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Wagner, D’Angelo and A Song I Wrote

Greg Levine

… one becomes more of a philosopher the more one becomes a musician.

Friedrich Nietzsche [1]


I have been having trouble writing lyrics for a song. The melody and the harmony are done but I’m stuck on the words. As a result, the working title for the song is: “Untitled.” The reasons I’ve been having trouble are frustrating, complicated and entail some interesting questions about art in general, artistic collaboration and the intention behind a work.

My main problem is that I can’t sing. Or, if you believe my 9th grade music teacher who insisted that absolutely everyone can sing, I can sing, but very poorly. My only current avenue for the performance of anything I write is a band, which I effectively run, whose singer and frontperson is a girl with a beautiful voice. This is where the problems begin. In order for sounds to get from my head into the real world I first have to deal with the practical side of communicating music to the other musicians. Obviously, this is music they’ve never heard before. Writing it down is only part of the process. Even strictly scored classical music has room for interpretation and the soul music we play relies heavily on each musician interpreting/creating their part. The music is simple and will sound infantile unless the musician can imbue it with a certain ‘feel.’ This ‘feel’ is something I have very little control over. No matter how I communicate my intentions to another musician, this ‘feel’ will form differently in their imaginations.

This leads to the second part of the process: the social problem of persuading a group of people that they should turn up at a given time and put effort into making my song work. It’s easy if you give them money; if you have none it is tricky. This is the core of my lyrical dilemma. I can write pages of lyrics based on my own thoughts or views but, even if you pay them, it is not always easy for a singer to put life into lyrics that are based on somebody else’s personal experiences. Less easy still if said singer believes – as, it seems, does the majority – that lyrics should come from the heart; only then can they be sung with soul. [2]

For my music to sound good, the singer in my band has to be able to sell the song and to do this she needs to feel like she’s in touch with the feelings that go into the words. Yet the lyrics that most easily come to my mind are usually more like unusual short stories, little narratives which have some obscure punch line in the last verse. Emotive ‘feelings’ don’t really enter into it. The catch-22 is that my personal tastes are seen as impersonal by current musical trends. So, for my songs to sound good with her singing them, I have to forgo my personal tastes and write lyrics that appeal to her.

As a method of working in itself I don’t mind this. It makes me feel like I’m part of the professional Tin Pan Alley song writing tradition which encompasses people I admire like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, or Johnny Mercer. They wrote songs that the public liked because they had an ear for what the public was saying to itself. They weren’t trying to express anything personal at all. The focus was off them and on the singer. They wrote songs that suited the performer and rang true with the public. It was the performer’s responsibility to put the personal spirit into the tune.

These days this happy professionalism has been made problematic by the emergence of a new beast: the singer/songwriter. Starting with Bob Dylan and drawing a line through James Taylor, Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell all the way up to Jeff Buckley, we have singers writing their own songs (or songwriters singing their own songs), usually strumming an acoustic guitar, expressing their innermost feelings and recreating the Romantic ideal of a musician/poet who only speaks from the personal depths of their souls. This ‘modern “humaneness,”‘ as Nietzsche called Romanticism, tries to make art moral truth. [3] The urge to find ‘inner’ feelings indicates something better than the mundane reality that is the appearance of life. In fact, Nietzsche went so far as to describe this urge as anti-life and, as such, he feared it.

I have read some Nietzsche, Foucault and other similar writers and I agree with them. Upholding a sense of morality and absolute truth is anti-life. At the same time, I want to be able to create music now, in a time when the Romantic ideal seems to be in full force again. [4] This calls for what some would think of as subterfuge. I prefer to think that I’m pragmatic.

Thinking about the best ways of trying to pass myself off as the Romantic genius/songwriter/musician/poet, I started thinking about the man who most typifies this image for me: Richard Wagner. More specifically, I thought of his opera Tristan and Isolde. Briefly, Tristan and Isolde are in love yet Isolde is engaged to Tristan’s master, King Mark. The opera opens with Tristan bringing Isolde to Mark so that they can get married. Isolde is annoyed at Tristan because he is ignoring her and she gets her servant to mix up some poison so she and Tristan can drink it and call the whole thing off. The servant decides to act autonomously and mixes up some love potion instead. Tristan and Isolde drink the potion and their affair reignites. Once the King discovers that the couple is back together he is understandably disappointed in Tristan. The King’s servant wounds Tristan and they leave him to die. In the last scene Tristan is slowly dying, waiting for Isolde to turn up and heal him with another potion but she arrives just as he dies. Then the king shows up ready to pardon and unite the lovers. Isolde can’t stand it and dies in her lover’s already dead arms. Tristan and Isolde know from the start that their love is forbidden and throughout the entire opera they are possessed by their passion while wracked by their consciences. Their love can only find peace in the tragedy of their deaths.

