Sunday, June 30, 2013

Don't lie in your song

Ever since I first heard Conor Oberst's (Bright Eyes) "No Lies, Just Love" a number of years ago, I've been ambivalent about it. The subject is attempted suicide, always a winner in my book. The ending was a letdown, but that didn't fully explain my reaction.

Tonight it finally hit me: the song is a lie, from beginning to end.

It's virtually a parody of the suicide motif. Oberst's narrator asks his family to forgive him, says his (still unstated) act was not their fault, delays his plan in order to enjoy a spring day, then cancels it altogether when his friend threatens to follow suit. The song ends with the narrator, fully redeemed, holding a baby in his arms, promising the newborn "no lies, just love".


A good suicide song doesn't have a happy ending.

A good suicide song doesn't ignore the suicider's pain.

A good suicide song doesn't deliver a stupid moral.

You want to know a good suicide song? Try "The Ledge" by the Replacements or "Song for Adam" by Jackson Browne.

You want to write a song against suicide? Fine. Say something meaningful in it. Truly believe life is worth the living. Say so in a way that convinces me, too.

Don't claim somebody guilt-tripped your protagonist into pulling out of the deed. Don't have your protagonist solemnly swear to be a force for life and love as he stares into a baby's eyes. In other words, don't write Hallmark-card drivel.

You don't contemplate suicide unless you're in deep, deep pain. You don't stop thinking about suicide in a flash. If you survive — either because you never quite reach the brink, or your attempt fails — the pain remains. As a songwriter, the least you can do is to respect that. Paul Westerberg and Jackson Browne did.

I don't happen to believe suicide is wrong. I think there are times and reasons it could be a valid response to pain, physical or psychological. I know most people don't agree. I know most people think everything that can be done to prevent it, should be done.

I'm okay with that.

What I won't stand for is sentimentalizing it.

No lies, Conor.

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