Issue #81 / January 2020
Do you need to be hurt or mentally ill to be a great artist?
LATABAN, ENSENADA, MEXICO
What makes a great song?
MILA, AMSTERDAM, HOLLAND
Dear Lataban and Mila,
It seems to me that many of the great artists, especially in music, appear to possess a wildly conflicted sense of themselves, yet persistently pursue their own uniqueness, even when it runs at odds with the orthodoxies of the day. They tend to be outliers, abyss-gazers and misfits, whose sense of isolation is further amplified by their notoriety, and who use their art as a way of connecting to people and legitimising their own strangeness. They understand, on some level, that it is the nature of their vocation to steal across the borders of convention, collect up ideas and bring them back to the world. This requires a certain reckless spirit and it may be that some spend too long on the other side and that it becomes difficult for them to return. However, whether any of this is actual mental illness, I don’t know. This term feels too elastic, too nebulous to comment.
Whether being hurt is a necessary requirement to creativity is only true in so much as to live is partly to suffer. You cannot create without suffering, because you cannot live without suffering. One of the jobs of a songwriter, as I see it, is to develop strategies to help people transcend their sorrows. This is the unique duality of a great song – that it can reflect back at the listener the extent of their own hurt, yet lift them beyond it at the same time. How often have we wept ourselves to transcendence through music?
Part of the process for the songwriter is to stay alert to the nature of their own wounds without indulging them, to gravitate towards happiness when possible, to venture beyond convention and acceptability without losing oneself, to understand that our most treasured beliefs exist on the far side of what we think we know, and to go there cautiously, yet fearlessly and, perhaps most importantly of all, to remember to return.