Category Archives: Muse Music

The Unbearable Intimacy of Art (Criticism)

The first time I heard this song, all I could think was “Holy shit, how incredibly brave for a married couple to record a duet together about this kind of relationship failure.” Because the song is about the slow fade, not the dramatic blow-out. It might have easily been true of them at the time (in hindsight we can say it probably was). The song is not, thematically, an obvious choice unless you’ve been there, because the death by a thousand cuts is not the media’s preferred narrative for the end of a relationship. And being in that place in a relationship, where you know something needs to change, but you can’t see your way out of it clearly enough to be certain you want out, is frightening. Maybe it’s time to break your heart and that of this person you love, and give up on a dream that has become a nightmare – or maybe you just need to reconnect, recommit, revive, and leaving would be something you came to regret. It’s a terrible limbo. So choosing to sing about it becomes an act of almost unbearable intimacy, to admit in public to what might be the most painful, shameful truth you have to tell. It’s also the kind of vulnerability that makes for great art.

I have wanted to write all of that for about three years. And I have been hesitant to publish those thoughts for the entirety of that time, because almost as soon as I started thinking through what I wanted to say about the lyrics, I realized: my interpretation was going to say so much more about me, and my relationship, than it was about the song or the singers. What if there is another meaning to these words that is so much more obvious? What if all I would expose in such a post was the fact that my own relationship was in that place, and I was reading into the lyrics far more deeply than someone not in that place could ever do?

So I never wrote that post – my interpretation of the song was more than I wanted to reveal. Maybe more, even, than I wanted to acknowledge, because if I actually wrote those words out I would have no choice but to face them. I wasn’t ready.

But here I am now, and the worst has happened, and I have faced the truth my heart feared long ago.

The chorus:

I’m just too selfish I guess

I know you’re tired and restless

It’s no surprise we’ve come undone

But I can’t unlove you just because

You say it’s better in the long run

I have always heard the first two lines as, “I’m too selfish to let you go, even though I know you’re restless and wanting to leave.” The alternate interpretation, of course, is that selfishness is CAUSING the restlessness – which is an entirely different meaning. I have no idea which way the song was meant to be heard. Maybe it was intentionally ambiguous. But the first interpretation cut me in a way the second did not. Probably because one version spoke to my reality, my experience, my fears, and the other did not.

The bridge:

Maybe somewhere a little down the line

I’ll get a little better leaving us behind

Maybe someday I’ll be fine

You’ll move on, and I will, too

But still I don’t see gettin’ over you

No, no

The bridge and the second half of the chorus sum up the horror of this kind of limbo: on some level you recognize that you’ll be happier out of the relationship, but you can’t bear to intentionally inflict the pain of breaking free onto yourself. Or perhaps you don’t know how to leave (or are afraid to leave, if you fell in with a crazy one who hadn’t decided they were done with you yet).

The further I get from our final end, the truer I believe to be the idea that most of the time a relationship is over before it ends. Most of the time we just don’t know how to get out. We have to wait for things to get so bad that the pain of breaking free is less than the pain of staying.

Or maybe that was just one more accidental revelation of more than I meant to tell.

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Goodbye Song

Roger Creager is a Texas Country country singer I found in college, probably while searching for bootleg .mp3s of Roger Clyne concerts on Napster or whatever the hell filesharing program we were using in those days. I wonder what Roger (Creager) is up to these days. Man, I should really look him up.

Anyway. This song of his I always particularly enjoyed, because it is kind of meta, and the fact that it’s both meta and super country was an amusing divergence that he somehow makes work. Also because his voice is rich and warm and comforting when he’s singing ballads, and that quality is really on display with this stripped down little song. I just want to wrap myself up in his voice like its a blanket, and snuggle in deep. The words aren’t profoundly written, and neither is the emotional moment described, but yet in gestalt it is powerful, and was even when I wasn’t living in this moment. I think because he captures perfectly that moment of letting go. It’s a little sad, a little hopeful, a little confused, a little resigned. It’s exactly what you feel at the moment you really say goodbye. It’s Ted letting go of the red balloon that is Robin.

I have had this song in my heart lately. Thought I’d share it with all of y’all. Also Roger Creager’s awesome. I should really go see what he’s up to these days.

Tonight I didn’t feel much like writing a song, but I guess I needed something to sing along. Something that I could sing and I could cry to. A song to help me say goodbye to you.

Yeah, I guess I finally said goodbye to you.

