Comparing Songwriting to Drawing

I like to think of a song as a pencil drawing.  It is the most important part of the drawing, because it defines what it is you are looking at. But with good musicianship and the production, the colors and the frame, it can be made to resemble many different things.  You could draw a picture of a cowboy, but then you could color it in with strange colors and make it a psychedelic cowboy.  Or you could color it is with traditional instruments, make it rustic and dust worn, and it could be a traditional country western song.  You could put it up with no frame or you could put a frame up around it that makes it look as if it should hang in some expensive gallery.  That’s what musicianship and production do, they take that thing that is either great or not on it’s own, and make it presentable to more people.  A great song, like John Lennon’s Imagine, would be great in any form, whether just as a sketch or as the final product, produced by Phil Spector.  Meanwhile, you take something like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and although there is some song craft going on there, most of the true magic is in the production and the musicianship.  They are taking a simple drawing and making it into a piece of art through attention to detail.  Meanwhile I just looked at the Billboard Top 20.  Most of that stuff is like someone pissing on a canvas, putting it in an expensive frame, and then telling you it is is a portrait of Jesus.

The Beautiful Strange World of Hayao Miyazaki

Don’t call him the Walt Disney of Japan: How animator Hayao Miyazaki became a cultural icon by doing everything Pixar doesn’t http://www.salon.com/2014/06/23/dont_call_him_the_walt_disney_of_japan_how_animator_hayao_miyazaki_became_a_cultural_icon_by_doing_everything_pixar_doesnt/ via @Salon

The above article is a really interesting one about the famous Japanese animator.  His films can appear very strange to the Western eye.  After traveling to and reading I have learned about how the Japanese are more comfortable with abstractions.  Abstractions are part of their everyday language.  Because of their complex social behavior they often speak in abstractions and convey certain nuances through how things are said and facial expressions. 

I love Miyazaki’s beautiful and surreal movies.  They are art and entertainment all in one.  If you are looking to go someplace you have never been give his films a try. 

Complexity, Art, and Monsters

I feel a strange kinship with Michael Moore.  They’re trying to pit us against each other in the press, but it’s a hologram.  They really have got nothing to do with one another.  It’s just some kind of device, some kind of left-right.  He makes some salient points.  There was some very expert, elliptical editing going on.  However, what the hell are we doing in Iraq?  No one can explain to me in a reasonable manner that I can accept why we’re there, why we went there, and why we’re still there.  

The fear mongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys.  

I doubt very highly if, while reading the above quotes, you attributed them to Mel Gibson.  Jeez I get up to some strange shit at night.  Somehow at 1am I started watching Braveheart and then I went down the rabbit hole of IMDB.  I think Mel Gibson is an interesting figure because if you like his films, as I do, it brings up many interesting questions.  Should we separate the art from the artist?  Do we have the right to judge people’s whole lives on possibly momentary lapses of reason?  Aren’t people almost always more complex than our media portrays them?  I have defended him here before and these quotes again made me remember why I have.

Mel Gibson is someone that struggles from alcoholism and bi-polar disorder.  Having known people with both, I know that especially with alcoholism that people that are good and decent in most of their lives can turn into absolute monsters.  Most of us would say that alcoholism is a disease and that we should realize the good in people that are struggling against that disease and not condemn them completely for the monster that they may become.

I again am not supporting in anyway the awful things that Gibson has said.  He also has displayed extreme hubris by doing things like building a personal chapel on his own property.  Any of you that read this blog on a regular basis know that I believe in equality for all and also have politics that at times differ greatly from some of the things that Gibson has professed to.  However, what I do defend is his right to make art.  Whatever laws he has broken he has paid for.  I also read last night that after his drunk driving episode he was on probation for over four years where for several months he had to take classes four times a week.

If you look at our criminal justice system it punishes people long after they have served their debt to society.  Many poor people have trouble finding work after serving time or after receiving something like a DUI.  Someone like Gibson has the money that they don’t have to worry about those kinds of consequences.  He never has to work another day in his life if he wants to.  However, we have to be even handed in our justice system.  We should prosecute bankers that commit fraud just as we prosecute low level conmen.  Inversely if we are going to forgive low income offenders after they have paid their debt to society, which we do not but should, then we should also forgive someone like Gibson once they have paid theirs.

Also, I believe that one should try to separate art from the artist.  I am sure all of us own albums or watch movies that have saved our lives at certain times, where if we knew the personal behavior of their creators, might sicken us.  I remember hearing a priest one time on the radio talking about how art is often a thing created by people trying to heal themselves from their personal demons.  Because of that it is often an altruistic force that should be allowed to stand apart from its creator much of the time.  Therefore we should rightly condemn the anti-Semitism of someone like Wagner, but we also should not prevent ourselves from enjoying the extreme beauty of his music.

