I’ve been thinking a bit about censorship over the past day or two — but not the kind imposed upon us by anyone else. The kind we impose upon ourselves, for various reasons.
Self-censorship is a funny thing. I think I’m generally pretty loose-lipped (or fingered) around here, but every once in a while I stop myself and think, “Should I really say this?”
A month or two ago, for example, I wrote a long rant about the strangeness of hype and how rarely I think it’s justified. I thought it was pretty well-written, well-thought-out, and it raised some good points, with some personal experience thrown in to quantify my observations. Even so, I didn’t post it. Some opinions could be construed as insults to people I have no bad feelings about and no desire to offend.
So let it just be said that I think hype is pretty silly, I think some folks take themselves way too seriously, and people with two faces should just pick a face and stick with it for a while to see what it’s like.
Last week I found myself writing a song that addressed a few naysayers, and it came just short of calling them out by name. It wasn’t an exercise in bitterness, but rather something I was having a bit of a laugh about. I had no ambition to record the song. Then I thought, “You know what…this is a pretty catchy tune. Even if the words weren’t about anything, I like the music. Why shouldn’t I include it on an album that’s already going to fly all over the place?” So I recorded it the other day, and it’ll turn up somewhere on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART.
Part of me thinks it’s entirely unnecessary, because there’s a pretty good chance those select few people I’m referring to know what I think of them by now if they’ve ever read my blog, and I think most of their grumblings have died down to the occasional soft moan. Most of the people who listen to the song will be those who have been nothing but supportive and enthusiastic about what I do, and they might wonder who and what I’m singing about, and what crawled in my coffee and died. It might come off as seeming a bit vindictive, and needlessly so, when I’ve already said my peace here. But the thought of one of the people I’m singing about potentially hearing the song and realizing it’s about them cracks me up.
In a way, you could look at it as a compliment. How many people get to experience the wonder of hearing a song that’s been written just for them? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, really. For most of us it doesn’t even happen once. And at least you can’t say I didn’t respond to the criticism. I think it’s more respectful than talking smack behind someone’s back. This makes it pretty clear what I think and puts it right out there in the open.
I felt a brief twinge of something that may have been my long-dormant conscience stirring and asked myself if I should really release this song. It uses some strong language and pulls no punches. I’ve written songs with much more foul language in them before, and with much more aggressive vocal deliveries, but this feels a little different. It’s taking the sort of things you’re not supposed to say even if you think them and putting them in a song, with no attempt made at being poetic or cryptic. I wondered for a moment if I might regret putting such a song on an album where a fair amount of people would hear it.
Then I thought about some of the old Guys with Dicks and early post-band solo material I recorded. There are some really nasty songs there that leave nothing to the imagination. Some of the people I was singing about heard some of those songs. Do I regret being that honest about what I felt, even when it wasn’t very nice? No. Not for a second.
The whole point is that the music is honest about who I am, where I am, and what I’m thinking and feeling in the moment it’s made. Otherwise why make it? I’m fascinated by being able to look back at the music I’ve made over the years and being taken right back to where I was then. All of these CDs are a sort of musical record of my life. Even when I’m not singing about or to anyone who actually exists (which is often the case these days), I’m still there in the songs. To start sugarcoating or editing things now would make no sense at all.
Does the song refer to anyone by name? No. Will it offend a few people? Maybe, but they have it coming. Will it piss off anyone I actually care about? I doubt it.
So it gets to stay.
It’s an interesting thing to think about, though. And it’s funny how it works in different ways on different levels. In my music I feel no need to censor myself or hold back, and there’s no such thing as going too far — short of making racist or homophobic comments, which I would never do in the first place, because I don’t have any of those feelings. I’ve dedicated entire albums to spitting venom at people who I feel have wronged me in one way or another, knowing they would probably hear the songs at some point and it would be pretty obvious to them what I was singing about. There’s never been any fear of reprisal. It’s a simple a matter of what needs to come out…coming out.
But on the blog here, every once in a while I feel a need to hold back a little, whether it’s reigning in a bit of the profanity occasionally (fuck piss shit what?), or just not expressing an opinion I know may ruffle some feathers. Like, say, being upfront about how I think some music is pretty unimpressive when it’s touted as being earth-shattering in its goodness. With cookie-cutter pop music, I feel it’s pretty safe to go to town. Elsewhere it’s a different story. It’s not that there’s a fear of reprisal here. Maybe it’s something about seeing the words on a screen and knowing other people will read them that gives me pause, while singing or speaking them is a different experience, because in that case there’s music to add to (or soften, or twist) the experience.
