Friday, November 22, 2013

Song and Anti-Song

Perhaps you enjoy writing songs. Well la-dee-da. It ain't hard to string together a few notes and tickle some instrument in the accepted way. A "good" pop song is nothing more than a hook - a little catch phrase  (sometimes original, often utterly cliched) with a few notes attached - and some extra padding in the form of other words and other notes.

Perhaps you like applause. Perhaps you don't like being heckled or booed, or being hissed at, or physically assaulted onstage. That could explain your penchants for "songcraft" and "musicianship."

Once upon a time it was pointed out to me by the philosopher Kim Thayil (who was moonlighting as guitarist in some famous buttrock band) that "cat" is not the opposite of "dog." It seems clear enough now, but at the time the revelation was quite an epiphany. The opposite of "dog" is "anti-dog." Thus, the opposite of "song" is "anti-song." Duh.

Perhaps you do enjoy jeers. Perhaps what floats your boat is being pelted with food and drinks, or with random objects. If this is you, you should try writing some anti-songs.

A common definition of the word "song" is "a short poem set to music." Much popular music (eg heavy metal or things that jam bands play) actually falls outside this somewhat narrow jurisdiction, and may more accurately be referred to as "jams" or "instrumentals" or some such terms. For now we will consider all of these things to be songs, as it conforms to conventional usage.

With the definition of song in place, it's quite simple to imagine how an anti-song would sound and read. There's nothing poetic or musical about it. We won't go so far as to label some radical painting or theatrical technique as "anti-song," as the relation to song is too abstract. Instead, we'll say that an anti-song still consists of a combination of words and music. But there wouldn't be anything poetic or musical about it.

The words could be anything from unadorned prose to amphigorey to readings of found material, bereft of figurative language, wordplay, rhyme and alliteration, the usual hallmarks of poetry.

The sound would need to be anti-musical. Music is often defined as "sound organized in time." Even complete noise music creates some sense of organization, and may only exist for a finite amount of time. But one could look at the usual elements of music - rhythm, melody, harmony - and abandon them. Musical instruments should probably be dispensed with altogether, because no matter how they may be misused or abused, the listener would, most likely, be able to identify something in the content that relates to music.

What is the payoff in creating and performing things that would seem to be unlistenable when described? There is a saying, "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." With that in mind, an anti-songwriter could very well create things that are attractive, beautiful even, by crafting words and sounds that are sweeter. Nowhere in our definition of anti-song is there an impetus to create work that is repulsive.

Anti-song could very well be a valid means of expression in a culture that is saturated with conventional music. There's no market for it - yet - but it could very well be the wave of the future. Besides, with so many entertainers going for cheers and applause, and with so many attracting unwanted attention for the mistakes they make in their personal lives, we could all use a few to throw tomatoes at just for the work itself.