I Would Do Anything For Love: Why Good Pop Music Is Good Writing

I gave this as a speech at Nerd Nite Ann Arbor on April 17, 2013. There are things I would change in 2015, but I won’t.

This essay is called “I Would Do Anything for Love: Why Good Pop Music is Good Writing”, and in it I hope to offer an explanation of my understanding of the relationship between communication, art, and humanism. But before I really begin I’d like to thank the organizers of Nerd Nite Ann Arbor, in particular Liz Lamoste who has been nothing but supportive and kind. I’d also like to thank my wise and generous fellow speakers, this beautiful space The Last Word (tip your bartender!), and most of all, I’ll thank you.

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“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend. (Ludwig von Beethoven)” I find this quote to be very compelling, because of the way it flips the script of how we usually talk about music. It’s interesting to think of music understanding us better than we understand it.

Or at least to think of music, as I have come to think of it, as one way of accessing the central body of questions and answers that seem universally important — questions concerning the nature of things like love and connection, of things like justice and pain, of things like how to wake up in the morning and get through the day. What one might call capital-t Truth.

I’ll come back to that later.

For now let me talk briefly about the other half of the subject, writing that is. When devising this speech I was attracted to the catchphrase, from that bible The Elements of Style, that Vigorous Writing is Concise. It’s a wonderful phrase, not only because it exemplifies what it is trying to teach, but also because it implies to me that writing should be in motion. Vigorous motion, maybe maybe not depending on a range of styles, but that writing should be going somewhere. That this, “going somewhere”, is the chief value of writing above the more commonly held idea that writing should be “saying something”.

“Saying something” is easy. I’m saying something right now in fact, as you may have noticed. It implies no responsibility for the words one has produced, and it’s my opinion that writers must take responsibility.

I hope that I am also going somewhere. A writer or her readers may not fully understand where that “somewhere” actually is, but it should at least be understood that writing is a task undertaken with a destination in mind.

In addition to the idea that “vigorous writing is concise” I’ll also share with you some words that have been intermittently in the back of my mind for, oh, the last eight years or so. Chelsey Johnson, a writer who visited my high school English class, told us that the holy trinity of writing is

Meaning

Sense

and Clarity.

I believe this was passed down to her from her own writing teacher, Frank Conroy.

Like all capital-t Truthful things, these words have come back to me again and again with a different meaning each time as I have aged and continued to write. Here is my current understanding of this phrase: meaning, as in that the writing should have resonance with people who are not the writer (or her mother, haha); sense, that writing should exist within a framework that is commonplace and understandable; and clarity, that the pyrotechnics of the writing itself should not interfere with any given reader’s comprehension of the logic contained within.

This is what I mean when I say “good writing”. If I had to put “good writing” in the body of a person I would put it in a kindly older person, a person with experience of life, a person willing to share this experience with you on a walk around his Maine country farmhouse or something of the like. That’s how I picture EB White in The Elements of Style, at least. That’s metaphorical but I hope you understand what I mean — that good writing is friendly, not hostile, to the reader; that good writing assumes good faith; and that good writing leaves you feeling refreshed, and comforted.

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There are many reasons why I love pop music, but one of them is that I think pop music can be the best of “good writing”.

Pop music is universal, not only because it can be heard everywhere you go (grocery stores being one of my personal favorite places to enjoy pop music) but also because its presence in our lives is assumed and unquestioned. Why wouldn’t there be pop music in the grocery store, in the ad for cleaning supplies, in the apartment upstairs, in the movie trailer?

In addition to its ubiquity pop music is a common way for us to connect with others. And often for us to connect with others in a way that is supposed to communicate something deeper or more subtle than we trust ourselves to say. There’s dedicating a song to someone on the radio, at karaoke, at open mic night. There’s the seemingly undying art of the mixtape, which as anyone who has lived past the age of 15 will know, can be perhaps the most emotionally complicated communication EVER to be completely misunderstood by the receiving party. . . There’s “did you hear that new single?”. There’s humming or singing a song to somebody special, or to yourself.

Beyond connecting with others there is that slipperier, and sometimes more important, concept of connecting with and understanding ourselves. Your preferences in music say very much about things like where and when you were raised, what your parents were like, what you prefer to think about when you have a spare minute to think — and these are undoubtedly elements of the self. I think this is why we so often turn to pop music in the wake of a breakup or rejection. When broken down to our most basic parts, when confronted with the many tendrils of self-deception as breakups will tend to do, pop music helps us reconstruct and understand our emotions by reflecting them back to us. And making us dance to them, which I happen to think is maybe sort of kind of what life (capital-l Life) is really all about.

