So You Wanna be in a Rock Band?: Writing to vent, but also inspire
Though everyone, myself included, has a handful of cheesy love songs that they secretly indulge in, these days, I find myself cringing at the very thought of listening to the radio because it’s so heavily laden, to steal a line from Aerosmith, with, “the same old song and dance.” In other words, the love thing (and the hate thing too) have been done to death, and unless you’ve got the poetic skills that could take on Steven Tyler himself, I suggest that writing about other issues of concern is in your best interest.
After all, music does have healing power, so instead of being cliché, why not write about something that could sincerely make a difference in a listener’s life? Moreover, if we analyze your potentiality for success strictly from a commercial standpoint, as much as the industry may seem to be about homogeneity, artists who really speak out for issues that they believe in do get recognized, even if sometimes it takes the music industry a while to catch up with their already established cult followings.
From my own personal experiences, I can tell you, with the upmost sincerity, that there is nothing more fulfilling in life than knowing your words, your art, have helped someone get through a tough time. Though in the grand scheme of things, “Unpretty,” my band’s debut album, may never go platinum, land a spot on the Billboard charts, or likely get listed as one of Rolling Stone’s “must haves”, it fulfilled its purpose when it inspired its first listener, and acted as a healthy outlet for their emotional expression. And so, in my eyes, it was every bit as successful as an album that profits millions.
However, it’s important to recognize that there is no way that I, nor could any other artist, ever write an album composed of socially inspiring and/or politically charged songs without having gone through turmoil themselves and learning from those experiences. As my history of rock’n’roll professor, Mr. Evans, always said, “the best artists are, undoubtedly, the hurting units.”
This anecdote brings me to the point that I want to make about the act of songwriting and its duality: although an artist’s initial inspiration to immortalize their feelings into music comes from a personal place, and is primarily motivated by the act of catharsis, when an artist decides that a piece they have written is going to be distributed to the public domain, no longer can that piece retain that same degree of private intimacy if a) said artist wants his/her music to be relatable (and therefore successful) and b) if said artist wants to be able to take any form of criticism (whether constructive or not).
Now, this is not to say that the songs that one intends to release to the public should be composed of fluff or that massive rewrites of all of your works are in order- quite the contrary really. Yes, you should write about things that have and continue to personally affect you, but, if you want your music to make sense to the rest of the world, you need to do this in such a way so that your lyrics can be related to a bigger picture (not just your own existence), and remain open enough for personal interpretation on behalf of your listeners. Most importantly, I think it is absolutely essential to leave your listeners with something to hope for and strive towards. Bitching about how the world has done you wrong because its various institutions are discriminatory is merely the first step, inspiring people to take their anger, frustration, fear, or sadness and turn it into a positive emotion, one from which they can learn, grow, and take action is what art is supposed to be about.
On the other side of this argument however, I do understand that, as a fellow artist, having someone potentially misinterpret your work, especially if a piece is particularly significant to you, can be very frustrating, if not infuriating, and so I suggest the following: if you write a piece that is sacred to the core of your essential being, do NOT release it - keep it for yourself because once you put it out there, if it becomes a victim of criticism, it won’t simply be your work that they are insulting, but rather a piece of your soul, and that is a harshness from which no one can easily recover.