Wednesday, July 11, 2012

About "About"

"Old horses never die. They just lie there quietly while you beat them." -- Dr Lindyke.
I have to congratulate Edric Haleen on the most thought-provoking song entry of the competition, bar none. The song is, of course. "The Death of a Meme". It sparked a review! It sparked judge's comments! It sparked more commentary! It sparked a debate!  In fact, it sparked so many things I shall adopt it as the theme song for next year's celebration of Nikola Tesla's birthday as well!

As much as I dread using this song as an example again, I am. I totally am. Because there's a completely different horse under that horse!

Among the many, many, many comments were a few that might bear closer examination. The best kind of comments are those that get you thinking about new things. For instance, a comment from Mark S. Merritt got me thinking about what we mean when we say that a song is "about" something. So this post is dedicated to the concept of "about".
"... I don't feel it the strongest metaphor for the situation." -- Mark S. Merritt
It really doesn't matter what the metaphor is... this post isn't about that. I just wanted you to see exactly started this chain of reasoning in my head.  I infer from the statement an assumption -- unspoken, unwritten -- that the strongest metaphor is the best one to use in response to a challenge. And indeed, it may seem so on the surface. But looks can be deceiving, and a surface has no depth.

When you do encounter a work with depth, you can bet that what you thought the work was about isn't really what it was about at all! For instance, let's take a movie... "Old Yeller"... the 1957 Walt Disney film. What's it about? Ask most people and they'll tell you it's about a boy and his dog. And so it is... it's the very best boy and his dog film ever made. And at the end of the movie, when Old Yeller develops rabies after having defended the family from a rabid wolf, and Travis has to shoot him, everybody -- and I mean everybody -- cries. They don't cry because it's a great boy and his dog film. They cry because they're hit below the surface by the story of a boy becoming a man, and learning to love, and to sacrifice, and to take responsibility. When Travis shoots Old Yeller, he shoots his own innocence. He's no longer a boy. And we all cry.

And consider this.  The vast bulk of this film is dedicated to being a "boy and his dog" film. But if you ask anybody what they remember of "Old Yeller", it's that gunshot. The Coming of Age is the strongest part of the film. Because that's what it's really about.

I've often said that I prefer it when people hit songwriting challenges squarely. And that's true, to a point. It's what I consider to be very solid craftsmanship. But I think I've done people a disservice by not saying before now that there is an exception, which is when craftsmanship gives way to artistry. In other words, hitting the challenge squarely is best.... unless you've got something better to say. In which case, you should meet the challenge, and stress the better thing.

Because I started with Edric's song, I'm going to complete that thought. Now, the challenge here was to "write a song about the last day of work." Edric did that. Weak or strong, his metaphor fit the letter of the challenge. The thing about Edric, though, is that the letter of the challenge is exactly what you can expect to get out of him. By that I mean that the spirit of the challenge is completely up for interpretation. Edric plays at the boundaries of a challenge, always within easy reach of disqualification. If he has a message, you can bet that it's not the one you're expecting. And though he may not always achieve artistry, he often strives for more than mere craftsmanship.

In this case, Edric's song is about the last day of work... just enough so to qualify. But it's really about our conception of God; our relationship with Him, and what form He may take. It's about considering alternatives, thinking in a new way, challenging our beliefs. So for Edric's purpose, is the strongest metaphor of "work" the best? I don't think so... he just needs to meet the letter of the challenge so that he can say what he really came to say. (He says more than usual in the comments. Sadly, this is buried way down.)

But keep in mind that this really isn't about Edric's song. That's only an example to get us thinking about how we approach our own craft. It's about what is meant by "about", and about how stories and songs that seem to be about one thing may actually contain other, deeper, sometimes even contradictory meanings. You have to decide for yourself whether it's more important to you for your audience to focus on the surface or see beyond it with clarity to the depths. Do you limit yourself to the challenge simply because it is the challenge, or do you go for something more?

1 comment:

Mark S. Meritt said...

Great post, Dave. I'm with you about so many things you express here that I've felt for some time…

… the value of things that get you thinking about new things.

… worthwhile stories, and worthwhile art in general, always being about more than what's apparent on the surface.

… the value of hitting songwriting challenges squarely but also of hitting them obliquely when you've got something better to say. Learning Edric's real purpose sent my criticisms about his metaphor more or less out the window, since they came from a different perspective than the better stuff he had to say.

… the strongest metaphor not necessarily being the best one to use in response to a challenge but, rather, and I think this is implied by what you write here, the strongest one being the best one that serves the writer's purpose, since that, and not a contest challenge, is what's going to be forever attached to the work in any real life it will have.

I hope lots of artists, in SpinTunes and otherwise, see this post of yours.

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