Great art is art that accomplishes something. It doesn't just sit there on the wall. Great songs will have something to say, and say it clearly, and say it well.
Let's take a look, shall we?
- Comfort the Afflicted
Art that comforts is beautiful. It soothes where before was conflict. It's like a good friend listening while you break down bawling. It offers you answers to questions that don't really have good answers, like "Why?" At least, it makes it so you might not need the answers so badly.
Writing songs like this often come out of my own suffering, and my own struggle to answer those questions. I think that makes the songs more personal and empathetic.
Possibly the best song of this kind that has ever eased my pain is, "Come, Come Ye Saints". This isn't a song about saying that "All is well" and ignoring the troubles. It's all about getting through the difficulty and the struggle and realizing that "All is Well" anyway. If we die, then happy day! If we live, then we'll make the chorus swell! It was the early saints saying, "Hey, it's all good!"
Why has that song resonated with people through a century? Because it comforts the afflicted.
- Afflict the Comfortable
Another approach to art is to afflict the comfortable. I like this kind of art a lot, because it challenges me, both personally, and as a member of society. This is art that shakes me out of my comfort zone, and shows me that I need to be doing something to fix a problem.
Here's another apocryphal quote: I seem to remember hearing an interview with Pete Townshend (one of my songwriting heroes), where he said that if we listen to his music and we don't come away with a black eye or a bloody nose, then he didn't do his job.
This approach brought us masterpieces like "Won't get Fooled Again", "Baba O'Reily", and "The Seeker".
In my own writing, there are times that I've strived for this kind of impact, like "Millstones", "The Sun Shone Through the Windows", "Long Haired Weirdo", and "Martyrs". I don't always land the punch, and not all songs should be "black eye songs", but it's something that I aim for.
It comes with a "tell it like it is" with "no punches pulled" kind of approach to writing. When you see something wrong, you have to write about it. And you have to have the personal honesty to see when you're the one doing the wrong thing.
- Comforting the Comfortable
One kind of song that bothers me a lot, and that I hope I can avoid in my career, are the songs that just comfort the comfortable. In reality, the vast majority of everyone's catalog, even my own, fall in this category. These are the songs that, even if they're popular, are essentially meaningless. They don't challenge you, they don't make you feel any better, and they don't take you anywhere. You're already comfortable, and the song just lets you be there. Static, ungrowing, unchanging.
- What does this have to do with LDS music?
All of LDS music falls into one of these three categories. Comforting the afflicted takes a lot of emotional investment in your art, and afflicting the comfortable requires a level of intensity that's tough to maintain, so most artists don't achieve this level in every song they write. Still, it's something I hope we all strive for in as many songs as we can.
Come back often to hear about new songs and shows. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including his Dutch Oven blog: Mark's Black Pot and his LDS pop culture blog: MoBoy blog.
Mark's Other Blog Posts: Hot Bread in a Dutch Oven