Lying Through Your Lyrics: Fact And Fiction in Songwriting

Aaron J. Shay - Pyragraph

Photo courtesy of Aaron J. Shay.

Honesty isn’t always the best policy.

I admire stand-up comics who revel in their own personal indignities onstage. It is a unique art, that sort of humbling comedy. Tearing one’s self down for the sake of entertaining others and for the sake of revealing something more universal about existence, it cannot be easy. Especially as one accumulates notoriety. And I cannot imagine what it would be like to negotiate the boundaries of that kind of work with friends and family. The format is so profoundly public, and the content is so intensely intimate.

The world of fiction is a chosen world.

For my part, I try to distort any personal details that make their way into songs and bury them under several layers of fiction and metaphor. If I play a song on stage, I absolutely never want anyone standing out in the crowd to know (or believe) that the song is about them. That situation is a distraction, for me and for the other person. I want to have the freedom to write about my experiences without causing unintended stress to those who are listening. And yet, I still want to tell a compelling story.

The artist Amanda Palmer has likened this phenomenon of abstraction to the levels on a blender. The higher the level, the greater the distortion, the deeper the abstraction. You can’t tell which post-blended bits correspond to the pre-blended bits. At the lower level, the artist is pretty much describing their personal experience and sharing their message, without barrier, without artifice.

For authors, this abstraction and distortion usually comes in the form of fictionalization. Even when written from the first-person perspective, it is presumed that their narrative is largely imaginary. Yet for songwriters, especially those of us who are of the acoustic persuasion, it is often presumed that the stories we sing about are true, until proven otherwise. The archetypal singer-songwriter, the one you just imagined when you saw the word “singer-songwriter” in this sentence, is the image that was established during the 60s counterculture movement and has been peddled by record labels and mainstream storytelling ever since.

“This person sings from personal experience. This person doesn’t distort or abstract their story. This person is telling the truth.”

But, as the Greshwins might say, it ain’t necessarily so. Fiction is a fantastic tool for any creator. It’s a distortion pedal for the mind. Fiction lets you rearrange the world in a new order, in a new shape, to brings things to the fore that might otherwise be overlooked or underrepresented. The world of fiction is a chosen world. And it’s not just for novelists. It’s for all artists, from the painters to the lyricists.

So, what world will your next work create? Let me know in the comments.

Aaron J. Shay

About Aaron J. Shay

Aaron J. Shay  is a writer, performer, and musician from the Pacific Northwest. An active and independent recording artist, Shay has self- and co-produced 8 EPs since 2010, some for his own projects and some for his friends and collaborators. More recently, he has been active in theater, writing/producing two one-man singer-songwriter shows, and also serving as musical director for fringe productions. Shay currently lives in Seattle, WA, where he doesn’t mind the weather.

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