There is also a portion of our culture that is truly sick that capitalizes on the struggles of others.  On the high end this is represented by something like TMZ.  On the low end this is represented by something like Busted Magazine or any number of low level publications that print mug photos of our fellow citizens.  They capture people at their lowest and weakest moments and make sport of it for the rest of us.

People are complicated.  The world is complicated.  We live in a society that often values simplicity whether represented as left vs. right or good vs. evil.  There are times when we must make hard value judgments that come down on one side or the other of this divide.  However, when the world allows it, we should allow our feelings and interpretations of what we see to be, well, complex.

Kanye West, Paul Westerberg, and Self Defense

Kanye West Power Lyrics

I’m livin’ in the 21st century
Doin’ something mean to it
Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music

No one man should have all that power
The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours
Stop trippin’, I’m trippin’ off the power
(21st century schizoid man)

The system broken, the schools closed, the prisons open
We ain’t got nothin’ to lose, ma’f-cka, we rollin’
Huh? Ma’f-cka, we rollin’
With some light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands
In this white man’s world, we the ones chosen
So goodnight, cruel world, I see you in the mornin’
Huh? I see you in the mornin’
This is way too much, I need a moment

No one man should have all that power
The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours
Stop trippin’, I’m trippin’ off the power
‘Til then, f-ck that, the World’s ours

And then they (Go)
And then they
And then they (Go)
And then they (21st century schizoid man)

F-ck SNL and the whole cast
Tell ‘em Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass
More specifically, they can kiss my asshole
I’m an asshole? You n-ggas got  jokes
You short-minded n-ggas’ thoughts is Napoleon
My furs is Mongolian, my ice brought the goalies in
Now I embody every characteristic of the egotistic
He know, he so, f-ckin’ gifted
I just needed time alone, with my own thoughts
Got treasures in my mind but couldn’t open up my own vault
My childlike creativity, purity and honesty
Is honestly being prodded by these grown thoughts
Reality is catchin’ up with me
Takin’ my inner child, I’m fighting for it, custody
With these responsibilities that they entrusted me
As I look down at my dia-mond-encrusted piece

N-gga, no one man should have all that power
The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours
Stop trippin’, I’m trippin’ off the power
‘Til then, f-ck that, the World’s ours

And then they (Go)
And then they
And then they (Go)
And then they
And then they (Go)
And then they (21st century schizoid man)

Colin Powells, Austin Powers
Lost in translation with a whole f-ckin’ nation
They say I was the obamanation (abomination) of Obama’s nation
Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation
At the end of day, goddammit, I’m killin’ this sh-t
I know damn well y’all feelin’ this sh-t
I don’t need yo’ p-ssy, bitch, I’m on my own d-ck
I ain’t gotta power trip, who you goin’ home with?
How ‘Ye doin’? I’m survivin’
I was drinkin’ earlier, now I’m drivin’
Where the bad bitches, huh? Where ya hidin’?
I got the power, make yo’ life so excitin’ (So excitin’)

Now this would be a beautiful death
Jumpin’ out the window
Lettin’ everything go
Lettin’ everything go

N-now-now this would be a beautiful death
Jumpin’ out the window
Lettin’ everything go
Lettin’ everything go

Now this would be a beautiful death
Jumpin’ out the window
Lettin’ everything go
Lettin’ everything go

You got the power to let power go

 

Paul Westerberg Self Defense Lyrics

Cheekbones and hormones
Your only self-defense
Lying through dinner
And your rock and roll teeth again
You’ve harbored a coward
Fed him full of broth
This nocturnal sadness
Leave you pale as this tablecloth
Careful don’t you spill your dinner
That would be a good defense
Then you wouldn’t have to sit here
On the fence

Cheekbones and hormones
He’s the accidental man
Tell you in a stage whisper
about the boy who cried benefit
As the poet drags the darkness
Within him to the light
It’s only in self-defense
That they drag you out into the night
Careful don’t you spill your dinner
That would be your best defense
Careful what you wish for

An idiot and a genius
Standing up to dine
Breaking manmade laws
Cause I only follow those that are divine
And only when you’re chased
Do you ever run fast
And it’s wrong to commit a suicide
It’s only in self-defense

 

I was listening to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy today while cleaning and the single Power came on.  The song is one half egotistical boast and one half cry for help.  Notice the lines at the end of the song after some of the more boastful ones earlier in it.  I started thinking about the Paul Westerberg song Self Defense from his Suicaine Gratifaction album.  Westerberg’s song is probably one of the best song’s ever about the self destructive streak in rock n roll music. 

