Vulnerability is something some musicians might associate with the more nauseating and navel-gazing aspects of pop music. Hackneyed ballads featuring tales of unrequited love or angsty music compensating for a lack of depth with extreme emotion and themes come to mind. But the truth is that there’s a big difference between broadcasting emotion in music from approaching it with real vulnerability. Emotion comes naturally to most of us, but vulnerability ends up being a whole lot trickier.
Why vulnerability and emotion are two very different things
Every musician knows that emotion is crucial in their work. At its core, music’s role is to relate to and inspire human emotion, which means that musicians who can’t perform emotionally can’t really be musicians. And though many of us often mistake emotion for vulnerability, the two couldn’t be more different. Emotion is something that reflects a person’s natural mood or state of mind. In music, this means incorporating joy, sorrow, and every feeling in between into the narrative and musical mood of a song.
But vulnerability is something marked by risk on behalf of the musician. Its literal definition is “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.” What I want to focus on is the kind of emotional vulnerability that makes music compelling and human, though there’s plenty of examples when an artist’s music has put them in real physical danger.
Emotional vulnerability in music is when an artist reveals a truth about themselves that could negatively impact them. A weird way to look at it could be sort of like an investment. Songwriters who embrace vulnerability open themselves up to risk in the hopes that the music they’re creating resonates with listeners in a meaningful way.
The risks of emotional vulnerability in music
What sort of bad things happen when a songwriter is vulnerable? That completely depends on the songwriter because we’re all afraid of different things––judgements from friends and family, fear of being perceived as weird or damaged, revealing true feelings about a subject that might make people feel uncomfortable. Though all these circumstances are different, they’re all similar in the way that they lift the curtain behind an artist’s real identity.
Why vulnerability is so important in music
Above all else, the biggest reason vulnerability in music is vital is because it prioritizes truth. Vulnerability is something that helps musicians create music that exposes their true identities and experiences. This helps them fight the idea that they “should” be writing music that fits within a certain framework or expectation. If you’ve ever heard a band that sounded good but was missing something to draw you in and seal the deal, a lack of vulnerability might’ve been why.
But the kicker here is that being vulnerable is a real challenge for many musicians. Remember, real vulnerability takes actual risk, and some songwriters just aren’t willing to reveal themselves through their music. But for the ones willing to accept the risk, the payoffs often mean the difference between being able to relate to audiences or not.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.