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Audience Expectation Vs Artistic Experimentation

Or, Spitting Out the Kool-Aid

The musical theme for me this week has been the tension between giving the audience what they want and evolving as an artist.

My favorite band released a new album on Tuesday. For purposes of this essay, the fact that they are an independent band and have been since the late 1990s – AKA long before it was the cool thing to do, or an acceptable thing to do, much less the most logical thing to do – needs to be said up front. For 15 years they have answered to no one but themselves, and their fans, when it comes to the direction of their music. They have been my favorite band since high school, and for their first several albums (five, to be exact), for me, they could do no wrong. Every song, or very nearly every song, was golden.

The last three (and now four) releases have been spottier, a lot of songs I either didn’t like or didn’t deeply connect with and a few gems that gave me hope for future albums. The album this week didn’t even have the gems, just songs that I didn’t find bad but also didn’t find…inspiring. They didn’t speak to me, nor did I find them objectively great even if not my preference.

I found myself wishing, for the fourth record in a row, that they would go back to their alt-country/desert rock roots and stop writing adult top 40 pop songs with the vaguest of twang to the guitar. It’s not so much a protest of their changing the style so much as judging that their change was a poor choice, aesthetically, and they would probably do better – or at least please my taste better – by writing mediocre songs in the genre where they started instead of mediocre songs in a different one. I appreciate the experimentation, the desire to do something to keep the songwriting and sound fresh…what I don’t appreciate is continuing to try the same experiment over and over when it didn’t really work the first time. At some point I have to attribute it to a new sound for the band, and one that I don’t care for.

Experimentation and change is always a risk for an artist, no matter what type of art they create. When it’s executed well, it breathes new life into your fandom and brings in new fans. It revitalizes your own interest in art and creating, because new horizons offer new challenges, and without challenges there is nothing to strive toward in the act of creation. And there is definitely a trap to be found in staying in the same mode, doing exactly the same thing, over and over again. At some point you become a parody of yourself, because you have said every profound or even mildly insightful thing that you can, and all is left is regurgitation and imitation of your younger, rawer self.

The flip side of experimentation, however, is that it doesn’t always work, and when it doesn’t, your audience may be upset that you changed the formula. Some people will appreciate the attempt to experiment, but others will just be upset by it. And if you experiment and fail too many times in a row, you begin to lose your audience.

I think what really drives away an audience, though, is if, in the process of your experimentation, you lose the qualities that drew them to your work in the first place. A writer, for example, whose fans love her for deep character work can change genres every book so long as she maintains the same type of characterization. A musician whose songs echo the empty desert highways can change the subject all he wants as long as that echo is there in the sound of the music, while one who writes songs about the absurdity of life can change the sound every album as long as the lyrical “voice” remains the same.

It’s a delicate balance, a fine line to walk between delivering what the audience really wants and what they only think they want. I wonder how many artists actually understand what their audience loves about them? And how many members of a fandom really understand what it is that draws them to a particular artist’s work?

As a writer working in one of the most formulaic of genres, I worry sometimes about writing the same thing over and over – the same conflict, perhaps, or maybe the same characters, all while believing each story is unique. I have seen too many writers start off with a string of strong books and then slowly wilt into fainter and fainter copies of themselves as they continue to just do more of the same, with less conviction each time. Will I recognize when I need to experiment? When I do experiment, will I successfully carry over the elements that define my work at its core? Will I be able later, after experimenting and evolving, to revisit the style of my early works and reconnect with it in a deeper way as an older, more seasoned creator?

The one thing that is simultaneously most relieving and most frightening about being self-published is that I don’t have to worry about an editor turning down my request to experiment when I feel that itch to change…but the onus of executing it well will be entirely on me. I won’t have to answer to anyone’s instincts or tastes but my own – but as my band proved to me this week, sometimes that’s not a good thing.

I know for me, as a fan, the worst part about a disappointing new release is the dashed hope for something that would be as special to me as that artist’s earlier works – the works that made me fall in love with them. This is true of the above-mentioned novelists who, instead of getting better, get worse, and it’s true of movie directors as well as musicians. It’s the tyranny of being in someone’s first tier of artists: the expectations are high.

Perhaps youth and insouciance are the key to creating works that do not disappoint, because you can create without fear of rejection or letting someone down. You have no audience to lose, so you have no chains on yourself. When you feel the weight of expectations, you second-guess yourself or lock yourself into the same old creative habits and patterns. It’s why, in the end, the only audience I can care about, when I am inside my creative sphere, is myself. I have to please my own aesthetic and believe that if I do, it will please other people’s, as well. But the only one I can consider is my own.

