I remember reading an interview with Bob Dylan once, during which he was asked his opinion on the state of the world. I don’t remember his specific words, but the gist of what he replied was, “Why are you asking me? I’m just a musician. I have opinions, but they’re no more informed than anyone else’s.”
And yet one of the things we’ve liked about Bob Dylan’s lyrics is that he’s made social commentary that resonates. He’s had a way of saying things that has made us sit up and take notice.
I’ve never heard anyone accuse Bob Dylan of being preachy. He has a way of putting his hopes and fears front and centre without sounding like he’s being overlord of our own feelings:
Come gather around people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone…
Not every good songwriter avoids criticism, however. Neil Young’s songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama” resulted in a negative response from Lynyrd Skynyrd songwriter Ronnie Van Zant through the song “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Neil Young’s “Alabama”:
Through the broken glass
Windows down in Alabama
See the old folks
Tied in white robes
Hear the banjo
Don’t it take you down home?
Van Zant’s “Sweet Home Alabama”:
Well I heard Mr. Young sing about her
Well I heard ole Neil put her down
Well I hope Neil Young will remember
A southern man don’t need him around anyhow…
When Do Lyrics Cross the Line?
The question for songwriters is this: when does a song cross the line from being a personal expression of an opinion to being preachy? And from a songwriter’s perspective, does it really matter if a song is preachy?
I don’t think a songwriter ever has to tone down their opinion of anything. I think it’s OK for a songwriter to be preachy, and I think listeners have the same right to criticize the writer for being preachy.
As a songwriter, you’re going to find that music has a way of enhancing and inflating the intensity of emotions of a song topic. Tell someone what you think, and it’s just an opinion that can be accepted or rejected, like any other opinion. But sing what you think, and your opinion becomes bigger and more intense. And much more likely to incite an emotional response.
What that means is that it’s not usually the opinion that people find preachy, but the fact that it’s been communicated through the arts – through music.
Personally, I’m completely fine with songwriters who “preach,” who use their position as a musician to communicate their message. I have easy solutions to implement when I, as a listener, don’t want to hear someone’s opinion: I turn off their song. Your audiences have the same right, and we mustn’t be surprised (or even bothered) if they avail themselves of that right.
Unless the message is one of hate or intolerance, I’m OK with anyone’s opinion. As Bob Dylan says, we’ve all got an opinion. Mine’s no better than yours, but that’s not going to stop me from saying (or playing) it.
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