I started thinking about how different works of art can allow you to interpret other works of art.  I was also thinking about how art can open up windows of empathy into other people’s lives. 

When most people think of Kanye West they think of an out of control egoist.  He may or may not be all of the things that people say he is, but I don’t know him.  Most people that are constantly bragging and puffing themselves up and bragging about themselves are hiding some kind of despair or lack of inner self confidence.  They are often overcompensating.  That’s not always the case, but it often is.  As an Eagles fan I remember watching Terrell Owens’s meltdown in front of the camera’s while he played for them.  On one hand he seemed completely wrapped up in his own ego and self confident.  There also seemed to be a tremendous amount of pain under all of that bravado.  

In rap music there is a ton of boasting and bragging, often by young black men.  Sometimes I discount some of this music because of this factor.  It seems excessive.  However, we live in a country where our prison industrial complex is out of control.  Young black men make up a disproportionately large amount of our prison population.  When people go to prison they do not simply pay their debts and return back to normal life.  Prison often follows people for long after if not the rest of their lives.  When people go to prison for nonviolent crimes it often punishes them disproportionately in light of the crimes committed.  Families are destroyed and chances for meaningful employment are often lost. 

We also live in a country where many people admit to crossing the street when they see a certain kind of black mail walking on their side of it.  Growing up under these circumstances, even if you are not directly affected, would be enough to drive anyone insane.  The culture surrounding you alone must be maddening. 

When you hear bragging and boasting in these songs can you not imagine that it is a way to overcompensate for the image that society has thrust upon them?  If no one is going to tell you that you are of worth, maybe you need to tell yourself.  My mom just sent me an email about how when no one would write reviews of Walt Whitman he just wrote reviews of his own work and later quote from those reviews as if someone else had written them.  Is this bragging and boasting not some form of self defense? 

Kanye West’s Yeezus

I have become transfixed with the music of Kanye West lately.  Whatever you think of him, and like me you probably have an opinion of him even before you have heard a note of his music, he is definitely an artist.  He allows all of the contradictions in his personality, both the good and bad, to come through in his music even when it makes him look less than flattering.  More importantly he has become a first rate sonic architect.  His latest album Yeezus, and my favorite, is batshit insane in the best way possible.  I like his work from best to least in reverse order, though I will admit I am least familiar with his first two records.  The stranger his music gets the better as far as I’m concerned. 

His lyrics, while it would be wrong to say they are not intelligent, are not intellectual in a true sense.  Although they have many moments of playfulness and bizarre humor, in some way they seem less constructed than delivered.  It’s almost as if we have a ticker tape of the subconscious.  This is both their strength and weakness.  That’s why I believe his lyrics work the best when they are either a direct representation of how he feels, or are completely crazy on something like I Am a God.  The very best are when you have a tough time telling the two apart.  When he is singing something like I Am a God I believe he is just having fun, trying to be provocative.  He has found a small bit of virgin territory, which is harder and harder to do these days, and is staking it out, probably laughing at all of the people that are going to freak out. 

Other than being a huge Public Enemy fan I am not a big rap fan.  I am trying to branch out and learn more as it is one of the areas where I feel my musical education is lacking.  I’ve always felt that the singing voice is the quickest way to some kind of emotional truth in music.  When someone sings it is almost a window into their soul.  In rap that nonverbal emotional element is missing and the words really do matter.  That’s not to say that a rappers delivery can’t communicate emotions, it is just not the same as singing though.  Also, and this goes for any genre, one of my pet peeves lyrically is of the moment pop culture references.  They seem to date something instantly.  That’s not to say that you can’t reach some universal truth while doing so, but you have an uphill battle.  Too often rap not only exists in the world of the ego, which rock n roll has been doing since it began, but in the world of the temporary.  I feel like the best lyrics either make you think on some deeper level, or stay out of the way of the melody completely and let the emotional quality of a piece of music do the talking.  If you are thinking, but at a very rudimentary level, you are being taken out of the emotion of the piece as far as I’m concerned.  No one would say that Bernard Sumner was a great poet, but his lyrics have an almost blank slate quality that allows you to project your own imagination into the song.  They don’t get in the way of enjoying his effervescent melodies.  I’m trying to rethink my personal prejudices when it comes to lyrics, at least when I listen to rap, as I realize it is a different form with different rules. 

I became interested in Kanye when both Lou Reed and David Lynch talked about their love of his new album.  They are two artists that I respect greatly and I had to see what they were going on about.  I was instantly impressed with Yeezus and wanted to learn more. 