If that is, indeed, what my band did on this release, then perhaps we have reached a parting of the ways, of sorts, where the band they used to be is my favorite, not the band they are today. Or perhaps this was just another experiment, a path untravelled that will eventually reconnect with the path of my aesthetics. Time will tell. I have not given up on them yet…but I miss the glory days of my youth, when receiving the new CD in the mail still guaranteed an afternoon of gleeful bliss as I wrapped myself in new songs that meant as much to me as the old ones had. Now it represents a painful hope that I have less and less expectation of having met. Perhaps that is the most tragic part of all.

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Right then the song became a soundtrack for that place and time

The summer of 2003, the summer between my second and third years of college, I spent some time in Austin, TX. If you have ever been to Austin, you know one of the Things to do is visit Waterloo records on Lamar (or, at least, it was a thing…I assume Waterloo is still going strong, but I have not been back to the town in years). The day I went in was a gorgeous sunny day in early summer. It also happened to be the day Reckless Kelly did a release party in the store for their album Under the Table and Above the Sun. I sort of knew about the band, more by name than by music, so I had no idea the event was happening. I liked the music playing on the store speakers enough to ask what it was, and that’s when the clerk told me they’d be playing in about 5 minutes. So I picked up a copy of the CD (and the shotglass that came with it) and hung out. I don’t know that the set was memorable, other than as a general experience, but the album (or, at least, the first half of it) became a favorite.

All of that is backstory to the point of the post, which is about the first time I heard “Vancouver,” my favorite track on the album and an all-time favorite song in general. I was driving back to my quarters from Waterloo; the sun was white and hot, but the air was fine because it was still early summer, so I had my windows down and my sunglasses on, and it was fabulous just to drive north on Lamar. Naturally, I put on the CD I had just bought and fast forward through the songs I remembered hearing over the store PA. And the first new song was track 6. And it was one of the best damn break-up songs I had ever heard, and still is; this recognized at a time I was newly in love (with my husband, but of course that was years in the future) and spending the summer apart from him. The break-up aspect was not relevant to us, but the longing in the song for the time of togetherness was.

When the sun went down
You were sittin’
Under someone else’s sunset
And I wasn’t around
And you were wishin’
That I was the guy that you’d just met

And I was probably stumblin’ down some back street alley in Amsterdam
While you were makin’ excuses and breakin’ another heart
Or maybe I was drinkin’ wine with the pigeons in a square in Venice
And I was wonderin’ what you’re doin’ and wonderin’ where you are…

It’s still a great song – one that never leaves my iPod, because I always listen to it when it pops up in a playlist or on shuffle. And every time I hear it, I am pulled back to that sunny summer day, driving around Austin, happy and carefree and missing my man. It’s amazing to me how indelibly moments can be etched into one’s mind, such that no other iteration of that song, in all the thousand or so times I have heard it, can overcome that very first listen.

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Perspective Matters: “Jolene”

I finally remembered to download the version of “Jolene” that Cody Belew sang on The Voice last season, which was the first time I’ve heard that song covered by a man (though not the first time it’s been done, obviously). I’ve been listening to it in contrast with Dolly Parton’s original, and I am fascinated by the fact that two different singers basically tell two different narratives with words that are almost exactly the same.

I couldn’t find the full version of Cody’s cover anywhere on Youtube, and the shortened version he sang onstage really doesn’t show the subtle changes to the lyrics, since it is so abbreviated. If you want to get an idea of the orchestration of the song, here’s how it sounded on air: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=839LnfpoRq8 (embedding disabled, sorry you have to jump). The version for sale is the full song.

Anyway, the main lyric change is that instead of “please don’t take him just because you can” in the first two choruses, he only sings “even though you can,” which Dolly only sang in the last iteration. Also there is a shift of the last line in Dolly’s first verse to  open the second verse, either to balance the song a little better or because the producer thought the line fit better thematically with the ending verse.

So how do those changes impact the song?

