Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Living In A Mood So Blue: The Confessional Singer-Songwriter/Poet

Published in 'Off Kilter: The Cult Archive', 2008

I tapped my own head:
it was glass, an inverted bowl.
It is a small thing
to rage in your own bowl.
At first it was private.
Then it was more than myself:
it was you, or your house
or your kitchen
- 'To John Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further' Anne Sexton

To confess in a religious sense is to ask forgiveness. It is a private and often anonymous process between confessor and God. To confess in a literary sense is less about forgiveness than it is a reflection on the confessional process. The two texts that would be placed first in a confessional cannon, if there ever were to be one, would surely be St. Augustine's Confessions and Rousseau's 'Confessions'. Both would set up the 'I' as knowingly subjective and very much comfortable with such subjectivity. Confessional writing would become more widespread in the Cold War politics of the 1950's when there was a clear contradiction between what citizens saw to be true and what they were toldto be true. To write confessionally, to write from the 'I' within was, in many ways, a reaction against the Orwellian half-truths produced by politics. To immerse yourself in your own subjectivity, to basically state that the only truth you know is your own, is to reject grand narratives and reclaim the individual experience as a site of artistic interest.
Perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings of the confessional position is that it completely negates culture in favour of a single-minded narcissism. But as I mention above, confessional writing rose out of culture as much as it was produced by individuals. It is an artistic response that involves culture but refuses to speak from an empirical or objective viewpoint because no such viewpoint exists. In this way, it owes something to Nietzsche and Foucault's consideration of the genealogy of knowledge and the instability of truth. There is no such thing as a pure knowledge or a pure truth.
It seems a shame then, that confessional writing is often reduced to the pointless ramblings of some mad bitch with no artistic integrity. Of course, the rise of whiny emo musicians and trashy newspaper kiss-and-tell's hasn't helped. For me through, the true meaning of confessional writing remains philosophically and academically rigorous, particularly in line with post-structuralism and post-modernism. It is an acceptance that the individual cannot quite view themselves outside the ideological forces that have constructed them; therefore, it deals in partial truths, in unreliable narration, in a scepticism of the notion of an authoritative self. However, what confessional writing cannot avoid in its alliance with post-structuralism is that other claim that language can never fully encapsulate meaning due to its slippery elusive nature. Perhaps this gap is one that the confessional singer-songwriter can fill due to their access to, not only language but also, sound.
It is in sound that the confessional singer-songwriter can truly hand meaning over to the listener. Unlike lyrics, sound resists inscription and seems to speak to a more visceral, even semiotic, part of ourselves. I'm not suggesting that the lyrics of the confessional singer-songwriter does not only have an ability to emotionally affect the listener. The lyrics of Jackson C. Frank's 'Blues Run The Game' is chilling in its depiction of a perpetual misery that can never be eluded, like being trapped in a maze with no exit. Anyone who's ever experienced major depression will recognise the feelings of resigned hopelessness to such persistent sadness. When the lyrics of this song are considered in light of Jackson's subsequent hospitalisations for mental illness, his homelessness and loss of one eye due to a random shooting, they also take on the aura of premonition. However, it is the sound of Jackson's voice on songs written about forty years later which doesn't speak the blues as much as it is the blues. At the end of his life, his voice became more weather-beaten and tentative, as if it barely has the will to go beyond a low growl. Like Billie Holiday's cracked and damaged vocals on Lady in Satin, it is the voice itself that speaks of tragedy more than any words can.
Jandek's lyrics are actually quite incomprehensible but again, it is the sound he produces that suggests a kind of reclusive madness. His guitar is deliberately discordant and jarring, almost painfully so. It is literally like being forced to inhabit a confused and lost mind, groping around for anything tangible to hold onto. His music isn't exactly the most relaxing to listen to. But perhaps it shouldn't be. Such exploration of the human psyche probably shouldn't have to be an easy listen. It should feel as painful as it is. By contrast, Dory Previn juxtaposes a cherry early- Joni Mitchell delivery against illusions of incest and parental abuse on her album, On My Way to Where. She sounds like she could be singing about ladies of the canyon but the disquieting fact remains that she isn't. Nico's harmonium on 'Frozen Warnings' sounds like a scream for help on an album that, to paraphrase Frazier Mohawk, is not one you listen to as much as it is a hole you fall into.
This is the undeniable appeal of the confessional position in the arts for me. It is not as simplistic as reading a diary entry produced by the artist. It would be foolish for anyone to read a piece of art completely biographically. However, the best confessional writing can not only remind us of the connections between the personal and the cultural but also, demonstrates the reciprocal relationships between the two. The individual is dependant on the culture they are situated in when determining their own meaning but this goes both ways. History is also dependant on the subjectivity of the individual to determine its overall meaning. Confessional writing then becomes 'more than myself'; it opens itself up to encompass all that is around it. Confessional singer-songwriters, in particular, can offer the listener the opportunity to crawl into such emotive music, to make it their own. It has the capacity to remind us that the personal is political, that the individual experience may be subjective but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have something to tell us.

© 2008 Emma Mould

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