I see the lyrics on Yeezus as both a mixture of raw pain and again as someone just trying to have fun.  It’s a strange blend, but compelling because of it.  Part of the detective work of the listener is trying to determine where he is being serious and where he is not.  Sometimes he is playing with his media perception and other times he is letting those inner thoughts, the ones that most of us keep secret, come to the forefront.

Sonically the juxtaposition of opposing ideas again makes this album incredibly captivating.  Primal drums, screeching synths, and screams will suddenly give way to beautiful moments of soul singing.  Often you’ll get one or the other on a record, but rarely both.  He is playing with both melody and noise often in the same song.  This record is one of the few times when I have heard something and I feel like something is being done new sonically.  Sure, everything has been done in some ways, but he is painting new colors in the margins.  He is combining things in a way that they have never quite been combined before.  It’s exciting.    

How to Sell Out

It seems that in the current music business and the arts in general it is very hard to make any kind or real money unless one dances with corporate America.  With the record business and radio in decline, even though pubic radio is becoming more and more viable for getting artists heard, one of the best ways for young artists to get their music heard is through commercials.  Many film directors also get their start in commercials. 

In the past, because record companies actually had money to promote artists that were not top tier moneymakers, and because the power of radio, it was seen as selling out if one sold their song to a commercial.  Artists like Bruce Springsteen still do not allow their music to appear in commercials.  I highly respect him for this, but let’s be honest, he has enough money that he doesn’t need to do that.  I also read that Kanye West does not allow his work to be used in commercials.  Whatever one things of him that is to be commended at least.  But again he is someone that doesn’t need the exposure or the money. 

I grew up highly influenced by punk rock.  There still seems to me, even though I realize the rules of the game have changed, something disheartening about putting songs in commercials.  It seems to have a corrupting influence on art, as once you hear a song in a Cheetos commercial or whatever, it can be hard to disassociate that song with that product.  Art should also speak truth to power, not walk hand in hand with it.  However, I do know that Hank Williams did commercials, and no one doubts that he was one of the greats.  There are also more ethical ways to sell out.  Moby allows his songs to be played in commercials, but then he uses a fraction of the money towards causes that he believes in.  For instance he will allow his music to be in a car commercial, but then use some of that money for environmental groups.  He is using the money of the company in direct opposition to what that company does. 

After watching a few really awful commercials at the AMC theater last night, I thought of an even better way to sell out.  The one commercial was a bunch of musicians making really bad music with coke bottles or some such nonsense.  Part of my brain slowly died during that shit.  So I think that artists should only allow their art to be used in commercials if they are given enough money to purchase a high end military vehicle like a tank.  Then they should personally drive that tank to the corporation headquarters that gave them the money and blow it up.  The artist would get paid and get exposure.  Meanwhile the general public would not have to watch any more stupid fucking commercials by that company.  What do you think of that? 

P.S.  The last paragraph is a joke if the NSA happens to be reading along.  I swear! 

Solidary/Solitary

Spoiler alert for The Artist at Work by Camus.  

One of my favorite authors is Camus.  I love his short story collection Exile and the Kingdom, among other works.  In the story The Artist at Work we follow the life of an artist as he becomes more and more removed from his family as he tries to create a painting.  The story ends with the artist creating a painting that is only a blank canvas, where it is impossible to tell if the word on the canvas is solidary or solitary.  Should his artistic responsibility be to go into his own inner world and create something or should his responsibility as a human being be to those people around him?

This is a common dilemma among creative people.  Should you put everything into your work or at some point do you just start progressing up your own arse?  Or as they say in Spinal Tap, “There is a fine line between the clever and the stupid.”

George Orwell said that, “any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”  When I am on the road there are times when I feel guilty about not being around to take care of my dog or not being there for a friend’s birthday party or whatever.  There are also times when I would prefer to sit around and write or play music when I should be out at someone’s event.  One wouldn’t even need to be any kind of artist to feel these feelings.  Anyone that might have a job that takes up too much time will probably feel this kind of thing from time to time.

A job, given there is some benefit to others in it, or a piece of art, may make many other people happy.  However, at the same time it may make those closest to you miserable from time to time.  Jackson Pollock was horrible to many people around him, but his work will live on for a long time.  Was it worth those people suffering so that he could create something that many other people would appreciate?  That is an extreme example, as most people can find some balance of the two.  However, because life is finite, I think it is normal to feel that in not having infinite time you are going to let someone down.

So how do you solve this problem?  Is there an answer?  I think not, only a series of questions that humanity will have to ask for as long as we’re around.