The change to the chorus matters more. I think it was changed because the song is about competing with a woman. With a woman singer, “just because you can” is a subtle way of acknowledging sisterhood – we all know that impulse, and that women can be that cruel, that perhaps the singer personally could be that cruel. If a man were to use those words they lose a certain…complicity. The shift of “I could easily understand how you could easily take my man, but you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene” to the start of the second (and final) verse is less impactful on the song as a whole, but I do think it de-emphasizes the line that is the heart of the song, which in the original leads off the last verse: “you could have your choice of men, but I could never love again; he’s the only one for me, Jolene.”

The biggest difference is the performances, though, of course. Cody’s is over-the-top dramatic where Dolly’s is almost unemotional, it’s so understated. And I think the two approaches fit the male/female dynamic. A man singing this song is obviously presenting the point of view of a gay man regarding a lover who is bisexual. A woman poses a very different threat to him than she would to a woman; if the bisexual lover chooses her, it could be construed as a rejection not merely of the person but of a way of life and the struggles and perhaps stigma that go with it. Even aside from stereotypes of gay men being overdramatic and emotional, the pleading in the song comes from desperation, so an emotional rendering suits the storyteller.

When the song is sung woman to woman, however, I think the overemotional approach actually mutes the power of the song. In putting my thoughts together for this post I listened to several different covers from female singers, as well, and they all sang the song with emotion. They all sounded like they were begging. The brilliant thing about Dolly’s version is that…she’s not really begging, even though she is using the word, except possibly at the very end.

The emotional place a woman should sing this song from is resignation: knowing that another woman could take her lover away and having no option to stop that from happening except to ask the other woman not to do it. The “just because you can” is important because it implies that Jolene doesn’t actually want him, while the singer doesn’t want anyone else. She “has this talk” basically from a place beyond ego; she’s laying out the realities of the situation, that it’s up to Jolene. It’s a plea for a gentleman’s agreement, for lack of a better term, and it’s done with logic and pride, even as the singer self-effaces in comparing herself to Jolene. The places in the song where emotion cracks through are when she’s talking about the man, not when she is talking about Jolene or even “begging” her. The final chorus ending with “even though you can” is the only place the despair creeps through in a direct address to Jolene, because saying it that way relates the fact that she can back to the singer’s reaction not to Jolene’s motivation.

In my opinion it’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that the other female singers I’ve heard don’t deliver because singing the song like you’re really begging, singing it from a place of despair, basically eliminates the sort of matter-of-fact discussion Dolly’s song has. I can picture the woman singing Dolly’s version sitting down at a bar and calmly addressing the woman her husband’s having an affair with, then getting up and walking away with her head held high, secure in having the moral high ground and in having held onto her dignity no matter what happens. The ones who are reduced to literal begging walk away from the encounter humiliated.

Somehow the emotional rawness of Cody’s version doesn’t give me the picture of losing ground to the mistress by actually begging. Again, I think it’s the male-female versus female-female dynamic. It’s a different kind of competition and a different kind of desperation. And I am just fascinated at the difference in stories told merely by changing the singer.

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If You Won’t Tell Me, Someone Else Will

Or, No (Fictional) Man Is An Island

Ugh. The hero of this little short, which should be totally easy to write, is being stubborn and cynical and refusing to let me get much inside his head.

I made the executive decision to have him meet the heroine in the most logical places the first few times (logical meaning where were they both most likely to be given the people they know and the things they do with their time) and to just start writing and see what he does. I figured even if I wrote it all wrong the first time and had to re-do the work, at least eliminating the wrong path would help me figure out the right one, thus writing even at the risk of having to re-write was better than sitting paralyzed, waiting for him to trust me enough to let me in.

No update on how this has gone; my husband is on his off days right now and keeping me up too late to get up early enough for writing. Not that I am complaining. 🙂  The reprieve also gives me a couple more days to batter away at hero’s inner walls.

In the meantime, I have also discovered his song, and in a way having this song to speak for him makes getting inside his head irrelevant. The songwriter described so perfectly the dynamic between the hero and the heroine that…I almost don’t even need to be more intimately in his mind to write the story. This is me sticking my tongue out at my hero.

There are ways, dude. You don’t want to know. But there are ways.

The song? For the curious: “Easy” by Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers. I couldn’t find a youtube video of the song that I liked enough to use as your introduction to it. I recommend just previewing on iTunes or Amazon if you want to hear it.

“I don’t know how you got through security, you picked all my locks by being so low-key. I’ve never been easy, but I’ll be easy for you…. So, baby, what am I up to? Getting back into another thing I said I’d never do…I’ve never been easy, but I’ll be easy for you”

Yeah. Who needs a hero when you have a songwriter around?

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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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