Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Say it and get out?

Despite my most recent blog post on music, not everything I listen to was released before some of my readers were even born. Indeed, my playing roster - which these days is more a function of Spotify than my CD collection - includes material from each decade since the 1950s, admittedly with a particular focus on the 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, and 2000s. (Less from the 1980s and 2010s.)

And while I don't listen to music at home as much as I used to (or at work at all - whereas I wrote my college senior thesis to the sound of Marquee Moon and Elvis Costello), my needing to cope with the extreme boredom of health club elliptical machine sessions means that I am always on the lookout for things that I would like to listen to. These include, not just new things, but also old favorites that I haven't played for a while.  So there's a cycle of rediscovery that I try to keep going, although new fare is needed or else it will tend to run down.

Anyway, the last couple of days I've been listening to Lily Allen's two fine albums from the 2000s, which I hadn't played for quite a few years. She released them and then announced that she was quitting the music biz - although she's been back since with lesser impact culturally, artistically, and commercially.

Her retirement surprised me at the time, but in retrospect I understand it. Her methodology as a songwriter on those two albums seems to have involved her adopting a very clear topic and point of view for each song.  In effect, they were short stories, essays, or character studies, and you could almost imagine her having had a topic sentence in mind for each before she started writing it. It doesn't feel as if she started each song with a riff, like Keef or something - although the melodies and hooks are often quite strong.

Sometimes the pitch sentence seems to have been thematic - e.g., addiction, consumerism, George W. Bush, or young single women living unsatisfying lives - but often it involved drawing a picture of a particular person. These included her father, grandmother, brother, and apparently a rogue's gallery of mainly disappointing boyfriends. (Important message: be very careful if you date a songwriter.) It's plausible that she simply ran out of good material, in addition to entering a life stage where slagging those around her (often an artistically promising approach) would grow increasingly costly.

"If you can't keep it up at the same level, quit" can be good advice aesthetically, but it's not always an optimizing strategy in career terms. It brings to mind an issue that we academics can face. If you spend enough years writing about a bunch of things, you can reach the point where you no longer have a lot to say that's as important or as interesting (to yourself as well as others) as what you said before. Of course, you can always keep on saying the same thing again and again (especially if you feel that a point you've discussed remains underappreciated), but this faces diminishing returns.

A lot of us in the biz have dealt with this issue in different ways. A key one for me, although also for some others whom I know, is to try decidedly new things. I've been happy with that approach on my current literature project (more on this shortly, perhaps), but it certainly can be an audience risk.


Paul said...

I'll make an unsolicited suggestion for your Spotify playlist - Alan Price's "Savaloy Dip.". Recorded in 1974 and somehow not released until last year you likely haven't heard it. If I were Christgau I'd give it a B+ but I think it's better than that.

Daniel Shaviro said...

Thanks! I'll try it.

Alan Price wrote the soundtrack for O Lucky Man? (I remember hearing this and liking it when in college.)

Paul said...

The same. I've always thought he made his strongest contributions as a sideman (e.g., his keyboards on the Animals' 1977 "Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted" are beyond great. His songwriting skills fall short of his hero Randy Newman but he's in pretty good form on Savaloy Dip.