As a teenager I remember how viscerally I was drawn to Carly Simon and her confessional style of lyric writing. Every candid disclosure (“That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” “Anticipation”) made me feel closer to her even when her admissions weren’t pretty or strong — especially when they weren’t pretty or strong — because she trusted me with her secrets. Her honesty about her own emotional vulnerabilities and weakness was an integral part of her craft. Nobody did it better. It was Carly’s superpower.
Then there was Bob Dylan, who wasn’t anything like Carly. (Can you imagine Bob crooning “Anticipation?”) Yet … wow. He cut right to the bone. It was brutal and brilliant! Nobody did it like Bob. It was his superpower.
Taylor Swift is a master at channeling the hearts and minds of young women in love — and those who want to be. And then there’s Joni’s Mitchell’s insightfulness. Burt Bacharach’s melodies. Bruno Mars’ soul. Pharrell Williams’ joy.
It’s tempting to want to jump into someone else’s lane, especially when we admire their work. In fact, I came up with a term for these kind of songs: WIWI, as in “wish-I-wrote-it.” But just because I wish I wrote “I Can’t Make You Love Me” doesn’t meant I could have done it as well as Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin. One size does not fit all.
No doubt I adopted a confessional palate from Carly Simon but I’d like to think I accessorize my work through my own personal lens. If you read this column regularly, you won’t be surprised to learn that I spend quite a bit of time pondering my inner workings and trying to accept myself as I am — flaws and all. So perhaps that’s my superpower: writing about self-identity and vulnerability. Looking back, I can see that out of the thousands of songs I’ve penned in my professional career, the handful that have struck the strongest chord (no pun intended) and have also garnered the greatest commercial success have been the ones that have circled those introspections.
It took a while to realize that I’m better at writing the personal stuff than the party song. Sometimes I wish it were the other way around. But I’ve come to accept that party songs are simply not my thing.
Have you ever thought about what your superpower is? Doing so requires that you step back from your work and consider which of your songs have resonated most deeply with listeners … and why. Identifying that thing you do best can be a lifesaver when you’ve ventured too far out of your zone and lost your way. Knowing what that power is can help you get back on the right path.
This concept doesn’t pertain to music-making alone, either. In a Muddy Colors article entitled “What Makes Your Art Unique,” visual artist Dan Luvisi writes, “Every artist has their own unique and individual style. If you know how to recognize it, and can perfect or master it, that’s what allows you to stand out before anyone else. … What’s important not to do, is try to mimic someone (else’s) style because you simply enjoy it.”
Let’s face it. In this this algorithm-centric music-creating culture, it’s tempting to follow the leader and forget that our most important asset is our own voice, our own nuanced way of looking at the world, love, friendship, intimacy, values … life. Better to ask ourselves what sets us apart instead of how can we blend in.
So open your closet. Find your one-of-a-kind red cape. Dust it off and trust it. It’s a good bet you’ll wear it well.
You can read a new From the Muse blog on the second Monday of every month. Check out Shelly’s other postings.