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Songs, Like Art, Can Range from Realism to Abstraction

I don’t know much about art but… wait for it

On the wall at my studio I have, among other things, a print of a painting by Mark Rothko. I like Rothko’s work. The pulsing blocks of color connect with me. But if you asked me what his paintings ‘mean’… I couldn’t tell you.

I can say a little bit about what they mean to me, what I think the reasons are that I like them… But they connect to me on a subconscious level; I don’t think they’re even intended to have a literal meaning (that’s why it’s called ‘abstract’ art).

Somebody recently pointed out to me the painting ‘Christina’s World’ by Andrew Wyeth. I hadn’t looked at it in a long time. It’s a realistic painting – there’s clearly a girl sitting in the grass of a field, looking at a house and a barn in the distance. You can name what’s in the painting… which makes it easier to talk about what it might ‘mean’ than it is for a Rothko painting.

Impressionist paintings, by, say, Van Gogh or Degas, seem to be somewhere in the middle. They represent specific things we can identify (starry nights, ballet dancers) but represent them in a way that’s much more abstract than a painter like Wyeth or even Edward Hopper.

With the Impressionists we get more of how a scene might look to the painter’s ‘mind’s eye’ than a literal portrait of a clear reality (although Wyeth and Hopper can be said to have elements of abstraction too).

Since this is a songwriting blog, not an art one, you probably see where I’m going here. The continuum of songs is very similar to that of art – from the realistic to the abstract and (sometimes) beyond.

On the realistic end you have most 20th century popular songs (with a few exceptions), pre-Bob Dylan. And you have most country songs (still), classic rock such as mid-late period Springsteen, and indeed most mainstream pop music, including much of what’s currently on the charts.

Even though Dylan is the one who broke everything open, he’s probably in the middle area now – magical realism perhaps? A lot of alternative music verges on the abstract without totally going there. And rappers are often collage-like in switching lyric and rhythmic focus within a section or even a line.

On the abstract end you might count everything from some Radiohead to the lyrics of R.E.M,. or some of David Byrne’s, to the more musically abstract, like FKA Twigs or Sigur Ros.

We’re used to thinking of songs as being in the ‘realistic’ area. And in fact most of them are, just like most movies are narrative-based. But as time has gone by, the freedom to make a song ‘work’ in many different ways has grown and the average listener’s ears have gotten much more used to hearing non-linear songs – remember, Van Gogh never sold a painting while he was alive – the stuff was weird! Now it’s everywhere. We get used to things!

As I often say, Songs are Sound. With many songs you can understand and explain what they mean, literally. But with some you can’t, or at least it’s much harder. And what’s wrong with that – who cares? –  if you like what you’re hearing?

“If it sounds good, it is good.” – Duke Ellington

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4 responses to “Songs, Like Art, Can Range from Realism to Abstraction”

  • Art becomes subjective, as does it’s value.
    I see Jackson Pollack’s work & think “Painter’s drop cloth”
    There’s that elephant that slathers paint on a canvas & it’s called “Genius”
    There are Spoken-word artists that recite poetry over drum machine presets & are “Hip-Hop artists” or over random found noise & now they are “industrial-Hip-Hop”
    Stuff that was once considered poorly done, bad demos & “needs work” is now celebrated as it’s own genre, never mind that there is no rhyme scheme, story, prosody or any of the things we have learned or are taught.
    And, THAT is the stuff that makes money & is popular.
    And don’t forget parody.
    Depending on which charts you look at:
    EVERY top ten country song has drinking in it. EVERY ONE.
    8 of those mention trucks.
    So it seems reality for country fans is primarily about getting drunk & driving trucks. I wrote one exactly to that (along with other cliches) & guess what? a couple of producers picked it up to forward.
    & I did it as a tongue in cheek JOKE.
    They said sure the cliches are there, but it’s clever enough with anticipated rhymes & stuff to make it interesting.
    Well, I’m glad at least some of the song craft was noticed.
    But next, I plan to have a hot chick sing a random melody using an assembly manual in Spanish for lyrics over an 808.
    I’ll bet it goes viral.

  • Rothko’s work can really hit me in the gut. I always think, “You bas—-. You did it to me again.” Something visceral is communicated and without a single word. Admirable, to say the least.

    Last night, I was watching a documentary on PBS about Walt Disney. It seems that the idea of Fantasia was to make art that would move people emotionally through abstract images and music.

    However, I prefer words that clearly lay out the message. I don’t want anyone to have to go searching for my message in a library or in other writers’ works. I have something to say and I want to be heard and understood. And you?

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