In the age of 24hour blog angst and the prevailing wisdom that we have all been ‘fucked up’ by our parents, or society, or something, it seems to have become quite OK to throw out the stiff upper lip, and let everyone about how we’re so miserable, or why on earth we just can’t seem to make a relationship work.
An unfortunate consequence of this has been a rash of indulgent singer-songwriters singing bland dirges that have more in common with 90s boy bands than folk and protest, the traditions that first inspired Woody Guthrie, and eventually Bob Dylan. However, it needn’t be the case that singing about personal experiences should mean sounding like James Morrisson.
Although folk singers had always sung politically motivated songs, it was surely Guthrie’s experience travelling with job-seeking migrants through the Deep South in the 30s that made his vaguely socialist agitations so direct and inspiring to so many.
However, as the folk-protest song exerted a greater influence over young people into the 60s, personal experience seemed to be less important. Often the concerns of these singers were universal – Bob Dylan, as the leader of that movement, has, much to his own disdain, been endlessly referred to as the ‘voice of a generation’ for his articulation of the dissatisfaction of counter-cultural America at that time.
Eventually, as Dylan began to feel constrained by his own revered status, he began to pioneer a far more introspective style. Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith joined him in producing music that would come to be described (often derisively) as ‘confessional’ and ‘sensitive’. This change would coincide with considerable stylistic innovation, which set a new standard for the kind of originality that could occur in the singer-songwriter genre. In particular, Patti Smith’s daringly aggressive fusion of punk rock and accomplished, visceral poetry was influential with artists from Sonic Youth to KT Tunstall citing her album Horses as a significant influence.
These changes, while often motivated by a simple desire for ‘something new’, were not without their personal motivations. While the breakdown of Dylan’s marriage was the well documented starting point for much of Blood on the Tracks lyrical content, Joni Mitchell’s often improvised, free vocal noodling and startlingly optimistic lyrics were informed by a turbulent love life that lurched from divorce (her surname was taken from her husband) to the heart breaking decision to give up her child to adoption. The lines ‘My child’s a stranger/I bore her/But I could not raise her’, from ‘Chinese Café’ are probably her most overt ‘confession’ of this.
In another famous example, Leonard Cohen was recently forced to admit that his song ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’, including the lyric ‘Giving me head on the unmade bed’, refers to his short-lived affair with Janis Joplin.
It would be easy to label that first period of introspection a ‘golden age’ of the singer-songwriter, but with the recent successes of Elliott Smith, and now Bon Iver, it seems that the sensitive singer-songwriter is definitely back in. Smith’s infamous struggles with drug addiction and depression that eventually killed him contrast with his deceptively optimistic, pop-influenced song-writing, while Bon Iver’s experience in a remote cabin in Wisconsin is a well-documented influence on his soulful writing.
It’s hard to pinpoint where the line lies between indulgence and intimacy in singer-songwriters. For many songwriters, a new song is cathartic, a way of coming to terms with something personal. In the wrong hands, this can be awful – no matter how beautiful the subject of James Blunt’s notorious first single, I can’t sympathise with his mass-produced heart-ache. In the right hands however, a well written, personal song can resonate with our own experience, and provide something timeless in a way that more trend-driven pop music cannot.
As Guthrie’s wife once said, speaking to the crowd at one of her husband’s concerts in 1949, ‘It’s nice to think that a voice can be heard today that can communicate to you one thing, and twenty-five years from now will still mean something to somebody else’. She could not have been more right.