When Good Guys Talk Nasty: The Use Of Other Voices In Writing
It was many years ago, I was with two guitarists and we were in a rehearsal studio, looking to recruit a lead singer for the band we were planning to form. In came the guy I had talked to on the telephone a week before, an idealistic young man, a little too confident about what was right and wrong, perhaps, but determined to put positive energy into the world; to project social content and moral values through his voice, and make a difference. He was a singer into a wide range of music, from rhythm and blues to rock, and he had already successfully fronted a multiracial band in New Jersey, which had just recently broken up. Unfortunately, the one and only original we showed him was something I had written which, at first glance, was utterly frightening: a piece presented in the voice of a psychopath, who was enamored of violence and disrespected the right of others to live. In retrospect, what happened next was nothing less than comedy at its best. The idealist seemed surprised, then disgusted, then began to walk out on us. My attempts to explain the song were futile, he regarded us like we were some kind of KKK maniacs, or Idaho survivalists standing above our bomb shelter with loaded semi-automatics. Well, I guess our appearance didnít help: me and the lead guitarist coming off like a sinister version of ZZ Top, and our rhythm guitar, a bit like a psychotic David Byrne.
For some reason, this incident ate me up for weeks thereafter. When your intentions are good, it is really terrible to be misunderstood, and misidentified, taken to be the very opposite of who you really are.
Of course, I had not meant the lyrics of the song I wrote to be taken at face value. Instead, the song I had written was meant to clarify, expose, and bring to the light, the cruel and dark dynamics that sometimes surface from the depths of the human soul to twist things like pride and patriotism out of shape, and leave racism and xenophobia in their place. The song was not written from the perspective of the outraged critic, like Dylanís "Masters of War", or from the point of view of the sad observer, like Buffy Saint- Marieís "Universal Soldier"; and it was not written in the third person like the Beatlesí "Nowhere Man" - "Heís a real nowhere man, living in his nowhere landÖ" Instead, it was written in the first person, "I", in the manner of Dostoevskyís nameless narrator from Notes From The Underground, or Mick Jaggerís Lucifer from "Sympathy For The Devil." And it was written in the voice of a man who represented the very opposite of what I stood for. In this case, my artistic approach was not to establish an internal critical voice within the song, but to leave the "narratorís" unevolved voice to speak for itself - raw, and unedited. It was my belief that the tone of his voice - exaggerated and frightening - would trigger the natural critical capacities of the listener in a far more powerful way than if the narratorís voice were already judged or condemned within the song itself.
To make an example: which of the following verses is more powerful?
"He likes to shoot
he likes to kill
he thinks heís fine
but heís really ill."
"I love to shoot
cause I like to see things die
right by my boots."
In the first case, a critic and observer is planted within the song, and while he makes sure the listener gets the writerís point of view, he also tends to insulate the listener from the full impact of the madman who is the songís subject. Itís like the listener does not have to face the madman alone, he and the writer are already ganging up on him, and working together to neutralize his terrible power. But in the case of the second verse, the listener is left alone, unprotected, and must deal with the full force of the madman on his own. The artistís criticism of the madman is submerged within the madmanís own voice, and projected by its tone, which should arouse a sense of horror and indignation from all but the truly psychopathic.
Although it is generally more practical, and certainly more common, to render a social criticism in the style of verse 1, whenever an artist is able to successfully carry off a criticism in the style of verse 2, it is infinitely more powerful. (Of course, the naked voice of a victim could be just as powerful, and less subject to misinterpretation, than the voice of the perpetrator, although each of these voices would cover different aspects of the phenomenon, and would, therefore, not be equivalent in terms of their use.) Unfortunately, the style-2 approach is not always easy to pull off. Not only do we have the example of my own moment of being mistaken for a backwoods goon (like the kind who blew away "Easy Rider"), we have innumerable examples of other "nasty voices" gone wrong. Take "Sympathy For The Devil", by Mick Jagger and Keith Richard, a song about Lucifer, written in the first-person. In one way, this song could be taken as a vivid warning about the power of evil; and yet, for many others, and perhaps for the Rolling Stones, themselves, it also became an opportunity to flirt with the power of evil, a momentary chance to escape from the constraints of conventional morality and to actively identify with the Devil. Certainly many, including songwriter and musician Don McLean, blamed this song and the energy it created for helping to produce the catastrophe at Altamont, the 1969 rock concert policed by the Hellís Angels, which was devastated by violence and bad drugs. "No angel born in Hell, could break that Satanís spellÖ ("American Pie.") Two decades later, the same could be said for Madonnaís "Material Girl", which, though it was said to be a parody of materialistic values, was taken at face value by many, and considered to be nothing less than an anthem of material values. "They can beg and they can plead/But they canít see the light, thatís right/Cause the boy with the cold hard cash/Is always Mister Right, cause we are/Living in a material world/And Iím a material girl."