And I’m not sitting over here with piles of posts I’ve held back for fear or pissing people off. 99% of the time I say exactly what I think, unencumbered by any thoughts of, “Who might be offended by this?” The long-winded posts stretching all the way back to the beginning, attacking anything from Ashley Dupre’s five-second music career to being misquoted in print by a coattail-humping idiot with an agenda, will attest to that.
In the two and-a-half years I’ve been writing this blog now, I think I’ve only had about three drafts that have found themselves sitting around collecting digital dust. It felt good to get out my thoughts and purge some things, but there was no need to make those posts public, and there’s no need now. I think there’s a fine line between speaking your mind and becoming one of the shit-talkers my tender new song is about. Maybe that’s what makes me think twice before I say certain things. Some opinions are best kept to yourself. Like, say, the opinion that Mel Gibson might be a raving lunatic. Oh, wait…everyone in the world thinks that now. No matter, then.
Still, I keep wondering what it is about music that makes this occasional self-censorship disappear. There’s another song going on the new album called “Those Who Hunted Passenger Pigeons Are Now Burning in Hell”, sung from the viewpoint of a member of a species that has been extinct for almost a hundred years. The title on its own is a pretty bold statement, but it was what I felt in the moment. I was reading about these birds and how they were killed, I got angry, and out came a song. The anger isn’t in the delivery of the song itself so much as it’s in the song’s title.
And yet, I would never write in a blog post, “I hope anyone who massacred those birds in such a cruel and disgusting way is now burning in hell, regardless of what my spiritual beliefs are or how decent they might have otherwise been as human beings.” It would feel like I was going too far, while to sing about it in a song feels reasonable and gives me no pause at all.
Maybe Mel Gibson knows the answer.
I guess the point is that self-censorship is sometimes necessary, and sometimes a good idea, particularly when it’s done in the interest of not hurting people who have done no wrong. But I think it’s important to have an area of your life where there is no censorship or compromise of any kind, and music fits the bill for me. I’m not a political writer (nor do I ever think I will be), and I don’t really do love songs, but I’m always there in the music, with no holding back.
Speaking of the new album, it continues to inch ever closer to the finish line. The pace is seriously picking up now, as I’ve made it my goal to try and have the whole thing finished and sequenced by the end of this week. I think I just might be able to pull it off. There are a few songs I need to record, a few songs I need to add a few things to, a few mixes I need to tweak, and then it should be ready. Assuming I can come to a comfortable decision on how to sequence thirty-two songs or so over the space of two CDs without taking too much time to figure it out. Then I just have to take care of the post-production stuff, printing inserts, copying CDs, and putting it all together. Hopefully, with a little elbow grease and bellybutton lint, it’ll be all packaged and release-ready by July 30th. I’m gonna give it the old high school try. If it doesn’t make it there by the end of the month, it should definitely appear in early August.
Then I can get back to working on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE and trying not to drown in a sea of songs that keep saying, “What about me? Pay attention to me!”
There will probably be an especially long video progress report for the end of July, and it might kind of turn into partial “the making of MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART” affair. We’ll have to see where it goes. I can tell you right now it will feature a dream sequence and a mini-music video, and that’s just the first three minutes or so. It’ll change your life, or make you laugh at the audacity of someone who doesn’t even attempt to hide their hands manipulating stuffed animals on film.
Back to Mel for just a second. Jon Chattman wrote a tongue-in-cheek article about how the dude might theoretically rescue his career, and the phrase “jumping the Christ” is one of the funniest things I’ve heard in a while. Who wants to jump a shark when you can jump a whole deity?
On yet another note, that’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Johnny Cash in a new car commercial. Johnny Cash. In a car commercial. I mean, how low can you go?
“Hey, need music for a commercial? Just get rid of the singing and make a loop of one or two bars of the music. Johnny’s dead. He won’t care.”
I’m sure when Johnny Cash was writing a song, in the back of his mind he was thinking, Man, I hope this gets used in a car commercial someday. Maybe I should change the lyrics from, “I walked into a burning ring of fire,” to, “I bought myself a shiny new Ford Taurus.”
People who make these decisions and create these commercials should be lined up in a fast food restaurant’s parking lot and shot. With a gun.
Now there’s some self-censorship for you. I mean, I could have said, “They should all watch in horror as their genitals are slathered with the worst-smelling cologne in the world while they’re bound and gagged and then forced to endure a senile old woman repeatedly squinting up at them and saying, ‘Your naughty bits smell funny,'” but I held back. Willpower, you see. Willpower.
ETA: A Nick Drake song is in a new AT&T commercial. I just saw it on TV. Kill me.