Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Little Miracles

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.

So laugh all you want about inspiration, Music Row. The last laugh will be mine because I know when I’ve witnessed a little miracle.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt


Anonymous said...

You are such a clever and witty writer...I soak up your words of Wisdom Craig. Some of this I already know but it is a not so gentle reminder...
I'n just gonna keep writing..I'm inspired every day : )
Sucks that you can't post the link on myspace?? What's up with that!?
Cheers brother,
Steve Robinson

courtney said...

As always, love this post.

"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."

Why does it feel like so many people are?

chromehead said...

So, Courtney, you must be in Nashville now... That's where the Cheese Whiz people are ;-) But I gotta tell you, there are a LOT of folks who hate that stuff. They want real songs that touch them and they say to me, "What's wrong with those people in Nashville?? Why does the radio suck?"

In the little biosphere of 16th Avenue there are some old pals who are quietly rebelling against it, too. I caught up with two of them on my recent trip-- one was my old friend John Briggs at ASCAP, and he was complaining that young writers aren't studying great songwriting anymore. Said he felt like the whole business was in decline due to bad songwriting-- writers imitating trends instead of finding their voice and being inspired. I used to write with some of the best in the business, Don Schlitz, Thom Schuyler, Wayland Holyfield, Pat Alger, and nobody ever wanted to compromise for the sake of money. It was a quest for the best possible song every time. I don't know if it's possible to change anything right now, but eventually things will change. Better writer/artists will get the spotlight and trends will move towards great songs again. Have faith and write what you love.

Tim Wheeler said...

Bravo Craig. I think the people want inspiration, but it doesn't seem like the labels do... or are they just settling for what they can get? I don't think so.

Problem is that the path to the people, at least in the Nashville market, is still through the labels.

Here's to the labels with integrity. Let's hope and pray the people BUY their product.

Anonymous said...

I see your doing something with Tract at Adroit. Good move. I think he's a true believer.


Anonymous said...

Craig, thank you so much for this post. True belivers of the song like yourself are what give me the kind of hope that you described to Courtney. Someday I do hope to hear the mainstream sound ring of truth and compassion, of real love for the power and importance of a great song... cycles my friend (I hope). Alas we as a society are entering uncharted waters with the explosion of technology and as we have seen in the news, a new brand of greed and corruption these days. I for one am optimistic as you are but I cannot completely throw caution to the wind. I do fear music being used in even more devious ways than merely boring the likes of us to death. There is a breed of cultural manager and entrepreneur, who seems to regard the content of art with total indifference basically as you describe in Nashville. However, their preoccupation is to use culture to achieve objectives that have little to do with the aesthetic experience. Have you heard of the UK’s Music Manifesto? I think it is a stunning example of what I fear is another cause to the current lack of truth in music and it's also kind of scary!

chromehead said...

Bobby-- I wasn't familiar with The Music Manifesto, so I took some time to research it. It seems to be an idea that is loaded with politics and ulterior motives behind the scenes. I think many good programs get introduced and then fall into the hands of people who would manipulate them to their own ends.

I remain convinced that art, especially music, is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. Teaching art or music to enhance a child's social skills or make him a well-rounded person is better than not teaching these subjects at all, but this type of program falls far short of what's really needed. The greatest music (or poetry or sculpture or painting) was not created by well-rounded people but rather by near-lunatics, eccentrics, compulsives, outcasts, and revolutionaries. While this may be an unpopular view, I do not see born-equality in musical talent (or any artistic talent) any more than I believe that we all have the ability to be physicists if we just try harder.

If we want to teach inspiration we need to inspire by our own enthusiasm and actions, then find those who are truly inspired and give them the tools to excel. We lack inspired teachers more than one-size-fits-all programs. There might be tremendous potential in Music Manifesto if real artists were in charge of the program. If a school board runs it, it will suffer from too much leveling and merely frustrate some of the talented kids who will probably be too inhibited to strive for their potential.

Anonymous said...

I heard an interesting observation once from a friend, who said that if God were to remove his presence from the world, the industry of religion would continue unaware. This is not a criticism against faith or true believers who seek to serve with integrity, as I count myself among them, but merely an observation that as humans we often operate from our own agendas and fail to seek the source of inspiration. We do many things that would be better left undone and neglect to do what is truly needed. But how do we know what is needed unless we seek inspiration and listen? And how do we recognize it unless we seek it every day?
This observation is a spiritual one, but it is for me where inspiration originates from. Count me in as a seeker of inspiration, and if I find myself in the company of "near-lunatics, eccentrics, compulsives, outcasts, and revolutionaries," well, then I guess I've found where I finally "fit" in.

Barry Alfonso said...

When I lived in Nashville, I was privy to the discovery of a cinnamon bun that bore the likeness of Mother Teresa. The Nun Bun at Bongo Java became famous and, at one point, I was interviewed for the Oxygen Network as a "witness" to this seemingly miraculous event. At one point I said, "Why can't a miracle be funny?" I'm still haunted by this question. Miracles can come in incongruous, amusing and absurd forms. Maybe that's how the angels prod us into becoming fully awake. As a writer, I find that miraculous juxtapositions and non sequiturs are the stuff of inspiration. I am always looking for that impossible but true piece of pastry to be served...

chromehead said...

And, Barry, once again you serve us up a very tasty and tantalizing bit of prose with your comment. If more has ever been said with less words I don't know where...