Many have already described the writing of songs. Tom Waits believed you had to ambush them, hunt them down, and then skin them. Neil Young has a saying that goes something like this: if you are patient enough to contact a reservoir high above the clouds, the finished song will eventually rain down on you. Jeff Tweedy, on the other hand, is “pretty sure it’s ME doing the work”. Just wondering who that is and what job he’s doing there.
Literary studies have the nice word production aesthetics ready for such cases. For as long as it has existed, it has pursued the question of who or what speaks from texts and how the gradual elaboration of thoughts takes place while writing, whereby the assumption of a divine spark has long since given way to the simple workshop report. In the broader arena of pop culture, on the other hand, the prevailing view still prevails that making songs is not a question of technique, but rather a kind of mystical process in which secret messages are received by a privileged being. Jeff Tweedy, head and songwriter of the band Wilco, is doing long overdue educational work on this point.
In his book How to Write a Song, Tweedy approaches things from the technical side. If you want to try your hand at songwriting, you should first lower your expectations: distrust the legend of the drunken genius! Don’t want to be Bob Dylan! Instead, let virtues like consistency and routine become a habit. To be a worker in the song’s vineyard. Of course it doesn’t work without inspiration, the famous muse still plays a role, but she is by no means as moody as she is said to be. On the contrary: You can invite them, court them, if necessary even outwit them.
Opening the door to the creative process, that’s what Tweedy calls it. It’s a pleasantly practice-oriented guide that he unrolls in 24 chapters, tips for the right lifestyle: Get some fresh air too! Get up early! Don’t go to bed too late! In between, think about your partner. The fact that a pedagogical streak shines through may have biographical reasons: Tweedy, a well-known figure in his profession, had to struggle with alcohol problems for years, which he described in great detail in his first book, an autobiography. In this respect, his “Young Man’s Guide to Songwriting” can also be read as a private aesthetic sobriety program.
And yet it is about more than just another piece of advice literature. Where Tweedy gets to grips with the concrete writing process, he comes pretty close to the poetics of the song. He thinks about the correct use of adjectives, devotes himself to the question of where theft is allowed and where it isn’t, but he also gets fundamental from time to time. The song, as Tweedy understands it, springs from an interplay of concentration and lack of intention, it is, in other words, an art of the moment in which skill and experience play as big a part as a willingness to deviate from one’s own imagination to the wrong place to get caught. Similarities with Zen Buddhist practices and the free association of psychoanalysis are intended.
Not that the song is reinvented here. Homer and other campfire poets are summoned as ancestors. Even Bob Dylan, who hovered saintly above things, and in the end there is no avoiding it, has already been said to have short-circuited American songs with techniques from the European avant-garde: streams of consciousness, inner monologues, speaking in roles and masks.
From the mid-1960s, methods like these drove out the naivety of pop songs and opened up new avenues for them. However, while Dylan would retreat into his self-created mystery in the face of the many performers who have haunted him over the years, Tweedy provides a guide to DIY.
Cut-up techniques, spontaneous montages, automatic writing, random arrangements – what the arsenal of literary modernity has to offer also appears in his work, but he robs the whole of his priestly consecration. To write songs, Tweedy says, you don’t have to be a member of Dead Poets Society, it’s literally anyone’s job: all it takes is a guitar, a piece of paper and the will to live the moment with the people hold on to the available resources. Of course, that’s not the way to get the Nobel Prize for Literature. But a few floors down, it’s often even more liberated to work.