The opera is primarily about sexual tension. Wagner believed:

love in its fullest reality is only possible in the framework of sex. The most vital human love is possible only between man and woman: all other love is merely a result, a derivative or an imitation of sexual love. [5]

Wagner was heavily influenced by Schopenhauer’s rather dim view of existence and this led him to write of true love as a suffering that was only relieved by the oblivion of death. [6]

Obviously, this was sustained throughout the libretto. The text of the opera deals with this suffering in minute detail. But Wagner also used some very interesting musical techniques to convey the drama within the orchestration itself. Rather than relying on traditional forms and structures he invented his own. Where most opera is built around individual songs, Wagner’s operas tended to incorporate all the individual parts into a seamless whole and placed new importance on the music, rather than the singing alone, to express the drama. One of the most easily identifiable ways he did this was by using chromaticism. Rather than the music following a repetitive pattern toward harmonic resolution, the suffering of Tristan and Isolde builds and builds (for hours on end) until the moment of their deaths when all is suddenly resolved. The chromatic movement of melody and harmony creates a tension and unease that the ear wants to hear resolved by traditional diatonic harmony.

Wagner used these new techniques because he felt words and music shouldn’t be treated as separate. Opera traditionally used music simply as an accompaniment to the libretto, which carried the dramatic content. It was common practice that one person wrote the words while another wrote the music. Wagner believed in one complete art, or Gesamtkunstwerk (his word not mine), where each element couldn’t be separated from the other. He wrote both the words and music for all of his operas, completing the text before beginning the score. The two combined to create what he thought was the highest form of art: drama.

Wagner was a Romantic idealist. He thought that, as a creative genius, he could create an ideal German art. He thought of his music as a means to an end, a vehicle for expression not of him-self, but of Germaness it-self. For him art was “a product of society: the rejection of the one entails the rejection of the other.” [7] In this he was essentially influenced by Hegel. However, Hegel was a rationalist and refused to put any credence in Romantic nationalism (the myths and folk memories of an ethnic group), while this was Wagner’s sole dramatic territory. This seems a contradiction at first but it could be argued that his reasons for plowing this territory were Hegelian. He wanted to give Germany a sense of cultural unity that would speed the coming of unification and nationalism. He wanted an opera with a pronounced German style in the same way that most people thought of Italian opera as having a style of its own.

I think Wagner’s driving impulse was that he was very aware of his place in history, or at least of what he imagined his place in history to be. Quite separately from the music he composed, he wrote numerous essays about how he and his artwork fit into the history of music and how music would change as a result of himself. He imagined a chronological line that ran through Bach, Mozart and Beethoven then paused at him as he turned music and art into something new. He felt he had a responsibility to the world to create not just good opera but a new way of expressing humanity.

This is the type of thinking that is currently leading people to think that song lyrics should always be personal. It is also behind the labeling of all musicians – be they serious instrumentalists and singers or pop stars appearing on Pepsi Hits, as ‘artists.’

Moving on from Wagner’s Romanticism, and still contemplating ways that I could make people think that I believe in it, I started to think of a more contemporary musician who also has a Romantic identification with his place in music history but in a more ‘postmodern’ way.

D’Angelo is an American soul singer whose voice has tremendous range and power. His facility is incredible but he uses it tastefully and with a sensibility derived from a close familiarity with the soul and funk of the past. He is usually labeled an R’n’B singer but believes that these days it is a pejorative term. In his words, “I’m just trying to do my thing, thinking about Black music and the roots of it all.” [8] While maintaining a contemporary sound, his music is very reminiscent of 1970s funk and soul. Critics have started calling this music neo-soul.

He doesn’t seem to be quite as self-centred as Wagner but he does have a similar view of his own position in music history. He is “very respectful of the masters who came before” and feels “a responsibility to continue and take the cue from what they were doing musically.” [9] However, he becomes reticent when asked about the music he will make in the future, hinting at a groundbreaking new art that he isn’t ready to talk about because it hasn’t yet fully incubated in his mind.

In contrast to Wagner, D’Angelo’s Romanticism seems to have a much more ironic sensibility. For example, “Untitled (How Does it Feel?),” which appears on the album Voodoo (2000), fits quite clearly into the tradition of the six-eight soul ballad. The drum pattern, bass line, guitar and melodic phrasing are all very traditional. Some of the vocal tracks have been put through a flanger and have a similar sound to the classic Funkadelic, “Maggot Brain” sound. There is a short melodic statement by an electric guitar that is repeated throughout and is clearly influenced by Hendrix and Hazel.

At the same time, certain arranging techniques make the overall sound quite modern. D’Angelo uses the contemporary R’n’B trick of overdubbing his own voice a number of times to present the feeling of a choir singing harmonies during the choruses. Also, the drums are played with a very uniform dynamic giving the impression of a live drummer who has been influenced by the sound of the drum machine. The arrangement is very stripped back to allow the vocals to shine through and the whole thing builds to an enormous choral climax (all D’Angelo’s own voice) with a classic 70’s overdriven guitar. It sounds like Prince, Marvin Gaye, Hendrix and Funkadelic all rolled into one.

