Horace is good hero material. He carved a career out of a sturdy block of charisma, befriending powerful people while rich Romans snuffed out the Republic and politely enslaved the world. Except for loving the ladies, he led a virtuous life free from major controversy, his counsel was often sought by Emperor Augustus, and he had a loving relationship with his humble father. Through nothing but the merit of his own genius, Horace went from nobody to being the most respected poet of his time. And he was a scathing little shit, too. His “Ars Poetica” is a five-hundred-line epistle written at the request of two aspiring-poet sons of the powerful Piso family. When your career as an artist is at the mercy and patronage of the aristocracy, what do you do with a commission like this? In the following parody, I’ve tried to update Horace for the pop music paradigm.
The Art of Pop Music
If your little sister bought a pair of neon Jordans,
Started writing rhymes about the trials of getting by in Pensacola,
Slinging coffee to the bean-fiends down at the Maximilian
Cuz the game’s about stackin’ that paper and puffin’ on e-cigs,
You would find a hole to hide in, hope to die of terminal
Humiliation, rue the day your dear old mother spawned
Rosemary’s Baby Boo because artistic license can’t excuse
Absurdities like breaching basic harmony of form and continuity.[i]
So you should not abash your family name with shitty
Platitudes on loneliness or some dumb books you read.
Stick with what you know, like Steely Dan on being
Bored, or Vampire Weekend on the same, or such with
Dashboard, Death Cab, Deer Tick, Doves, or Dr. Dog.
There’s nothing wrong with being rich and white, so long
As what you write is not hell-bent on proving otherwise—
A driver’s license can’t be used to fly a plane.[ii]
Lennon and McCartney wrote the book of love in song,
The way to win a heart, the way to mend your own.
Jagger and Richards wrote the one on sex, a bawdy
Tribute to the Dionysian way of life.
Both teams procured a sum of ca$h so grand, it’d be
Ridiculous to not regard the wisdom in their
Respective crafts. Whether in leather or tailored suits,
Try to charm new fans by collecting all their pants.
“Either follow tradition, or invent consistently.”
If you wanna make ‘em smile, rip off the Monkees.
Soundtracks to suicides can sound like The Smiths, but Joy Division
Will open the vein even quicker. If you have the guts for
Sounding brand new, then it’s necessary to have an end
Result in mind, or else you’ll sound like you’ve nothing to say,
Though you’d have company—hot air is in style today.
Whatever you do, operate within your themes.[iii]
Your audience expects a happy tune to be accompanied
By lyrics that inspire joy or fun. Sad songs manifest
Themselves from richer, larger palettes, but always remember:
It takes creativity to inspire putting whipped cream on a hot dog,
But it takes taste to realize it was a dumb fucking idea.[iv]
If the lyrics and the music work together like they should,
Then no one should ever have to paint his face to sell a turd.
Blue Man Group was cute for just the length of one commercial.
And don’t rely on God to save your lousy record.
Claiming moral purpose doesn’t make you good at
What you do,[v] and, frankly, Prince could murder children—
I’m still rocking Purple Rain. If Hitler wrote
“Proud Mary,” and Gandhi wrote like you, Hitler’d get
The Grammy, and Gandhi’d get booed. One quick note on
Choruses: sing them like they’re you, but write them such that
Everyone would like to be just like you, too.
Which means knowing your audience, and all the stuff they know.
If you grew up in the Hills, don’t attempt to rewrite The Chronic.
This is not a racial point but rather one on economics.
Dre’s, like Aristophanes’s, is a masterpiece of baseness (and bass);
But the more family money in the bank, the lesser suited is one
For vulgar, comedic material.[vi] No one’s required to write
Just one’s station, but everyone knows when the bard’s full of shit.
Let inaccessible genius instruct you—do not bungle it.
There are plenty of rules for constructing a song, all of which
Must be learned with mathematical tending to detail. Rooted in
Soils of rich prosody, the greatest are planted and nurtured,
Form etched on the brain, and a tolerant heart
Receptive to change, as bridges and verses grow at their will.
The purest green thumb lets his garden be, but the
Smartest chops down all her uglier trees, because they
Make the neighborhood look bad and can harm the children.
It’s good for a song to have a message, though music, opposed
To text, is the best instruction.[vii] There is no human sentiment
The twelve equally tempered notes in an octave cannot
Convey to the spirit better than even a stupid poem
Like this. If you play the guitar because you like to teach,
Be sure to make your students listen to people with actual
Talent. Otherwise, find a blog that lets you write your
Bullshit out like I do—save music for the purest souls.
Art should be like sports, like how we know who jumps highest,
Throws farthest, runs fastest, hits hardest, and so with art we know
The voice that speaks truest. Say you’re just like Einstein, genius
Latent till he bloomed, a mind that combed the cosmos for a clue—
Good for you! There’s nothing I can say that God won’t whisper
In your golden ear; stop reading and prove it, you’ve loads of work
To do. But unless you are sure you’d have earnest satisfaction dying
Starving and anonymous for just one stir of the divine: quit now.