And if pop music helps us understand ourselves, or to personalize it a bit if pop music helps ME understand ME, it can only help me understand my fellow man. Which may seem like a simplistic, or even New-Age navel-gazey thing to say, but given as I actually own one of those Himalayan pink salt crystal lamps that is supposed to ionize the air and prevent depression, it would be hypocritical of me to shy away from sounding New-Agey. . .and it’s my political and spiritual opinion that empathy is the ground on which a positive, meaningful life is built, and that empathy requires seeing a soul just like yours in the face of people you meet, and in the faces of people you will never meet.

George Orwell, that chronicler of the darkest sides of humanity and culture, once said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” This is why I study popular music: because it is one of the large mirrors humans hold up to ourselves, and the study of humanity is central to my intellectual existence as a writer. As a writer, I want not only to say something. I want to go somewhere. And the somewhere I want to go is a better place, defined by the value of connection between people.

To me, that’s what art — whether it be writing or music, or anything else — is.

I wrote those words on Sunday, and on Monday the Boston Marathon. I want to briefly acknowledge here the role of collective empathy during an event like this, an event that leaves us feeling helpless and even despairing. Too many times in recent memory has this collective empathy been tested — I think I will always remember the silence in the office the afternoon of December 14, the Newtown shooting.

Sometimes it really hurts to be reminded of our humanity. Sometimes it makes me feel like everything I think about on an average day is too frivolous for reckoning. But in the words of Samuel Beckett, “I can’t go on, I must go on, I’ll go on.”

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I’d like to read now a few paragraphs I came across recently that struck me, from Brenda Ueland.

“When Van Gogh was a young man in his early twenties, he was in London studying to be a clergyman. He had no thought of being an artist at all. he sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much. He looked out his window at a watery twilight, a thin lamppost, a star, and he said in his letter something like this: “It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks.” And then on his cheap ruled notepaper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it.

When I read this letter of Van Gogh’s it comforted me very much and seemed to throw a clear light on the whole road of Art. Before, I thought that to produce a work of painting or literature, you scowled and thought long and ponderously and weighed everything solemnly and learned everything that all artists had ever done aforetime, and what their influences and schools were, and you were extremely careful about design and balance and getting interesting planes into your painting, and avoided, with the most astringent severity, showing the faintest academical tendency, and were strictly modern. And so on and so on.

But the moment I read Van Gogh’s letter I knew what art was, and the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others, by drawing it.

The difference between Van Gogh and you and me is, that while we may look at the sky and think it is beautiful, we don’t go so far as to show someone else how it looks. One reason may be that we do not care enough about the sky or for other people. But most often I think it is because we have been discouraged into thinking what we feel about the sky is not important.

And Van Gogh’s little drawing on the cheap note paper was a work of art because he loved the sky and the frail lamppost against it so seriously that he made the drawing with the most exquisite conscientiousness and care. ”

That’s from her book If You Want to Write, subtitled “A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit”. It’s a wonderful little text, frank and brisk and sassy, and she leads with her central point: the title of chapter one is, “Everybody is Talented, Original, and Has Something Important to Say”.

What she means by this, as she goes on to explain, is that writing is a means of connecting with people because each individual writer (one hopes) elucidates her personality through her work, which can happen in any number of ways. Even writers who don’t write about themselves show themselves.

In my work with a local nonprofit organization, I see the way children write — and mostly it is constrained and fearful. Although they are capable of some of the most delicious flights of fantasy I’ve ever experienced, they are anxious that they will put a comma in the wrong place or misspell “rhinoceros”. It’s completely understandable to me.

Writing is connection, and this is its great power, but exposing yourself leaves you feeling vulnerable whether you are 8, 18, or 85. This is why writing is its own risk, and its own reward. Our work with children-writers centers around getting them past these fears, and seeing that writing can be not only fun but addictive. I personally hope for each of the young writers I see not that they will become famous published authors, but that they will become adults who are comfortable expressing themselves.

I used a word back there that I love: “elucidate”. I like thinking of good writing as having a quality of lucidity — a light that shines, that we can all see.

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In all of this though I don’t want to forget one of the other important things about pop music, which is that it’s ENJOYABLE. And this is what it is meant to be. Although I spend a lot of my time thinking and writing about pop music, I like to think that I am under no illusions about it. At its soul, pop music is supposed — supposed — to be silly. Silly and beautiful.

This is another quality of good writing that is central to my personal understanding of it. It should be beautiful. And the way it obtains beauty is through the strength of its connection to that capital-T Truth. Like, if you will, a stained-glass window.

I own that Himalayan pink salt crystal lamp, as I mentioned. On the package it said that it would prevent depression, and cure my allergies and my anxieties and all the rest of the things, by some magical quality of ionizing the air — because it’s salt, and it’s pink, and it comes from the Himalayas. On the day I bought it, I didn’t need to understand it.

Since then I’ve been asked: “So does it work? To prevent depression?”

And the answer that came to my mind was, “It’s really pretty. So, in a way, I guess. . .yes.”

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Thank you.

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