advice is a form of nostalgia

This week I read two great things. One was ‘On Self-Respect’ by Joan Didion and one was this by my buddy Ellis. Both are really short so you should read them.

The Joan Didion essay reads like self-help that I want to live by. She talks about what it is “to have a sense of one’s intrinsic worth…the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent.” Self-respect, for her, frees us “from the expectations of others” and “gives us back to ourselves.”

Last year I worked in a bookshop and used that experience as an opportunity to read all manner of books, crime novels, histories, erotic fiction and the like. But one genre I just couldn’t bring myself to try was the self-help manual. I’ve always felt that a book that is expressly designed to tell you how to live your life seemed ugly and redundant. I’m not doubting the need for self-help in the world; we all need help. I just feel like you can get that help in so many more interesting and beautiful places than a self-help book. Didion’s essay is a prime example. A piece of writing that is full of nostalgia, regret, conviction and consideration that also happens to be wonderful advice.

I’ve always found advice in the books I read and the films I see. Of course this is a risky process; one strewn with pitfalls. This habit is precisely why I grew believing that boyfriends were the holy grail (I overdosed on a heady mixture of Jane Austen and Judy Blume). You really can’t mimic characters, that just leads to delusional and dangerous behaviour. But every piece art teaches us something, something moral or emotional; a piece of information filtered though an artist and that artist’s view of the world.

So this got me thinking about self-help songs; an under acknowledged aspect of songwriting. So many songs are filled with pithy lines to live your life by. Young hearts run free, don’t go chasing waterfalls, let it be and wear sunscreen. There are lines in songs that just sound like the truth, that are catchy and that run round your head for years and they affect the way you live.  At least once a week for the last 11 years I’ve found myself singing “Whole Again” by Atomic Kitten. Even though the lyrics to this song are completely bland and void of any truth or honesty I feel that for better or worse they’ve been tugging at my unconscious conception of what love is over the years. Part of me certainly believes that true love makes me a whole. Because of that song. Jesus. So as you can see many of my expectations and attitudes to life have been shaped, subtly and not so subtly by music.

Of course musical movements come with a lifestyle attached. In the sixties it seems like an awful lot of musicians wanted to convince everyone to take drugs. And I guess that punks were pretty keen on everyone wearing safety pins and being generally anarchic. And purveyors of twee-pop are pretty into the idea that everyone make their own accessories and eat cake. The fact is, sometimes temporarily and sometimes profoundly and enduringly, music changes peoples’ lives.

Ellis writes that “pop music is trying to sell you something, and will happily lie to you in order to seal the deal.” Rock ‘n Roll famously created not just a lifestyle but the whole concept of the teenager through its songs in order to sell more records. And this is one of my main problems with self-help literature. How can you possibly take life-advice from someone trying make money from that advice? Can music, which is always crossing the line between telling you something and selling you something, really ever offer sound life advice? Ellis suggests that the role of the music writer is to look at the social and political implications of this music, of what is being sold and told. And surely even as listeners we need to be careful; we need to think about the songs we listen to, where they come from and how they shape our hearts, how they affect our beliefs and relationships.

And certainly songwriters need to think about what ideas they are projecting into the world. Initially I found the idea of any song I’ve written affecting someone’s life  impossible. No one could think of my songs as something meaningful, as anything beyond decorative noise. The soundtrack to perhaps a particularly pleasant train journey, if I’m lucky. But then I thought, no! That’s a particularly cowardly and defeatist approach to making music. One that views songwriting and the arts as extraneous and unimportant rather than an integral part of the business of living. I believe art is at the centre of life, part of the wider conversation between individuals and politics. If I am going to make art I have to believe in my ability to offer something to that conversation.

I am not interested in selling something in monetary terms. But I am interested in conveying something. I want to suggest that any listeners I do pick up a long the way look at things that are mundane and commonplace and find beauty in them, for the simple fact that this will make day to day life infinitely more pleasant. This is my one piece of self-help. Every time you see a construction crane (and I think you’ll find that you see them fairly often) just take a second and appreciate how goddamn beautiful it is, right there in the middle of your city.

So really I believe that how we live our lives is ultimately up to us. We can take influence and advice from all kind of places, but we must examine and explore our influences. You can live your life by the lyrics of a song just as you can live your life by morals of your parents or the chapters of a self-help manual. But you need the discernment and the courage of your convictions to know that your life is your own.

About twowhitecranes

I am a songwriter and musician. These are some thoughts I have about that fact. You can find out more here
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