Under the Skin: A Second Look

Although I can say with all certainty that the new movie Under the Skin is not for everyone, I can’t stop thinking about it.  If you want to know what it is about read my review from a few days ago.  It is cinema at its best, where imagery is painterly and infused with multiple layers of meeting.  One can’t help but look at the world in a new light, at least if you are open to this kind of film.  It is a slow movie, but this pace is rewarding as it causes you to contemplate the images being shown. 

Scarlett Johansson is an alien, but as this character she forces us to see the world in a way that we might not otherwise.  The world, stripped of its context and meaning that we impart on it, is a strange and mysterious place. 

One of the interesting things in the movie is the men that she seduces.  They have thick Scottish accents.  The accents are so thick that at times I had trouble discerning what they were saying.  Here they were speaking the same language as me, but they appeared foreign, as if inhabiting some familiar but parallel universe. 
Also, the natural world is presented as I believe it really is, as a world we rarely seen in nature documentaries that want to explain and categorize it.  Nature is beautiful and enchanting, but it is also dangerous beyond human comprehension on many levels.

Again, this movie is not for everyone.  It requires work out of the viewer.  In some ways it is more like going to an art museum than the traditional Hollywood fair.  However, if you are up to the challenge, you will see something unique.  It is if the director, Jonathan Glazer, opened up a small glimpse to the mysterious heart of the universe. 

Church for One, For Anyone

I went to church today.  No, I did not go to the place with the stain glass windows and the boring guy at the front.  (And before you get all bent out of shape for calling your religious leader boring, let’s just admit that even many of you that go to real church on a regular basis are bored stiff.  I once had a friend’s father that used to always fall asleep in church and say he was just, “deep in thought.”)  My church is out in nature while listening to music.  No one is excluded, no one tells me what to think, and no one is going to hell, except possibly me.

Today I walked through a park in my home town.  I came home for three days to celebrate my Dad’s birthday.  Spring was in full bloom and the air was cool and crisp.  For my sermon I listened to Damon Albarn’s new album Everyday Robots.  The beautiful melancholic music perfectly matches early spring here in the North East.  Nature and art dance with each other and each enhances the other.  I contemplate the mystery and wonder of the universe.  Although the land is full of memories for me, I am simultaneously present in the moment.  I take my headphones off temporarily and listen to birdsong and the rippling of a stream, the first music in the world.

I understand everyone is different, but I simply don’t need anything else to feel part of something bigger.  When I go into a regular church it simply cannot match creation as it stands.  As I have traveled the country I often wonder why places that have so much organized religion are often, though not always, places where the land is also being abused by industry.  Maybe organized religion is a way to cope with the destruction that we so often bring to the world?  Who knows such things…

The Gift of Inspiration

I’m bereft of ideas today.  That is why I put up the Chuck D quote and the George Carlin transcript.  Since August of last year I have put up over 500 posts.  Maybe there is nothing less interesting than the topic of lack of inspiration.  However, I will try my best.  One of my favorite quotes of all time is George Orwell’s, “A man that gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”  I have used that before and probably will again.  From the outside one may view putting up 500 posts on a blog as a serious work ethic.  Perception is everything though.  I’m sure there are people who have put up more.  And I know the truth: I can only post when I feel inspired.  Without feeling some kind of energized inspiration I simply cannot write anything.  It comes and goes like the wind.  If I do occasionally write something without that inspiration it is muddled and I would kindly call it dogshit.

Wouldn’t the person with the serious work ethic push on without that light bulb going off over their head?  Sometimes it strikes me as laziness when I sit around waiting for that idea to formulate.  Where does inspiration come from?  Is some form of inner chemical stimulus?  Is the long hard grind of gathering information and waiting till your mind can tie the disparate ideas together?  Is it some kind of divine gift that is given to you at the whims of the muse?

The writer of Deadwood, David Milch, talks about how one has to be, “prepared to be inspired.”  He means that you have to do all the homework, but that when you sit down to write you need to let the inspiration take over.  Although we can do all the work in the world, reading books, listening to records, taking long walks, listening to albums, going to an art museum, in some ways, no matter what actually causes it, we are at the mercy of the muse.

I’m not knocking hard work, but to some degree we should be humble for inspiration is a gift.  Two people could do the exact same amount of work and only one of them would end up with the inspiration to create something of value.  Those that think they are great for creating something are either deluded or lying.  They got lucky.  Inspiration touches some people on the shoulder in the same way that a sword touches someone that is being knighted.  Sure they might have done some things to get there, but they were also shaped by outside forces.  They were born with the right mind or face, at the right time or place.