I remember hearing the music of James Taylor for the first time. I was just a teenager. Surprised that I’d never heard of him before, a friend of mine played me Taylor’s first radio hit, Fire and Rain. As a conservative preacher’s son restricted to a diet of Petra, Silverwind and gospel quartets I couldn’t believe my ears. There was so much personality to that song. I became a huge fan and slowly followed the pathway onward to Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Bruce Cockburn, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and Neil Young. I had discovered the confessional songwriters – writers that wrote songs as confessions of their own experiences; gut-wrenching testimonies of their own unique lives, narratives characterized by deep-seated vulnerability, and honest expressions framed in thoughtful poetry.
American singer-songwriter David Wilcox described the shift in music during this time period using the analogy of a set of pottery bought from an artisan vs. department store dishes. Prior to the 1960s, people pined for music that was perfect, or to use his analogy, people were looking for dishes that were brand-name and without human blemish; manufactured on an assembly line so that every piece was exactly the same. But something happened in the 1960s – many people began to desire more authentic music. They longed to experience music that bore the imperfections and character of an individual artist. The artist’s own humanity became a part of each song – like Fire and Rain, as referenced above, where James Taylor expresses his struggle with drug addiction.
While I was drawn to the tradition of the confessional songwriters in the past, I have to ask whether this thread of authenticity is still alive in the music produced today. Does honesty and personal vulnerability still speak most powerfully to people? Are we still wanting music with the beautiful blemishes of humanity or has there been a shift back to the “department store” versions of music?
In the end, I think the challenge rests on the shoulders of artists. Pursuing the human ‘pottery-version’ of art rather than the ‘department store model’ takes sacrifice and the risk that what is authentic may not be as marketable. But this discussion is not new – each artist must navigate through the fire and rain of life, work and honesty. And hopefully, like the confessional songwriters of the 60s and 70s, artists can find a voice that resonates with people. And maybe even earn them a living along the way.