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For a Song to Be Good, Must It Tell the Truth?

The endeavor of every songwriter is, naturally, to write a good song. It’s hard work, and sometimes one labors for a long time on a melody only to discover that it has no life.

A good popular song is often a blend of the fresh and the familiar, of the original and the tried-and-true. A good song will often pay tribute to its predecessors even as it stakes its claim to join them. Even when it is a maverick, it does not usually aim to overthrow the forms and conventions of its fellow practitioners, but mainly to affirm and extend them. It walks a fine line between the conventional and the new.

The lyrics have to be easily comprehensible on a first hearing, but deep and complex enough to resonate with double entendre and symbolic valence. The melody is built on a fairly simple, immediately memorable chord structure, yet surprises with its half-familiar sound. This is especially true of country music. As Robert Lewis, publisher and editor of the webzine Arts & Opinion, points out, country music, “unlike rap and hip-hop, continues to supply the deficit of those basic, non-negotiable melodies that speak for and to the human heart” (personal communication). It is not afraid of the open, major chord, brindled with a scalene minor or major 7th.

There’s no sure-fire recipe for a song that lives, country or otherwise. One only knows it when it has been born. One recognizes a good song, as one does any aesthetic artifact, by the aura of inevitability it evinces, as if it had always been there, like a natural object. Take Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” or Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” or the Eagles’ “Hotel California” or Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” or Russian Red’s “Loving Strangers” or Alan Jackson’s “It’s Five  O’Clock Somewhere”—one could provide many, many such examples. The listener feels as if the melody had always existed somewhere in the depths of memory, or, strangely enough, as if it had been written by everyone who hears it. And it seems effortless no matter how much labour may have gone into it—ultimately, as if it had written itself.

Italian novelist Italo Svevo wrote in Confessions of Zeno that a story becomes true the moment it cannot be told in any other way. Something analogous applies to a good song, except that it feels true the moment it is first heard. Michelangelo once said that he understood his task as a sculptor not as creating form out of a block of marble, but of liberating the form that was already there within. Similarly, Hank Williams is reputed to have said: “God writes the songs. I just hold the pen”—a way of articulating a felt truth provided one does not rely on presumable modesty as a species of sly self-inflation, e.g., God, the cosmos, the Creative Spirit, speaks to me! Still, that’s what songwriting can be like sometimes. A good song is one that, once formalized, seems not like a creation but an embodiment, something that comes from elsewhere and takes up residence in one’s mind. Or as poet Wallace Stevens put it in “Peter Quince at the Clavier”:

Just as my fingers on these keys

Make music, so the self-same sounds

On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound

A good song need not necessarily be a “true” song. Not all songs are “true,” by which I don’t mean that they are overtly meretricious, but rather that they may be constructs devoid of personal conviction, or clever artifices made to fit a popular template or written on demand—like poems in a creative writing class. There is no reason they cannot be excellent, hummable, and memorable in themselves; indeed, they can be “true” for others. A true song, however, as I use the term, is one that is genuine all the way down, not only for the listener but for the composer as well.

Of course, one can never know for sure if a good song is also a true song, in the sense I’ve indicated. And perhaps it doesn’t ultimately matter. But sometimes one has the intuitive feeling that such is the case, and this will occasionally make a difference in the way one receives and responds to it. For example, John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (originally, “Babe, I Hate to Go”) and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” seem true in the sense of being sincere, heartfelt—the songwriter vulnerable before his audience. Tim McGraw singing “The Cowboy in Me,” however, also seems true all the way down, and yet it was written by three people. One cannot imagine a troika plumbing genuine experience or plucking a living song from the middle of the psychic dimension, even if there is considerable sympathy among its members.

Perhaps, then, the most important criterion is that, whether true or not, the song rings true in lyric and/or melody insofar as it takes up residence in one’s own sensibility, not as a tenant but as a proprietor. In that sense, a good song is a “true” song even if it is not really true, even if it does not emerge from the vitals of personal feeling. After all, truth is not always a touchstone of excellence, especially aesthetic excellence; it can lead to untrammeled sentimentality or gross narcissism. But when the two go together, when talent and authenticity, quality and candor marry harmoniously, the power and resonance of the finished artifact seems almost uncanny. Perhaps that is when a good song becomes the best possible song.

*****

This essay is part of an ongoing dialogue between the writers of PJ Lifestyle and Liberty Island regarding the future of conservatism and the role of emerging counter-cultures in restoring American exceptionalism. See the previous installments in the series and join the discussion: