Friday, May 23, 2008

The truth versus the facts

More from Rosanne Cash at the New York Times:
The table where you found the suicide note, the cup of coffee that turned cold because you were distracted in a painful reverie staring out the old wavy-glass window at the rain dripping off the eaves, the seashell left in the coat pocket from the last time you were at that favorite spot at the ocean, when it all came clear that you were at the right place with the wrong man, the letters, the photos, the marbles and jewels — all these physical, material, real-world artifacts carry poetic weight and should be used liberally in songwriting. These are the facts that convey truth to me.

The exact words he said, who was right or wrong, whether he relapsed on the 7th or the 10th, why exactly she does what she does, the depth and weight and timbre of the feelings, whether Love Heals Everything — these aren’t facts, these are ever-changing blobs of emotional mercury, and when you are working in rhyme, it can be much more powerful and resonant to write about the shards of the coffee cup than about the feeling that caused him to throw it across the room. You are better off moving the furniture than you are directly analyzing the furniture maker. This is to say nothing of the fact that the lyrical content of songs is by definition wholly entwined with melody, rhythm, tone and possibly a backbeat, and these carry their own authority.


My friend Joe Henry says that songwriting is not about self-expression (ewwww), but about discovery. I am of entirely the same mind, which is why I recoil against the attempt to categorize “personal” songs of mine as diary pages and why I resist that niggling insistence on the facts. Self-expression without craft is for toddlers. Real artistic accomplishment requires a suspension of certitude. E.L. Doctorow said that “writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” He may not have been referring specifically to songwriting, but it applies. Great songwriting is not a poor man’s poetry, or a distant cousin to “real” writing. It requires the same discipline and craft. Bright flashes of inspiration can initiate it, but it cannot be completed that way. (That is not to say that all songwriting is important and good, just as not all fiction is important or good. I don’t think anyone would put “Like a Rolling Stone” or my dad’s “Big River” (a truly great piece of American poetry wedded to a wicked, swampy backbeat) in the same category as The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” (it is what it is).
On a wholly unrelated note, but it's been nagging at me for some time now--what are the origins of that phrase "it is what it is," and when did it become so popular?!? Hmmm, here is a link--it makes sense to me that if it emerged from the world of sport its origins would be effectively shrouded in mystery to me ... and here is the Safire link given in the Slate piece.


  1. I've got your link up for a forgotten book. Shall I take it down for this week? Patti

  2. I think I've blogged about how "It is what it is" maddens me. And it was, and presumably still is, the absolute favorite phrase of a powerful unethical person of our mutual acquaintance...