Monday, January 10, 2011

Blissful Ignorance And Songwriting Success

originally posted Jun 25, 2010 4:19 PM by Scott Cooley 

Some people think they’re better songwriters than they really are and we feel sorry for them.  Could we be them without knowing it?  It is possible that I don’t recognize how bad I am at songwriting and so rate myself as being better than I really am?  This article attempts to explore why that could be.

Since I haven’t had success in a traditional sense – achieving “cuts” or “holds” or being able to go into a major record store and buy a popular CD that has a recording of one of my songs on it – it could be that I’m not really able to realize that my strategies for becoming traditionally successful are not good ones.  If I keep repeating the same behavior hoping for different results, am I just stupid?  Na├»ve?  Clueless?  It’s possible – and I’m just barely smart enough to conceive of this.  I think.  Of course, my Dad has always said that “you can convince yourself of almost anything.”  It’s a scary proposition.

I am probably guilty of thinking it was so important to represent myself in a favorable light that I’ve convinced myself that I am better than I really am.  The common advice to “act like a pro until you become a pro” that I’ve taken might’ve made me not only say things about myself that are not entirely truthful, but actually start to believe them as well.  That would be sad, I know.

One need only watch the popular television program American Idol to realize many people in the world truly believe they are great singers when clearly the feedback of experts says they are terrible.  Which proves an obvious theory that the lack of skill or talent that makes you incompetent can be the very thing that makes you unable to recognize that you are incompetent – an “ignorance is bliss” type of thing.
On the other hand, your taste in music is based on a lot of things – your personality, where you grew up, where you live, your experiences, etc.  Your opinions about what is a good song and what isn’t a good song is shaped by these, so you literally hear what you want to hear when listening to a song, you imagine what you want to imagine – and appreciation of art is always that way – different for every listener (except for twins maybe).  

So even if I am honest, fair, and objective with myself about my own abilities or about the quality of the songs I write, I’m oblivious to the things I don’t know about songs.  I have a personal theory that too much knowledge about music could hinder my ability to write good songs.  A lot of people I know who took music lessons and understand music theory can play someone else’s music well, but seem to have difficulty improvising and creating their own music.  Just an observation.  What I don’t know can’t hurt me, right?  If people liked my songs that would be true – but I’d need some measurable success in a traditional sense to prove that I suppose.  I don’t have that yet.

So if I’m generally ignorant of what the traditionally-successful songwriters know, I don’t really know how I am ignorant.  To quote Edie Brickell, “I know what I know, if you know what I mean.”  If I don’t try to educate myself about what makes a Lennon/McCartney or a Dylan song good, then I’m not burdened by the influence of that knowledge.  If I can’t even begin to understand how I would compose a piece of music like Mozart would write, what’s wrong with me sticking with what I do know?  I know how to play a few chords on a guitar and I know how to play them in an order that pleases me, and then I know how to come up with some words and rhymes that please me and fit them together into what I consider a pleasing song.  So I guess my ignorance of how fancier songs are written is a factor in me writing songs the way I do know how to write songs, without me knowing it really.  I’m ignorant of my own ignorance.

I may be incredibly mediocre without knowing it, because I’m simply not aware of how to be any different.  We’ve all heard about successful songwriters and musicians who’ve never had formal training and who’ve never learned to read music.  Popularity matters.  On the other hand, we’ve all heard about record companies who “buy success” for artists who aren’t that good, focusing on marketing and videos and payola to achieve success for incompetent singers and musicians with bad songs.  I guess the only thing I can do is to continue to listen and learn.  I do notice that I learn things about music simply by listening to music that I wasn’t previously aware of.  I try to listen to the great songs by the great songwriters – the ones who have had that “traditional success” I’m after.  In the process, I know things now about songs I never used to, and would like to think every bit of knowledge helps me get closer to the potential to achieve traditional songwriting success myself someday.

The beauty of this all (or, the bliss of it, if you will) is that I am a non-traditional success in that I’ve written many songs that I think are good and I’ve had fun doing it.  It’s a worthwhile endeavor for simply that reason, yet I can’t help but think that there are valid reasons I haven’t gone beyond that yet.   I may be better than I think I am, and haven’t had the luck of being in the right place at the right time yet.  Or maybe I haven’t focused on the marketing and pitching enough yet, or maybe I haven’t focused on producing better demos yet, and these have been the barriers to that success rather than my lack of skill.  It’s nice to think of these as possibilities instead of thinking I’m in denial of reality like those American Idol contestants who are terrible but think they’re great.

For that reason I am very careful to not take the feedback I get – positive or negative – too seriously.  I would hate to give up on a hobby I find so enjoyable, and yet I would hate to be someone who has an unrealistic, inflated opinion of themselves without justification either.

I conclude by saying ignorance can be bliss, when mixed with the desire to learn and improve at one’s own pace.  If I can recognize my own little improvements in my songwriting, then perhaps I’m on the road to writing some that many would consider good.  If I keep trying to discover new things about good songs, then apply them, this could be good, provided it’s not plagiarism.  So I’m going to continue to tell myself some things:  Don’t stop writing, don’t stop learning, be careful to not lose whatever it is that makes it fun to do, and be careful to not ever go thinking you’re any good until you have some measure of “traditional” success.  That said, in the event traditional success does not show itself, don’t give up the hobby, because any free time spent doing something so enjoyable is always worth it.  The big risk?  Someone will feel sorry for you, but will be glad that you found something you liked and had a good time with it.  Not that big a deal in the grand scheme.

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