The Selfish Art
Am I giving all that I can give
Am I earning the right to live
By looking in a mirror?
...There's nothing more sincere than selfish art
- Noah Gunderson ‘Selfish Art’
Songwriting can often be the most frustrating pursuit in the world. More often than not, it’s an exercise in throwing yourself into a strange dichotomy of inspiration and maddening familiarity.
The moment you sit at a guitar and start plucking chords, you’re reminded of the words of the wise man: “History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.” All the chords have been played, thrown together in habitual patterns and progressions. You start to side with Einstein’s definition of insanity; trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Before embarking on his 2004 Musicology Live 2004ever tour, Prince remarked to a journalist “I try not to repeat myself. It's the hardest thing in the world to do-there are only so many notes one human being can master.” – this from a guy with over 30 albums and thousands of songs under his bedazzled belt.
Music and notes aside, a lot of us find solace in the sacred second half of the song – the themes and imagery that our lyrics can conjure. Like Noah Gunderson says, our selfish art offers us a point of uniqueness – after all, I’m the only person who gets to describe what I see in the mirror; my own experience and perspective is inimitable inspiration. But sometimes, even a look in the mirror can return a blank stare.
There’s a watershed crisis point that every songwriter reaches – the realization that they’ve run out of things to say. Of course, this isn’t true, but sometimes it feels like you have given all you have to give; that the well, for the time being, is empty.
What do we do in that moment? An easy fix for a dried-up imagination is to head for platitudes and cliché; to reach out for easy, universal themes and worn out pop culture analogies. More often than not, this will render the same feeling as trying to deal to an empty stomach with handfuls of Pink Batts.
10 years ago, an evolutionary psychologist from Oxford by the name of Robin Dunbar scientifically quantified the number of people that the modern human is able to have a deep, meaningful relationship with. He landed at 150, the “maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.”
When you think about it, Dunbar’s number is a great source of comfort to a songwriter struggling for inspiration; these people are an extension of the well, some new faces to stare at and new perspective to mine.
Some of the most potent songs have come from artists reaching out into their Dunbar circle and interpreting their relationships. ‘Hey Jude’ was penned by Paul McCartney to comfort John Lennon’s son Julian during his parents’ divorce. Mark Kozelek’s heartbreaking tune ‘Carissa’ eulogizes a friend’s mother who died in a fire at the age of 35.
Next time you’re struggling to find something new to say, see if you can get some of your nearest and dearest to put some words in your mouth. Find out about their stories. As for their perspective on yours. Take a look over the fence and into their world.