With its uncanny ability for canceling tours, summer festivals, and weekly band practices all over the world, there’s plenty for musicians to despise when it comes to COVID-related social distancing measures. Since few living people have experienced a pandemic like this, music makers are being forced to dig deep for ways to be productive and inspired during the crisis. One spot of good news for music creators is that there’s no shortage of longing out there in the world right now, and the fact that some musicians will be able to transform their understandable feelings of loneliness and pining into powerful inspiration for their work.
How longing fuels music
COVID-19 is keeping us separated and isolated in all facets of our lives. We’re physically kept apart from bandmates, loved ones, restaurants, and music venues. But in a more impactful sense, we’re also growing increasingly distant from the lives we considered normal before 2020. As the crisis drags on, it’s clear returning to the way things were isn’t going to happen. But, distance, isolation, and being kept in a perpetual state of wanting something are things that have been fueling music creation long before the novel coronavirus started upending life around the world. Breakups, death, financial poverty, and feeling socially cast out are themes found in countless songs from every musical genre. They’re all centered around longing.
Much of what the music the world knows and loves can be summed up with the narrative of frustration. Unrequited love, mourning friends, parents, children, lamenting world events, and feeling confined to a boring place where no one understands you are related to longing. Dig deep beneath the exterior of a well-known song. You’ll likely find a simple desire for things to be different on behalf of the person who created it. In the same way, we don’t watch movies or read books where characters don’t experience problems and overcome trials. Narrative drama centered around longing is one of the biggest things that makes music relatable and interesting to listen to.
Leveraging longing for musical creativity
Longing might be a feature that helps make music human and relatable. Yet, it’s often not an easy or convenient feeling to grapple with when it comes to creativity. COVID-19 and other challenges in life aren’t convenient packages musicians can transform neatly into great music. However, we can commit to creating honestly and passionately during this crisis and see what happens. The first step towards using longing to inspire your music is knowing yourself as well as you can. This sort of reflection takes work, especially when collective anxiety about the world is as bad as it currently is. If you feel lost, hopeless, listless, and isolated, recognize those feelings instead of trying to fix or dismiss them. If your music-making process feels uninspired or directionless right now, it could be because you’re not accepting the way you’re actually feeling right now. We often don’t realize it, but keeping negative feelings at bay takes a lot of energy and attention. Due to this, our creative work can suffer.
After you’ve acknowledged and sorted your feelings, the next step is creating as often and as thoughtfully possible. When you write, don’t distance yourself from what you’re going through. Experiment with seeing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to writing in a way that reflects your emotions. You can talk firsthand about your experiences through lyrics. Or, you can interpret how you’re feeling through characters, allusions, or musical ideas. There isn’t one way to go about it. It’s a process you’ll need to try yourself to see what works for you. However, something to watch out for is equating the severity of longing with the value of musical inspiration. That’s just not how it works. Write passionately and be in touch with your feelings, but recognize that you aren’t necessarily going to create incredible music because you’re stuck at home during COVID-19. It’s our job to recognize inspiration when it graces us and do the work. With talent and hard work, people will appreciate and find meaning in the music we create.
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.