MUST A GOOD SONG TELL THE TRUTH?
Solway is a Canadian poet and essayist (Random Walks)
and author of The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and
Identity and Hear,
O Israel! (Mantua Books). His editorials appear
regularly in frontpagemag.com and
PJ Media. His monograph, Global Warning:
The Trials of an Unsettled Science (Freedom Press Canada)
was launched at the National Archives in Ottawa in September,
2012. His debut album, Blood
Guitar, is now available.
endeavor of every songwriter is, naturally, to write a good
song. It’s hard work, and sometimes one labors for a long
time on a melody only to discover that it has no life.
popular song is often a blend of the fresh and the familiar,
of the original and the tried-and-true. A good song will often
pay tribute to its predecessors even as it stakes its claim
to join them. Even when it is a maverick, it does not usually
aim to overthrow the forms and conventions of its fellow practitioners,
but mainly to affirm and extend them. It walks a fine line between
the conventional and the new.
lyrics have to be easily comprehensible on a first hearing,
but deep and complex enough to resonate with double entendre
and symbolic valence. The melody is built on a fairly simple,
immediately memorable chord structure, yet surprises with its
half-familiar sound. This is especially true of country music.
As Robert Lewis, publisher and editor of the webzine Arts
& Opinion, points out, country music, “unlike
rap and hip-hop, continues to supply the deficit of those basic,
non-negotiable melodies that speak for and to the human heart”
(personal communication). It is not afraid of the open, major
chord, brindled with a scalene minor or major 7th.
no sure-fire recipe for a song that lives, country or otherwise.
One only knows it when it has been born. One recognizes a good
song, as one does any aesthetic artifact, by the aura of inevitability
it evinces, as if it had always been there, like a natural object.
Take Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” or Gordon Lightfoot’s
“If You Could Read My Mind” or the Eagles’
“Hotel California” or Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway
to Heaven” or Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville”
or Russian Red’s “Loving Strangers” or Alan
Jackson’s “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”—one
could provide many, many such examples. The listener feels as
if the melody had always existed somewhere in the depths of
memory, or, strangely enough, as if it had been written by everyone
who hears it. And it seems effortless no matter how much labour
may have gone into it—ultimately, as if it had written
novelist Italo Svevo wrote in Confessions of Zeno that
a story becomes true the moment it cannot be told in any other
way. Something analogous applies to a good song, except that
it feels true the moment it is first heard. Michelangelo once
said that he understood his task as a sculptor not as creating
form out of a block of marble, but of liberating the form that
was already there within. Similarly, Hank Williams is reputed
to have said: “God writes the songs. I just hold the pen”—a
way of articulating a felt truth provided one does not rely
on presumable modesty as a species of sly self-inflation, e.g.,
God, the cosmos, the Creative Spirit, speaks to me! Still, that’s
what songwriting can be like sometimes. A good song is one that,
once formalized, seems not like a creation but an embodiment,
something that comes from elsewhere and takes up residence in
one’s mind. Or as poet Wallace Stevens put it in “Peter
Quince at the Clavier”:
as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound . . .
song need not necessarily be a “true” song. Not
all songs are “true,” by which I don’t mean
that they are overtly meretricious, but rather that they may
be constructs devoid of personal conviction, or clever artifices
made to fit a popular template or written on demand—like
poems in a Creative Writing class. There is no reason they cannot
be excellent, hummable, and memorable in themselves; indeed,
they can be “true” for others. A true song, however,
as I use the term, is one that is genuine all the way down,
not only for the listener but for the composer as well.
course, one can never know for sure if a good song is also a
true song, in the sense I’ve indicated. And perhaps it
doesn’t ultimately matter. But sometimes one has the intuitive
feeling that such is the case, and this will occasionally make
a difference in the way one receives and responds to it. For
example, John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”
(originally, “Babe, I Hate to Go”) or Leonard Cohen’s
“Hallelujah” seem true in the sense of being sincere,
heartfelt—the songwriter vulnerable before his audience.
Tim McGraw singing “The Cowboy in Me,” however,
also seems true all the way down, and yet it was written by
three people. One cannot imagine a troika plumbing genuine experience
or plucking a living song from the middle of the psychic dimension,
even if there is considerable sympathy among its members.
then, the most important criterion is that, whether true or
not, the song rings true in lyric and/or melody insofar as it
takes up residence in one’s own sensibility, not as a
tenant but as a proprietor. In that sense, a good song is a
“true” song even if it is not really true, even
if it does not emerge from the vitals of personal feeling. After
all, truth is not always a touchstone of excellence, especially
aesthetic excellence; it can lead to untrammeled sentimentality
or gross narcissism. But when the two go together, when talent
and authenticity, quality and candor marry harmoniously, the
power and resonance of the finished artifact seems almost uncanny.
Perhaps that is when a good song becomes the best possible song.