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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