A great song is essentially an inspired idea. There’s a loaded word: “inspiration”. Who would dare use it inside the profane halls of Music Row these days? The music industry has found the commodity of mediocrity quite sufficient for its purposes, and if you go around talking about cosmic things like inspiration you better be prepared to be laughed at.
I don’t mean to imply that nobody’s working very hard. On the contrary, everyone is very industrious. The problem is that great songwriting, and great art for that matter, transcends a “job”. Inspiration isn’t the product of work. Yes, we must work in order to sustain ourselves so we can ultimately arrive at some moment of inspiration. But you cannot tweak mediocrity into greatness by perfecting its vapid shell. There has to be something inside the shell first. You cannot pick the first serviceable idea that happens to come along and build an artifice around it and expect the world to call it a shrine.
There seems to be a lot of confusion between sound and substance these days. Perhaps substance is an acquired taste. Maybe butter and white bread are delicacies to a certain kind of palate, I dunno. Me, I need flavor. I don’t give a damn how high that Idol kid can sing or how well his hair products hold up under the TV lights, or how in tune and full of attitude he or she is. I’m not impressed by the fact that the hook and the verse of a hit song tie together cleverly as long the whole idea is as dumb as Cheese Whiz and half as nutritious.
The greatness of anything is contained in the inspired idea itself. That’s true of the telephone and of the great song. If it’s truly great, it was born of a glimpse and an impulse. The impulse was an unstoppable desire to bring a vision to life (inspire literally means to “breath into life” a creative endeavor). If we acknowledge that life is a miracle, then the process of inspiration and creative results is also miraculous in its own way.
Who would argue in retrospect that the best Beatles records weren’t creative miracles? Does anyone really believe that you can get four really talented musicians into a studio and turn them into the Beatles? If not, then logic, hard work and formula cannot replace the mystical and all-important element of inspiration. The chemistry of creativity is as important to its success as the chemistry of life is to the thriving of an organism.
Time after time I find myself listening to songs or records and thinking, “Why did anyone bother to make this?” There is certainly nothing even remotely inspired about it.
When an inspired song raises the hair on the back of your neck, you know you’ve encountered something wonderful, even miraculous. But the vast majority of songs and records today are simply labored into existence at great expense of time and energy. They are pure works of work, not works of art; neither inspired nor required.
This isn’t to say to you, o lowly songwriter, that you shouldn’t make the effort to write on a regular basis. On the contrary, practice is essential, and so is keeping the “machinery” well oiled. Write enough songs so that you can discover the moment of inspiration, because without knowing what inspiration is, you will never be great at what you’re attempting to do.
You will not discover inspiration immediately. None of this magic “just happens” one day after you’ve written a couple of exercises. To the seasoned songwriter, the inspired idea feels like inspiration because he or she can sense that it’s above and beyond previous limitations (the level of mediocrity we can all hit on any given day), and we can feel the irresistible urge to tackle it, as well as the confidence that it can be tackled.
Giving something life isn’t as simple as baking a cake or painting a wall. You don’t give a dead idea life, you put a living idea into a song. How do you know it’s a living idea? It pulsates with possibilities; it demands to be born; it’s a part of you, sustaining itself in your mind like a gestating being. The gestation of a great song to the writer is almost as miraculous as the gestation of a child to its mother.
copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt