Write What You Know

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Half a decade ago, I wrote a blog post about the Uncanny Valley of songwriting that triggered a special kind of rage which compelled me to write several thousand words.  Recently, the same spidey-sense that inspired that essay was triggered again, but now I’m older and wiser and our culture has better language to explain why it bothers me so much.  

For those of you who aren’t massive nerds, the Uncanny Valley is an aesthetics concept that comes up most frequently in digital animation and robotics.  It’s the idea that there’s a point where an image looks almost completely human but is lacking the tiny micro-expressions that an actual person is constantly making and thus creeps out the viewer.  Think: That creepy-ass baby from the last Twilight movie.  There’s something wrong with that baby.

No.

No.

In songwriting, this concept applies to songs that are written for a particular demographic without any input from the song’s target audience.  This is especially unsettling in country music, where you often hear songs written by middle-aged men meant to be performed and listened to by young women.  Because they’re writing a song for a “teenage girl” archetype rather than an actual human being, the song doesn’t resonate with real teenage girls, even when another young woman is singing the song. To anyone who’s ever been a teenaged girl at some point in their life, hearing a young woman parrot the words of a 40-something man is unsettling. Somewhere along the way, the perspective of young women in songs loses its humanity and becomes a generic echo of what some men think women are thinking.  

This then leads to the “women just don’t sell” bullshit on the industry side.  It’s not that women don’t sell, it’s that a poor facsimile of a woman (or human being) doesn’t sell.  And you know why it doesn’t sell?  Because it’s condescending and presumptuous bullshit.

I am completely behind the saying “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”  I have so many songs that are melodramatic reinterpretations of various real-life experience because departing from the truth made these songs more interesting or relatable.  And I certainly don’t think that men can’t write songs for women to sing.  But when you write a song for a “woman” rather than a person, you’re reducing a human being to all of your worst stereotypes of what you perceive their demographic to be.  There may be no malice in this attempt to write for someone who doesn’t look like you, but there is a callous level of carelessness.

I recently heard a song written with a teenage female audience in mind that totally raised my hackles.  The main character of the song speaks almost entirely in emojis and compares boys to footwear to be tried on and thrown aside when they don’t work out.  I don’t think the writers went into the writing room thinking, “Teenage girls are so shitty.  Let’s mock them.”  But that’s the song they wrote.

If the writers were lucky enough to know any teenagers, they’d realize that, yes, they do have their own slang and rely way more on text for communication than their elders probably do. They might also realize that while youths often lack wisdom and experience, they are also some of the most deeply emotional, sensitive, and thoughtful members of our community.  This current generation of young people is incredibly politically and socially conscious in a way that I never was at their age - even as the treasurer of my high school’s feminist collective.  The teenage girls I’ve been lucky enough to get to know through mentorship programs are emotionally intelligent human beings who are acutely aware of the humanity of young men and gender non-binary people they’re growing up with, in part, I suspect, because they also desire and deserve to have their own humanity recognized by men and adults around them.  Some of them are image conscious and enjoy fashion and make up, but their personalities aren’t limited to that; one girl wants to be on the Supreme Court, another wants to start a rock band, and all of them want to make our world a better place.

The song I heard the other day failed to recognize the humanity of its main character.  While the writers may have intended to say something about being young and having fun, what they actually said was “Give us your money, you stupid cellphone-loving little tart.”  Not only do they presume to understand the motivations and feelings of someone they clearly don’t know (and couldn’t be arsed to get to know), they’re demonstrating to their audience that they - as writers (and maybe as people) - don’t view teenage girls as full and complete humans.

The women that do “sell” and have real staying power sing songs that have nothing to do with their gender.  Sometimes, they do have songs that are about a particularly female experience, but those are usually written with a woman in the room and they work because they ring true to 51% of the population.  But most are just about human things: love, loss, heartache, wanderlust, frustration.  

This brings me to the best and most surprisingly nuanced writing advice I’ve ever received: Write what you know.  It doesn’t mean you can’t write songs for people who don’t look like you.  It doesn’t mean you can only write about something you have directly experienced.  I means you should write from your human experience.  

How we are perceived—our gender, race, ethnicity, income, sexual orientation, mental health, and so many other factors—can dramatically change our experience in the world.  I don’t point this out to minimize or dismiss the differences between individuals because, despite our differences, we all share a core humanity. I’ll never understand what it’s like to try to navigate American society as a person of color, just as my male partner will never know what it’s like to go into a doctor’s office and be told “it’s not pain, it’s just pressure”—an experience common amongst women. A songwriter’s job is to tap into the humanity which is woven in between these experiences.  Music leaps across all kinds of borders and divides.  When you write what you know - what we all know - you bridge the gap between people that can only be traversed by music.

My advice for the 40-something male writer in the room: The next time your cowriter says, “Let’s write a song for a teenage girl,” lean on your experiences with new love and heartache, because your teenage audience is human and has probably dealt with those emotions too.  If there is one thing that’s true about being a teenager, it’s that those emotions are both more intense and feel more important.  The immediacy and intensity of feelings at that age ultimately makes being a vapid, careless phone addict hard to relate to.

This is, of course, all coming from the perspective of a white lady. And you can always write whatever you want. Who am I to tell anyone what to do? If you feel called to write about or from the perspective of someone with dramatically different experiences to you, do it consciously and always keep in mind that no human being’s identity is solely defined by their demographic, and especially not by a stereotype.

So, yeah.  Write what you know.

And hire more women.

As you can see, I was once a very cool, not at all nerdy teenager, so I know what the kids like.

As you can see, I was once a very cool, not at all nerdy teenager, so I know what the kids like.