It is often said that “writing is rewriting”. Regardless of whether it is a book, a play, a poem, etc., this rule is generally thought of as absolute truth. Artwork is still work and there is no space for anything but productivity and perfection. Generally, I’d agree with this sentiment. A film can be ruined by one bad scene, so it is important to edit and make sure there aren’t any. In a play, a performer must make sure they understand exactly how to convey a character’s inner struggle outward or the audience might get lost. Yet, when it comes to music, I have trouble agreeing with the idea that everything must be worked and reworked and rethought… To me, music didn’t have to be perfect. After thinking about the subject for a long time, I think I now know why.
Before I get started, I’d just like to preface this article by saying that music, like all art, is completely subjective. What is an amazing song to me can possibly be an unlistenable song to someone else and neither one of us would be wrong. If art were quantifiable, then it wouldn’t be art. Now, I may have strong opinions, but I am not trying to accuse anyone of being wrong. That being said, what exactly is my opinion on perfection in music?
To best verbalize how I feel, let me start off with a metaphor. Imagine a person at a desk, working on some big project. Their phone rings, they pick it up. Whatever is said to them makes them angry—real angry—and they slam their fist down on the right side of their desk. The sound is weak. It isn’t loud, it doesn’t reverberate, and it sounds anticlimactic. After hearing more details from whoever is calling, they slam their fist on the desk again, this time on the left side. For whatever reason, the left side sounds grand. It’s so loud that coworkers start to look, clueless as to what could make such a loud sound. It sounds dramatic.
I’m sure that most people probably feel that the left side of the desk better reflects this person’s inner turmoil, for it being louder and more dramatic. However, if someone were to ask me which side of the desk better reflected how this person felt, I would say it was the right side of the desk. It may not sound as loud or as grandiose as the other side, but the right side was a better depiction of the impulsiveness, impotence, and general helplessness that this person was feeling. It was what naturally happened. The left side may sound more cinematic but that is exactly the problem. In this case, it isn’t what the person is feeling, it’s what the person wants to feel.
How does this metaphor apply to music? When producing a song, most artists make absolutely sure that every sound is exactly what they’re looking for; and with the miracles of modern technology, the perfect sound is now more attainable than ever. I’m not trying to insult any artists who do this, as perfection has its obvious value. Why include any mistakes in your songs if you can just get rid of them? Why play live in the studio when it’s easier to record one instrument at a time? Those are all valid points, but I personally feel that it takes away just what makes music so special. Music, at its best, is a pure depiction of how it is just to feel something. Unlike literature, there is no story needed to create feelings. The song is the emotion. And our emotions aren’t always larger than life and dramatic. Emotions can be aimless, complicated, and sometimes hard to handle. They aren’t exactly what we want them to be, so why should music be?
With a multitude of special effects and production apps available online, I could make an instrument sound exactly how I want it to. A song may have been written as a way to put how a songwriter feels into music, the song would be more of a representation of how the writer wanted to feel. There are no sour notes, no voice cracks, no mistakes. This is just not how most people feel and act. People make mistakes, they get confused, feel awkward, and generally are not perfect. Why shouldn’t music reflect this?
Am I advocating that every artist just make careless music? Of course not. I just feel that any mistakes that come naturally while playing a song shouldn’t be automatically edited out. Mistakes help keep songs honest. A song might want to sound cool but as soon as a wrong note is played all ideas of the performer being perfect are disproven. The song becomes a true reflection of how the artist is feeling, and not how they want to feel. It is a reflection of what they really are, not what they’re portraying to be.
Again, I’m not saying that all artists should commit to making imperfect music. Perfect music has its place. There is a value to simplifying emotions, as there are times when emotions can be non-complex. Sometimes people just feel happy, so a cheesy and happy song can be a great reflection of this. The problem to me personally is when music starts to reflect only these aspects of humanity. While there are many songs with lyrics describing being an imperfect person, lyrics are only one part of a song. Lyrics about imperfection with a perfect backing track are like being told about something second hand. All the facts are the same, but the delivery isn’t. And seeing how an artist’s performance can completely change a song’s feeling, the entire experience changes.