Quit always, quit forever, before you suffer delusion by flatterers[viii]
Or non-matterers who lack the courage or taste to tell you you stink.
Practice won’t cover up talentlessness, and talent won’t make up for
Practiced-less-ness, as Grammys don’t justify Milli Vanilli,
Phil Collins, or Creed. Beware the producer who kisses your ass;
It’s often a ploy to pilfer your parents’ purse to pay for a
Record that no one was intended to hear. Happens in Nashville
All the time, because even the snakes have to work to eat.
Play me your song—I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. After that,
Do what you will with sound advice. Another hint:
If you’ve written fifty songs, you’ve hardly reached novice.
Five hundred gets the hang of things, a thousand maybe
Turns some heads that know the difference. No time for that?
Kill yourself.[ix] Suicide is like leather pants: most people
Can’t pull ’em off, but it sure is sexy when they do. And it beats
Torturing folks with song after song about why you love you.
[i] Your kid sister choosing to be a hardcore rapper is like a painter choosing to, as Horace puts it, “set a human head on a horse’s neck,” or “paint a dolphin among the trees.” She has the right to express herself however she likes, but being a pop artist means marrying persona to format, and the persona of small-town, middle-class white girl doesn’t harmonize with the hardcore rap format. While Kitty Pryde plays with the ironic relationship between cute persona and raw format to some advantage, it remains to be seen if that technique’s effectiveness will survive past the song “Okay Cupid.” Horace thinks that song is a mere curiosity.
[ii] While finding her persona, a young artist may be tempted to take on a range of personalities: a Princess, a Buddhist monk, or an old Delta bluesman. Every pop artist’s persona is in some way tethered to her actual biography, and then that persona can be fleshed out into a full-blown caricature of self (cf. Dolly Parton, Lady Gaga, and even seemingly more subtle caricatures like Feist). The only exception to this rule is when an artist claims to be supernatural or extraterrestrial (cf. Gorillaz, Kool Keith, Outkast circa ATLiens). Even then, the artist cannot become something that already existed better and more convincingly in another’s work. The audience won’t buy it, figuratively or literally.
[iii] For hot air or sound and fury signifying nothing, see ninety-nine percent of all indie rock, IDM, and Avant Garde composition. In Horace’s idea of successful songwriting, every note and/or word is in its right place, and all choices must be defendable with sound artistic logic. Operating within one’s themes infers that one must have themes—every song, no matter how experimental, should be about something, no matter how abstract, and clearly so. This point is explained in more detail in the next stanza.
[iv] For example, while a rendition of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” a la the dread-wallowing style of Lacuna Coil might be cute for approximately the length of time it took me to type this sentence, it’s immediately apparent what a waste of time it would be to make that happen. Horace knows that creativity is important in making art, but it’s not more important than the overall intended goal of art: being beautiful. That means not putting Mr. Potato Head’s mouth where his hat is supposed to be.
[v] This stanza strays from Horace and betrays some of my own thoughts on didactic pop music. At this point in “Ars Poetica,” Horace talks about how the deus ex machina technique is cheap and should be avoided. Since we’re talking about a different kind of theater altogether, I decided to take a pot shot at those who think nice intent justifies a shit song, and the God-fearing thing lines up nicely with Helios coming down in a chariot and saving Medea’s murdering ass, you know? Art is moral—the height of morality—but it isn’t necessarily righteous. Roman Polanski is a pedophile but one hell of an artist. Most Christian rock is so aesthetically bad that its authors ought to burn in hell for leading young minds astray.
[vi] This is obviously a controversial point, and I ask you to please remember that this is a parody of Horace’s views, not necessarily my own. Also, this socioeconomically elitist view is not so unforgivable when considered in the context of ancient imperial Rome.
[vii] For Horace, the best art is simultaneously beautiful and instructive. By instructive he means something like imparting wisdom—a reflection of how things are (per my earlier note, this is different from righteousness). Now, imagine a song in which the message is: “Trees are real nice.” That would make for an inane lyric, so the song had better convey that message another way. Make the music sound like wind through shivering branches, the light crunch of orange and brown leaves, or whatever hippy bullshit you prefer.
[viii] Don’t forget the context of the parody: Horace is writing this for a couple of rich white kids. He’s trying to let them know that people suck up to the wealthy and powerful to get ahead in life, and that means fawning over, to borrow from Morrissey, their “bloody awful poetry.” With enough false praise, one could get the idea that they don’t suck, even if they do. Think of all the pretty boys and girls in pop music without a brain in their heads or a speck of talent in their souls. Poor gorgeous bastards.
[iv] Don’t kill yourself because you’re sad. Kill yourself to find out whether your work is any good or not. When someone—pretty much anyone—dies, there’s a little grace period when everyone who knew that person will reflect on his life’s work, and they almost always give it a little more credit than it deserves. For example, look at John Kennedy Toole. Confederacy of Dunces is the most celebrated mediocre novel of the twentieth century. No one will have heard of it in a hundred years, thank God.
Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.