|When You Were Young||The Killers|
|She Talks to Angels||Black Crowes|
|Raining in Baltimore||Counting Crows|
|In Our Bedroom After the War||Stars|
|Jumper||Third Eye Blind|
Grey Cell Green
Ned’s Atomic Dust Bin
|Bizarre Love Triangle||New Order|
|Another Rainy Night (Without You)||Queensryche|
|Little Lion Man||Mumford and Sons|
|Rock On||David Essex|
|I Miss You||Blink-182|
|Panic Switch||Silversun Pickups|
|Sex On Fire||Kings of Leon|
|First||Cold War Kids|
This project started out as what I thought would be a simple idea. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, a lot of us who were teenagers at the time would try to impress the people we had crushes on by making them mix tapes. For those of you who are too young to know what those are, they’re kind of like playlists that you had to make with cassettes (no I am not going to explain what those are, just Google it), and they had a limited run time. You had to find just the right blend of songs to express what you wanted to say in the time you had to work with, and there was definitely an art to it.
I got to thinking about that old art form, and about how sometimes you would pick a song because of a certain line or phrase, and how in many ways you were crafting a poem with someone else’s words. That inspired me to do just that – to write a poem completely out of other people’s words, taken completely out of context but arranged in the order that made sense for my needs, to express my feelings. I also wanted to do it in such a way that it would make a good mix tape, because that was an essential element of the original art form as well – it couldn’t just be a random jumble of songs. Well, I suppose it could, but a poem can also just be a random jumble of words. That doesn’t make it good. The artistry is in the flow, putting them in a certain order so that they sound good and take you on an emotional journey. I felt that if I could manage to do both, to create a poem that worked while at the same time creating a mix tape that worked, I would have achieved a multimedia art form unlike anything I had done (or seen) before.
The first step was the same as any mix tape: picking the songs. I went through and gathered up a list of over 60 songs by artists ranging from the Eagles to Limp Bizkit, paying particular attention to songs that had lyrics that grabbed me. They didn’t have to be anything in particular so long as it was something unique. From there I compiled all the lyrics of the songs with only two rules in mind: first, I had to use a given line complete as written in the song, and second I couldn’t use any line that contained the actual title of the song (I felt that would be cheating). At this point I started narrowing down my list fairly quickly, as I found many of the songs on my list either weren’t as compelling as I originally thought, or else they didn’t have lines I could use. I also found the general outline of the poem already beginning to form, which may have been due to the songs I selected. Whether it is due to my own particular taste in music or perhaps just the nature of pop music itself, I found that most of the songs I was finding quality lyrics in tended toward the melancholier end of the spectrum. (Personally, I think it’s more the latter – the first person who can find any poetic value in “Call Me Maybe” wins a gold star.)
Crafting the poem itself was a bit more of a challenge. It was easy to pick out individual lines I found compelling – too easy, in fact. As the goal was to make a mix tape, I couldn’t use any given song and (preferably) any given artist more than once, and I had a time limit as well. I had to consider the run time of each song I used as part of the poem, and although I have always been fond of the 90 minute cassettes, apparently I am also fond of songs with long run times. Sometimes I wish more artists heeded the mocking advice of Billy Joel from “The Entertainer” and “cut it down to 3:05”. But I digress. As I went through and wrote the poem, I quickly realized I was piling up a large number of songs and likely would run out of time, so I went back and started adding in the length of each track next to its complementary line in the poem. As I did I saw that I would run out of space before the end of the second stanza, so I made the decision to cut that stanza entirely, which to be honest was not particularly strong anyway.
In this way, the constraint of the time limit turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It forced me to keep the poem tighter than it otherwise would have been and cut weaker material that I might have left in. It also provided me with the artistic guidance to break the poem into two stanzas which equate to the two sides of the cassette. While I believe both the poem and the playlist work very well as a comprehensive whole (and both are meant to be enjoyed that way), there is also a certain completeness to each component part, whether it be the individual stanzas or Side A/Side B of the mix tape.
I hope you enjoy it. Come back tomorrow for a complete playlist so you can enjoy the mix tape for yourself, and feel free to leave any guesses in the comments below.
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day,
you sit there in your heartache
in certain company.
And I don’t have nothing to say;
if there’s no one there, then there’s no one there, but at least the war is over.
We were caught up and lost in all of our vices –
I couldn’t change though I wanted to.
And if you do not want to see me again, I would understand.
When your desire has been found
I just can’t pull myself away –
living a life that I can’t leave behind.
You leave me wanting, always leave me wanting more.
But it was not your fault but mine,
and where do we go from here?
I need to let you go;
I cannot sleep, I cannot dream tonight.
Could I be anything you want me to be?
