Let me get this out of the way right off the bat. There’s no way for an artist to completely separate their experiences, opinions, and creative tendencies from the work they make. But in music, it’s important that we try. At the very least, we learn to recognize how our identities shape the work we create.
A never-ending idea we have to think about as songwriters is the role our music takes on once we share it with people. If you make music just for fun and never share it with a single person, it’s completely yours. This means there’s no pressure to relate to other people through it. But the second you sell it or even make it available online to listen to for free, it becomes something completely different. How can musicians maintain their authentic perspectives while creating music that resonates with other people?
There isn’t an easy answer to this, honestly. It’s a delicate balance that many artists spend years trying to find. However, the inevitable place we all have to start figuring it out is by looking inward at our identities as musicians and the goals we have for our music. If you’re hellbent on becoming a conventionally successful songwriter, then objectivity should be a critical part of your process for creating music. But even if your goals for making music are purely based on creative expression and fulfillment, objectivity is still important if you plan on sharing your music.
No matter what kind of musician you fancy yourself or your goals as a songwriter, the process of creating is probably deeply personal for you on some level. This is why when negative reviews come our way, or, potentially worse, our music gets ignored, it can be so painful. Since it’s impossible on some level for us not to put ourselves into the music we create, it hurts when it’s not accepted the way we wish it would be. But this is exactly why objectivity is so important. It’s about realizing that what we create will eventually be listened to, and asking honestly and frankly what’s in it for our audience. When you write something, would you listen to it?
The worlds we build in and around our music have the power to make deep and lasting connections with audiences, or just the opposite. In the same way that people outside of your close friend group aren’t privy to inside jokes and old stories, listeners can be alienated when what we create doesn’t leave room for them to be invited into the experiences we’re delivering through music. But creating with sole intention of pleasing anyone and everyone will probably result in music that sounds hollow and disconnected from meaningful human experiences. Like I said, it takes a difficult balancing act to create authentically while keeping objectivity in mind.
Objectivity is important not just for shaping our music, but also for helping us to decide what songs are worth sharing in the first place. When I started making music, a creative friend advised me not to let anything “become my baby.” He was essentially warning me against seeing too much of myself in my songs in ways that would result in me sharing sub-par work. Every time we create something, we should be asking whether what we’re making actually has promise or not.
There’s no avoiding feeling connected to what we create, but that doesn’t mean that all the music we make is worth sharing with the world. Embracing objectivity can help us determine what songs have true potential and which ones don’t. If you’re already trying to do this with your songwriting, you know how hard it can be. Songs you are crazy about can fall completely flat. Yet, others you didn’t feel particularly connected to can go on to mean something to listeners. In other words, you’re not always going to get it right when it comes to objectivity, and that’s okay. Remembering to make it a central part of the way we create music is the important thing. It’s about knowing the importance of what audiences think, feel, and want to hear while making music from an authentic place that is unique to you and your experiences. It’s not easy, but that’s songwriting for you.
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.