Alanis Morissette, after the massive success of “Jagged Little Pill”, was once asked when she wrote her lyrics.
I don’t have the quote to hand. Suffice to say she replied that she couldn’t write about a situation she was still involved with, or one that is too recent and too raw. She was suggesting that only through separation, after the passing of time, can we look back on a life event with the clarity needed to understand it properly and to portray it artistically and succinctly.
She then went on to release “Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie”; an album who’s title alone could have benefitted from an editor.
I jest of course; it was a commercial flop in comparison with Jagged Little Pill, but it does contain some beautiful music, and whilst the lyrics are often psychobabble of the highest order, at least they are more often than not memorable, and sometimes painfully honest.
This “distance” from the subject always intrigued me. Enough so to remember the quote (well, the gist thereof) over a decade later. I suppose whenever we hear an artist sing about a broken heart, a forlorn lover, a loss of a friend, or hell, even something positive (I hear it has been done!) we imagine the writer writhing with the subject matter at hand. Vocal performance in popular music demands a display of emotion to put across these lyrics, framing the situation at hand. Emotional impact is indeed often lauded above pitching and technical prowess in pop music. To listen is to believe…
Even if the writer is bitching about a break up from 5 years ago.
Even if the singer didn’t write the song which they are singing, which was written about someone else’s break up 5 years ago.
Even if the singer is covering a song, originally sung by an artist who didn’t write the song, which was actually written about a pet gerbil called Frederick.
And so on and so forth. Until we have so many disconnects that we are left with some nice words that likely mean more to the listener than they ever did to the performer. This is itself is an interesting discussion point. Art exists in the hearts and minds of the consumer. It can and it should mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people. But this is a thought for another day.
Back to singer-songwriters. The lack of distance from conception to performance is why, I am quite sure, the singer-songwriter will forever have a place in popular music. There will always be a mass of people that want to be presented with artistry, rather than conglomerated pseudo-feelings aimed at a certain demographic, touting this year’s sound, wearing this year’s couture.
I don’t care whether a song was written 5 minutes or 5 years after the break up. That particular distance makes no odds to me. But knowing that the singer themselves went through this pain, felt this particular heartbreak, makes it all the more enjoyable. As wrong as that may sound, nowadays more than ever we need something real once in a while. The 60s auteur movement was a stupendous one, freeing anyone with an instrument and a voice to share with the world their own opinion, their own experiences and their own feelings. I don’t think my generation can ever fully understand the impact this had on music and music fans at the time. But I feel it should be defended and cherished.
But then I would say that wouldn’t I? Anyway, I’m off to write a song about a hamster…