However, a sense of irony appears when you listen to the lyrics. Once you are able to listen beyond the groove, the warm guitar sound and the amazing vocals and actually pay attention to the words, they seem to be generic pop lyrics. For example, the second verse:

I won’t stop (Won’t stop) sick of all
Silly little games you and me play
And I feel right on
If you feel the same way baby
Let me know right on
Love to make you wet
In between your thighs, cause
I love when it comes inside of you
I get so excited when I’m around you, baby
Oh baby [10]

They sound like the same schoolboy doggerel you’ve heard a thousand times in a thousand different pop songs, hastily thrown together and then amazingly performed. But then you realize that they don’t just sound like generic pop lyrics, they are the generic pop lyrics. Each line seems to be directly lifted from Marvin Gaye, Prince, or Curtis Mayfield. Perhaps this is why the song is called “Untitled.” Either as homage or ironic postmodern appropriation, D’Angelo is drawing attention to the fact that he has been influenced by the past masters of his music. It seems that for him the specific words of the lyric don’t actually matter as long as the appropriate attitude is conveyed. Rather than spend days struggling to come up with a completely new combination of words to deal with a subject that has been dealt with so many times so well – words, that is, which don’t sound either clichéd or laboured and awkward – D’Angelo chose to use excerpts from his favourite songs. The difference between Wagner’s and D’Angelo’s Romanticism lies in the fact that D’Angelo called his song “Untitled.” He is not claiming a turning point in history as it moves forward, he is simply tracing the lines of influence that have led to him.

Wagner probably would have disapproved of D’Angelo, for the reasons he outlined in Music and the Jews. He insisted that the Jews couldn’t make any true artistic statements because they were a minority group within another group’s culture and therefore could not express that majority culture through art. D’Angelo is part of the African diaspora and therefore, for Wagner, his art can never embody American culture. However, these views (and his irrational racial hatred of the Jews and the French) have backfired on Wagner, as many people now can’t separate the man from his music and refuse to listen to anything he wrote.

This attitude towards Wagner and Romanticism was most ably put by Nietzsche. He saw Wagner’s ‘ideal’ goals as an example of a Christian or moralist way of thinking. [11] While Wagner rejected religion as the focus of life and, along with Hegel and Kant, put the human back at the centre of the universe, Nietzsche points out that all of his operas are about redemption. The fact that Tristan and Isolde could only find peace and the fulfillment of their love in death was a damnation of the life that they had. It is a rejection of life in favour of a ‘better’ existence. For Nietzsche, Christian teaching and a belief in absolute truth

is, and wants to be, only moral and… relegates art, every art, to the realm of lies; with its absolute standards, beginning with the truthfulness of God, it negates, judges, and damns art. [12]

Nietzsche saw this as being a damnation of life itself because life is made up of appearance, representation and ‘points of view.’ So, Nietzsche went from being a huge fan of Wagner to refusing to listen to his music despite the fact that he still loved it.

This is the minefield I have to negotiate if I am to pass myself off as a Romantic (ironic or not) and become a successful songwriter. A songwriter who can think of lyrics that come from the hearts of girls with nice voices. I don’t really want to express my individual soul or my nation’s ‘nationess,’ but I think I’m going to have to pretend I can. I have to think of myself as an artist rather than a musician. I have to make believe that every time I put pen to paper I am baring my soul or the soul of my culture, while, at the back of my mind, aspiring to the happy professionalism of Tin Pan Alley. I think Nietzsche would have approved.

Greg Levine is in the second year of his PhD in media studies and is an Associate Lecturer at Macquarie University. He plays saxophone in enough bands that it is an enormous distraction from his studies. He also occasionally tries to write songs.


<[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner, translated by Walter Kaufmann (Vintage Books: New York, 1967), 158.

[2] This statement is based on watching TV, reading music ‘criticism’ and occasionally opening one of those ‘songwriting-for-idiots’ books.

[3] Nietzsche, 155.

[4] I say ‘seems’ because I don’t discount the fact that the current manifestation of Romanticism could be a record company marketing ploy. Though, even if it is, it has seeped into the public consciousness enough that it doesn’t make any difference anyway.

[5] Ronald Taylor, Richard Wagner, His Life, Art and Thought (Paul Elek Limited: London, 1979), 137.

[6] Taylor, 137.

[7] Taylor, 102.

[8] Kimberley Davis, “Why Sisters Are Excited About D’ANGELO,” in Ebony, April 2000 [accessed 13 April 2004]. Available from http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m1077/6_55/61619020/print.jhtml.

[9] Davis, 2000.

[10] Michael D’Angelo Archer and Rafael Saadiq, “Untitled (How Does it Feel?),” Voodoo (Virgin Records, 2000) sound recording.

[11] Nietzsche, 22-23.

[12] Nietzsche, 23.