opinion. People can feel the truth… that’s authenticity.