Pet Sounds: John Wakefield

Pet Sounds: A series in which teaching staff and students from the English Department reflect on a piece of music or song. [Read all entries.] [Revisit the “Headspace” series.] [Revisit the “Ongoing” series.] [Revisit the “Interrogative” series.]

Bertrand Russell

The philosopher Bertrand Russell said, ‘There are two reasons for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.’ His saying this was based on the understanding that humans do things in order to impress others. This desire to impress is often a guiding force behind many of the things we do. Arguably it is a motivating factor that leads one to work harder, practice more, and hone one’s skills, causing one to produce something better than what one otherwise would have without this background motivation. In the arts, however, I think that this motivation may work to inhibit creativity and the ability to let one’s subconscious creative process go in any direction it so happens to go. Constantly stopping to ask ‘will people like this?’ or ‘will they be impressed’ can cause you to stop and redirect yourself in a more ‘acceptable’ direction. The end result of an extreme, concerted and conscious version of this attempt to create popular art is ‘pop culture’ and ‘pop music’—things that are rarely if ever liked by true connoisseurs of art, and things that rarely hold up to the test of time.

For the above reasons, I am impressed with musicians that obviously do not care whether their music is liked or not. They write their music for the sake of the music, and for the pleasure that it gives them. An illustration of this is a song titled “bonus track” that was added to an album of music that included nothing new from the band. The album included previously unreleased songs that had already been recorded, plus different versions of songs that had already been released. And because there was arguably nothing new on the album, the band understood that it should include a bonus track for the sake of marketing. The term ‘bonus track’ refers to an additional track of music that is added to a collection of previously released music, usually a ‘best hits’ collection. The idea is that the bonus track will give fans an incentive to buy this collection of best hits, even if they already own all those songs collectively on other CDs. This particular song I’m referring to was not actually a bonus track in that sense, but rather was given the title “bonus track” and was written (if it was actually even ‘written’), and was performed in a way that made it obvious that this could not possibly function as an incentive for fans to buy their album. It is six seconds long with nine beats; it finishes as soon as it gets started. I am pretty sure that the purpose of the song was to make fun of the idea of including a bonus track—a slap in the face of music marketing for the sake of making money rather than art. Here is the song:

I’m not implying that this song is great art that will stand the test of time. Rather I am arguing that I think there is a correlation between 1) the degree to which artists make art for art’s sake, and 2) the quality and depth of their art. Artists who make art for the purpose of its popular acceptance will tend to end up with something that is more likely to be predictable and bland. It seems to me that if you really want to create something unique and interesting as a singer, song writer, dancer, drawer, or whatever, then get lost in the process—focus on it rather than on some imaginary audience’s reaction to it.


john wakefieldJohn Wakefield is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all entries by John.]

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