Monday, November 12, 2012

Songs: fact or fiction?
Is Katy Perry (or what she sings about) real?

I say fiction. Song is a genre of music probably as old as music itself. While styles of the music have changed, the basic idea hasn't—an (usually) accompanied solo singer singing words (called lyrics). A song's expressive emphasis is usually on the lyrics, with music built to support lyric meaning. Song is an important expressive art form for many people because of the power of personalizing music and lyrics through the singer.

Many songs are obviously fictional, such as Sting's "Bourbon Street," about a vampire (inspired by Anne Rice's Interview with Vampire). But what about his "Every Breath You Take," about a stalker? Or "Don't Stand So Close to Me," about a high school student's inappropriate love interest in her teacher? Was Sting singing from experience?

The answer is no on all counts. He just made them up. But that doesn't stop people, including Sting, from promoting personal connections to his songs. It's common today for the audience to assume that the singer is telling about their own experience. This is especially true since the rise of the singer-songwriter in the 1970s, but even before that, many people associated Frank Sinatra with the songs he sung, though he wrote none of them. This association of the singer with the song's content is so ingrained in us that we assume that songs are autobiographical until told otherwise. The truth is that most singers are just actors filling presenting a fiction. I would argue that all songwriting is fiction, even if the songwriter does write a patently autobiographical song (actually a very rare case).

Here's why I think all songwriting is fiction-writing:
  1. Music does not accompany real life. Usually.
  2. Even if an artist writes from their own experience, the constraints of the song medium mean compressing stories and feelings into a tight form. This inevitably leads to some "artistic liberties"--words or feelings paraphrased in text or music, using known symbols (music and textual) to convey information, or simplification for purposes of space or time. What ends up in the song is really an exaggerated or highly modified version of thoughts or events. Think of Mike Birbiglia staring in the movie about himself, Sleepwalk with Me. Sure, the movie is about him, and he stars in it, but the constraints and hyperreality of the movie genre mean it's far from real life.
  3. Unlike written work, where only the words intermediate between the author and the reader, songs needs an interpreter, someone to sing them. Sometimes the singer is the same as the songwriter, but often it's not. Especially with popular artists, their performance persona and real personality are two different things. This  distinction is fairly clear with Lady Gaga, but not for Katy Perry. But Katy Perry and everyone else also leverages their song fictions to take advantage of their personas (Katy Perry is not her real name, by the way). If the person singing the songs is fictitious, then the songs are fictitious, too. The current queen of song fiction leveraging is Taylor Swift, who passively and actively invites her listeners to consider herself as the subject of her songs. Although Taylor Swift generally claims that all the songs come from personal experience, it's more complicated than that. She's mentioned that specific songs were written about friends. But even her own experiences are idealized or exaggerated or fantasized by enshrining them in a song, if not by the words, than by the added music. Also, Taylor Swift the person is not Taylor Swift the performer, despite how many people believe differently. The bottom line is that song singers, even real ones, are actors.
In conclusion, I feel that our culture should move away from assuming that singers' songs are autobiographical. The Irish traditional culture is more like this, to the point that singing an opposite-gendered song doesn't phase anyone. Everyone knows that singers are not expressing their experience; they are just actors playing a part in a small multimedia play.

Although this shouldn't diminish the power of song. Fiction is awesome. I just think people should be aware of the fiction.

Do you often assume that singers are expressing their personal experience and feelings, or not? Why do you think people do that?

Vocab: song, lyrics

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