But it’s not forever –
Call it a dark night of the soul.
I got to wondering this morning just what does an artist owe to his audience? What I mean is, does an artist (writer, musician, whatever) have an obligation of artistic integrity to his audience, or can he just go ahead and put out whatever he feels like whenever, regardless of how he might personally feel about it, in the hopes that it will sell (or especially because it will sell)?
As a particular example of this, I’m going to pick on poor Piers Anthony (yes, me and every critic in existence). I used to read pretty much everything he wrote, and my gateway drug was his Xanth series. I read the first twenty or so, which I think allows me at least a bit of leeway in my criticism. Additionally, unless I completely misremember (always possible) Mr. Anthony himself has stated on more than one occasion that he basically keeps the series going because it’s easy to write and it keeps him paid (although perhaps not so crudely). Considering he pumps them out at a rate of approximately one a year, that’s hardly surprising.
So here’s the question: does he (or any author) owe it to his fan base to stop writing a series that he’s not personally invested in? As long as people keep buying the books, clearly they see some value in them. Nobody is forcing anyone to buy the books, after all. This feels rather like a distasteful answer to me, but on the other hand we don’t expect factory workers to love the products they create every day (or I hope we don’t anyway). Is there anything wrong with simply being a craftsman, banging out a product that people enjoy even if you personally don’t care about it, and collecting a check? Do we hold artists to a higher standard?
Another point to consider (staying with Mr. Anthony for reference) is that not every work is one that an artist is doing just for the money. After all, I started on Xanth, but I went on to read Battle Circle, Incarnations of Immortality, Bio of a Space Tyrant, and many more works by Mr. Anthony. Xanth was my gateway drug as I said, but it led me into so very much more. If creating schlock is what allows an artist to keep body and soul and family together while working on “true art”, is that a sufficient and worthy price to pay?
And finally, let me point out that all art is, much like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. There was a time when I actually defended the Xanth series as great literature, and there are some books in the series that I still consider to be pretty good fantasy. Regardless, it’s all just one man’s opinion. Does that make it any more or less “art”? I’m going to go with “no”. It’s neither more nor less, no matter what any one person’s opinion is, including the creator’s. Art is just too subjective to be defined by one person, or even a group of people, for anyone else.
Or maybe I just like knowing those books are still out there, waiting to entice some young kid and become his gateway drug. Everyone has theirs; that first creative work that pulled them in to a favorite field or genre, no matter how disdained it might be by critics or friends or even an older and wiser self. And as long as it brings us pleasure, and brings us to pleasure, I think that’s a high enough calling for creation.
Save me from “artists”. I put that in quotation marks because I want to distinguish the specific group of individuals who claim to be artists but aren’t willing to put in the work that comes with the job. I don’t mean “output”, because I know quite a few self-described artists who have generated quite a bit of output, but they have certain deficiencies that will always hold them back from real achievement in their chosen field.
The first is that they will almost universally make claims to “originality”, and will refuse to study what has come before. I see a couple of problems with this. The most notable is that if you don’t know what came before you, how can you honestly speak to originality? Even if you came by something honestly, it may (and likely is) similar to something that has already been done, at least close enough to exist in a school or art that has already been done to death. Study gives you knowledge of what to stay away from if nothing else. Secondary to that is the fact that we are all of us influenced by everything that we are exposed to. Unless you grew up in a bubble and live in a sealed room, you are constantly being influenced. If you don’t take the time to study your art, you won’t even be aware of how you’re being influenced.
The other way they refuse to put in the work, and the more damaging in my opinion, is that (again, almost universally) they refuse to work for money. Some call it being “commercialized”, others call it “selling out”. I call it “working for a living”. Self-proclaimed “artists” who don’t want their “artistic vision” to be “corrupted” or “constrained” by others are artists who tend to go hungry. This refusal to work in their chosen field may have something to do with “artistic integrity”, but likely owes more to ego and vanity. The kind of people who don’t want to be told what to make are the kind of people who are creating for their own amusement and yet expect others to pay them for the privilege. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, most theater majors don’t go into carpentry, and there’s a reason for that: they’re not really interested in working in the theater; they’re interested in the spotlight. Sure carpenters get steady work, but they don’t get applause.
This idolization of idolization is at the heart of the problem. Despite what Andy Wharhol may have told us (and what reality television tries to sell us) not everyone will get to be famous, even for fifteen minutes. Even worse, a desire for fame is antithetical to true creation. While fame may eventually be a reward for creation, it should be a side-effect, like a shadow that is cast by talent when in the presence of the light of hard work. The shadow is an ephemeral dream that has no substance; it is a signifier that comes after the fact, not before it. Those who focus on it will never grasp the reality it signifies.