Not written and/or performed with precision, the first-person nasty-voice, as a form of constructive social commentary, often misses the mark, supporting the very values it is supposed to be at war with!
Naturally, this whole question does not apply only to songwriting. In novels and plays, authors face the same opportunities and dilemmas. In cases, the artist creates a character who is greedy or vain or lustful, to such an absurd or exaggerated extent, that he becomes a comic figure who guides us towards moral behavior by making us see the foolishness of certain tendencies which we, ourselves, possess. Comedy is often a very clear way of projecting social content. Once one enters into the realm of drama, however, the task often becomes more difficult. Just the same as with songwriting, if the negative character is clearly defined as negative by the voice of a critical narrator or observer, or else by the vivid portrayal of his damaging effect upon other characters for whom we have developed some sympathy, there will be little room for confusion. The lesson projected by this character will be quite obvious. Unfortunately, the lesson will be clearest when the character is portrayed in a one-dimensional way, rather in the manner of a cartoon character (such as The Joker, or Lex Luthor, or Ming the Merciless). In more psychologically deep art, which seeks to develop and portray realistic characters, it is likely that the villains will become more complex, and even develop some potential for generating sympathy or understanding. The more fully an author works with his villains/negative influences, the more likely it is that this will take place. The price of bringing us closer to reality, and shedding light upon the motivations of the behavior that disturbs us - which is infinitely helpful in seeking to deter that behavior - may be that the negative character becomes too "likable", and that some readers lose their ability to discern the intention of the author, and the will to fully mobilize their conscience against the behavior which is being condemned. Opportunities for misunderstanding and misperception increase.
Consider, for example, the following villain, a man who takes out a gun and begins shooting everyone in sight:
Version 1: "With no regard to the lives of the innocent, to the mothers and fathers whose children these were, to the sons and daughters whose parents these were, to the husbands and wives, and the grief that he held in his hands, he began to shoot indiscriminately into the crowd, blind with hate, reveling in the blood and screams that rose up all around him."
Version 2: "Wild-eyed, crazed with pain, he pulled out the gun and opened fire on the astonished crowd of shoppers, passers-bye, and kids hanging out in the street. ĎYeah, cry now, you bastards, for your own skins, you never cry for anybodyís but your own! You put bullet holes into my heart, so, hereís yours! Yeah go on cry, Iím crying, too, with an M-16!í And as the dying and despair rose up all around him, he somehow felt as though a crown were being placed upon his head, and for as long as he could keep on shooting he would be a king. And somehow it seemed to them that, with their blood, they were finally accepting him."
Neither one of the two versions is better or worse, they are just different takes, driving at different points. While the first is concentrated on the victims, and hugs their pain, diminishing the killer to heighten the effect of the murdered innocents, the second focuses on the motives of the killer, seeking not only to give some sense of the carnage he is creating, but also some sense of what is going on inside his mind. The value of this take is that it provides some useful insights into the origin of some forms of violence, insights which society may attempt to use to defend itself in the future. On the other hand, this version also risks losing the full human value of the victims, and risks offending some by seeming to take too much interest in the killer, relative to those he killed; while some might even be able to misconstrue the killer as some kind of unconventional hero, or, God forbid, a role model!
In my story "Past-Life On Trial", also, here, in the Creative Safehouse (see Short Stories), I present a character, guilty of committing terrible acts, in a complex manner, presenting his point of view in a way that may offend some, yet which helps me to develop a larger point about the complexity of the human psyche, itself, and the nature and role of justice, both human and divine. As always, there is risk in this approach.
Honestly, I have no strong closing for this article, other than to say that good guys do, indeed, sometimes talk nasty, and speak through characters of varying degrees of darkness, to make their points. I feel that this artistic approach may, at times, have great value, though it may also, very easily, be misinterpreted, or miss the mark. (And at other times, it may merely be used as a cover to vent oneís own negative emotions.) Although it is only one variation for attempting to make a point, I feel that it is a worthwhile tool for any artist to maintain in his arsenal. And I would like the world, at large, to become more aware of this tool, so that we who employ it need not fear being stoned because of the characters we sometimes invent, as the unlikely accomplices of our mission of peace and love.
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