Perspective Matters

The penultimate episode of The Voice this season reminded me of a phenomenon in music, one that I am trying to apply to fiction but struggling to analogize. Anyway, it’s the sort of meta-musical knowledge of who is singing a song and how that affects what you hear.

Danielle Bradbery was my favorite singer in terms of her tone and range and the ecstatic joy with which she sings. I enjoyed her cover of “Please Remember Me,” but it lacked emotional punch. That song is one of my all-time favorite country songs, written by one of my favorite country songwriters and made famous by Tim McGraw. The perspective that he brings to that song as an adult is so much richer than what she could bring as a 16-year-old girl.

See, that song is about having hurt someone you love (even if the hurting was mutual when you realized it wasn’t working), wanting them to move on and be happy, and yet selfishly asking them to hold just a little piece of you in their heart forever because you’re going to hold them there even as you move on. By the time you’re mid- to late twenties, you’ve probably had that experience, or come close enough to breaking up, even if you pulled back from the brink, to have imagined what it would feel like to have to move on. That experience matters. There is a rawness to the way McGraw sings the song, an awareness of living the moment the song is about, that Danielle’s version lacks. The lyrics are a little ridiculous when sung by a girl of that age – how has she had time to hurt anyone that deeply, or have the life perspective to really picture anyone she was involved with into the future? She is singing words, maybe even words that she thinks she understands (I thought I did at 16, when the song was originally popular), but it lacks a resonance. It’s her singing someone else’s song, not her singing a song she has lived.

Another song with the same phenomenon is “Hurt” originally by Nine Inch Nails and covered by Johnny Cash on his last album, after his wife died. The Trent Reznor version was great until I heard the Johnny Cash cover. Dark, gothy, despairing. So full of 90s angst and isolation and apathy. Side by side with Cash, though, Reznor sounds like an emo kid whining about his emotional pain from being rejected by a girl or his parents’ divorce – he’s calling his life an empire of dirt with the dramatic exaggeration of the young.

When Johnny Cash sings that song as an old man who has achieved everything he wanted and then lost the love of his life, it resonates in a wholly different way, on a deeper and more profound level. Cash’s cover gives me chills just to think about; Reznor’s might make me feel a little existential despair, but it doesn’t make me want to cry.

So how does this relate to writing? I don’t know. Maybe it only relates to which characters tell certain kinds of stories. Maybe it’s out of an author’s control, and they must leave it to their audience to determine if they have lived with pain and loss and intensity or merely had the superficial disappointments of a safe and stable life.

*Ugh. WordPress isn’t letting me add videos right now so you will just have to follow the links. Sorry. 😦

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2 Comments

Filed under Muse Music, Ramblings

2 responses to “Perspective Matters

  1. ABE

    “Maybe it only relates to which characters tell certain kinds of stories. Maybe it’s out of an author’s control, and they must leave it to their audience to determine if THEY have lived with pain and loss and intensity or merely had the superficial disappointments of a safe and stable life.” (Emphasis mine)

    English is such a nice language, no?

    Your sentence reads two ways, as it must for a writer: is it the character’s pain or the author’s pain.

    Some writers have tremendous imagination, can literally go through an experience in their heads that they haven’t lived.

    Or can they? Does it always have to come from somewhere? Of course. That’s why whoever said “writing is easy – you just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein” was right: no matter how small the part of herself the writer finally puts into the character, it has to come from the writer.

    The rest is art, but the core must be true.

    I’m not struggling, per se, with doing this – I know WHAT needs to be in the scene I’m wrestling with – it won’t be complete until I figure out the HOW. And I find it curious that successive drafts, though closer, keep veering away from including the WHAT. But the truth still comes from me. And it hurts.

    Very well put.

    • I hesitated to place a value judgment on whether a writer can or cannot write something they have not lived. I think all of us are capable of enough empathy to do so. So why isn’t this also true of singing? But yet somehow there is a hollowness to a younger person singing certain songs that I don’t think is necessarily the case with writing. Maybe it’s that most writers are, in fact, old enough to have an adult experience of the world by the time they finish and publish a novel whereas a lot of singers do start out as teenagers.

      I, too, have experienced the writing around and around an issue before. Generally when I get it right it’s an inspiration that just grabs me, such that I have to write it regardless of whether I am afraid to write it or address those things. “Go for the jugular” is how my rhetoric professor put it. Good luck finding the right vein. Sometimes that’s the hardest part!

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