Sing, Sing a Song
on honoring our creative essences in a commercial world
I keep thinking about that Carpenter’s song, “Sing.” Actually, I didn’t even know it was a Carpenter’s song until I woke up with it in my head and thought “Is that a real song or did I somehow make this up?” YouTube is made for moments like this, when you find yourself in need of an appraiser over your loose shards of childhood memory. Turns out, I didn’t write it, I just saw it on Sesame Street.
Anyway, it’s pretty and haunting and I love the message:
Sing, sing a song.
Make it simple,
To last your whole life long.
Don’t worry if it’s not good enough,
For anyone else to hear.
Just sing, sing a song.
I love how inviting it is, how it implies that anyone can have a song and not to worry too much about what other people think of it, as long as it makes you happy.
It also makes me wonder: is there such a thing as a song that can last your whole life long?
James Taylor and Joni Mitchell (you knew it was coming!) are on opposite sides of this discussion. JT is the epitome of keeping his song simple to last his whole life long. He openly says that he writes the same five songs over and over, and he has never sold a record that has sold fewer than a million copies. He understands that he has a good thing going, and has never ventured away from that.
Joni Mitchell, by contrast, has never allowed an audience or commercial demand to dictate what she creates. In her own words from 1988 interview with CBC TV’s Paul McGrath so said,
“I can only write that which I am exposed to. I’m on a journey here. I’m like a bee. I go out and I get all of the pollen of the events like all over me, and I come home and I try to make some honey with it. Whether or not the flavor suits people is something that’s beyond my control.”
The “pollen” has taken Joni everywhere, from her ode to Ludwig von Beethoven “Judgement of the Moon and Stars” to her scatting ballad “Twisted” about therapy on Court and Spark, to tribal rhythms of “Dreamland,” all the way to her jazz collaboration with Charles Mingus.
What’s interesting, though, is that even despite her adventuring, she’s still best known for her early work; the image of the ethereal blond songstress playing her dulcimer or sitting cross-legged on Mama Cass’ pillow-tufted T.V. window seat, has outlasted all of the iterations that followed.
One take on this could be that no matter how versatile you are, consumer consciousness only has enough bandwidth to accept you as one thing. After all, Arthur Conan Doyle forever rued Sherlock Holmes for overshadowing his other literary endeavors.
Another take on it could be that no matter what you create, whether you follow a formula, OR you are as experimental as some of the contestants on Martha Stewart’s original topiary competition Clipped, you have the same amount of control over how your work will be received and remembered.
So, how do we nurture our own songs? How do we hear them and stay true to them? How do we know when to share them and when to keep them to ourselves?
I’m starting to see that the only way to survive creatively is to have sort of an outer and inner song. Your simple song to last your whole life long is like a little flame you keep close to your heart that you should never, ever share with anyone else. You may use it, like a shamash, to light other candles, that may be brighter, or more fragrant, or more trendy than the original, but you must always keep the original secret, keep it safe.
I think, too, this perma-privacy around our simple songs, our creative essences, will help us honor what they really are. Most art is created with the intention of being heard, or seen, or read. But the art that we create for ourselves, that is our magic and our medicine, and that is where we get our power to create beauty and joy. It can only be found in the still, quiet places of our deepest, bravest honesty. Maybe our songs are as profound as the night sky, or maybe they’re the Macarena. Only we need to know.
PS. For more contemplations on songs and artistic process, you can pre-order my tome, Songs in Ursa Major, which is out in *less than a month ho-ly crow*! These early sales always help a new book find its footing and are very much appreciated.