Laremy mentioned to me after reading the last blog that I wrote about Ed Sheeran quite a bit and that might be confusing to some people, so I thought I’d come back with the why. I’m teaching Songwriting this semester and one of the first things we do is listen and look through the students’ favorite songs. This is only my second time teaching the course, but Sheeran has shown up both times—and the first time I was admittedly a smidge pretentious about it. (I hope you hear the understatement in that.) So this time, I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about and VOILA! his cousin made a documentary about him entitled—drum roll, please—Songwriter. You can catch it on Apple Music if you’d like, but what I can say about it is that it was utterly fascinating for me to watch. I come from the desert fathers songwriting/art-making camp, which is that you hole yourself up alone in a room and work it out. The documentary is a testament to what happens in pop music at this point in time—a gaggle of songwriters on a boat or a Malibu retreat center just hanging out, working on hooks. On one hand, I love this—I wish I had been more open to co-writing when I first started writing songs—I didn’t even play in a real band until I was in my mid-twenties and by then I was sorely lacking in the creative flexibility required of taking feedback and using it well. On the other hand, I want Ed Sheeran and all his friends to GET OFF MY LAWN. Mostly, I want to hold on to my belief in “the artist” or whatever—the voice of one person crying in the wilderness, the singular—monomaniacal?—vision of perspective of the world. But of course, that’s a lie, isn’t it? I don’t write songs in vacuum and it doesn’t take some extra heavenly ordained “talent”. It takes focus and work and craft. And time. And lots of conversations with people about ideas.
There’s something else too. Mr. Sheeran seems to really love songwriting and actually seems to love many of the same things that I do about the craft: The single right word, the prosody of a line, making sure everything fits in its right place. So why still all the judgy feelings I have? The content? The success? Hard to parse. But it’s something about him and his cronies not taking the making seriously enough. Maybe it’s just that I judge the song on ÷ that he seems to love the most as the most trite and uninteresting of the batch. But that’s just petty. So what about heavily academic explainers—those always help, year? John Gardener wrote The Art of Fiction, my personal holy tome on fiction writing, but he also wrote On Moral Fiction in which he tried to make the case that people ought to take fiction more seriously, that they ought to recognize the moral heft of a story—not moral as in the moral at the end of the story, not the didactic This is how you ought to live, but the weightier idea that there is big T truth happening in fiction and a writer ought to recognize that and tread carefully. And something in Sheeran—or maybe not in Sheeran, but in the way pop Bangers are made—smacks of triviality. And now we’re back around to GET OFF MY LAWN. TAKE THE ART SERIOUSLY. Don’t write the hook just because you know a billion people will sing it and a million people will buy it. Write the hook with care and concern and the knowledge that people will have that idea stuck in their heads at night and they’ll sing it to themselves in the shower and they’ll carry it with them and it might just change the way they move through the world.
But also: what a load of poppycock that is. Music is—and should be fun. I know that, but it doesn’t stop the old codger in my heart from shaking his fist.