We can't sell a product people don't need. A song has to either move the audience, make them laugh or cry, or it has to become the soundtrack for their lives-- meaning it must be a song they fall in love to, or heal to, or commiserate with somehow. It must grow into something essential that they can't live without. This requires a motive on the writer's part, and some vision. Vision is the sense that connects perception to significance. It's when you see something, know why it matters, and convey that meaning to others. When the writer shares his vision, the listener begins to perceive what's behind the song.
Great songs don't usually happen by accident. They are deliberate acts of creation motivated by genuine emotion and a fascination with the process. You can't search for buried treasure unless you go to the right beach with a metal detector and begin scouring. Writing without purpose or vision is like sitting in a chair in your den and hoping there's treasure under the couch cushions. You'll just end up with a few nickles and dimes-- a cheap song.
I was thinking about a verse from Townes Van Zandt's "To Live Is To Fly". Here it is :
It's goodbye to all my friends
It's time to leave again
Here's to all the poetry and the picking down the line
I'll miss the system here
The bottom's low and the treble's clear
But it don't pay to think too much on things you leave behind
The thing I like about this verse is the wacky reference to the PA system. I get a sense of purpose from those lines. Clearly Townes was writing with some vision, otherwise why refer to a sound system in a club? Why give it significance? Well, maybe because it represents the highs and lows of the troubadour life in a detail that the rest of us overlooked. The purity and depth in the sound system equates to the ideal moment in a traveling musician's life-- after driving thousands of miles, eating fast food and sleeping in noisy hotel rooms on mattresses that are too soft or too hard, he gets those precious 90 minutes on stage during the best gig of the tour. Townes' motive was to accurately convey how this kind of life feels, and his vision made the connection. The chorus says:
To live is to fly
Low and high
So, shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes
Having been on the road myself for many years, I can tell you this is not only accurate, it's perfect. There have been many days when the detachment of the road has felt like flight. It's an addiction. I'm never more alive than when I'm in flight, and the lows and highs on the road are more extreme than when I'm perched safe at home. Flight is freedom, but freedom sometimes means sacrificing a bit of security. Townes was living this song in the moment of it's creation (or re-living it, which is still valid). The remarkable thing about this simple chorus is that it captures some emotion and a rather profound philosophy in four graceful lines. How can a writer do this unless he is actually experiencing the song? We can't find the key to this type of communication unless we have vision. Vision is vital.
Where are you on life's journey? Can you show us? Can you open a window that allows me to see and feel what you see and feel? Do you have something in mind, something in heart, something in soul? Townes says later in the song:
We all got holes to fill
Them holes are all that's real
Songs fill the holes for many of us, or at least they clean the wounds so we can begin to heal. That's their purpose. But the world is choking on songs without purpose-- clever gimmick titles that strain at anything to say nothing. I hear tons of them and they never move me or touch me or make me smile or cause me to shed a tear. They just play in my ear for a few minutes and then they are forgotten.
Don't invent. Observe. Show us what you see. Much is revealed by the song in the end. As writers, we can't fake it. A great, true, core idea, and a deep emotional experience is the lifeblood of a song. Find the vital vision and follow it. See life and feel the words.
copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt
photo copyright by wolfgang staudt (creative commons approved use)