10 Songs About Art

Seems like theme playlists have been coming to mind a lot lately. There's something reassuring about finding patterns and links between disparate objects. I think that's essentially the English major's curse. Or maybe the curse of the artist in general. We seek links among varying areas of study. We are philosophers of all things expressive. So, when music is the common link, well, that's a simpler equation. They're all songs! says the doubter. There are only so many potential combinations of notes! The chord progressions used in rock/pop/hip-hop/blues/reggae/jazz all rely on the same rule set. Eh. It's true. I often hear songs that sound similar/the same as something previous to it, or even something contemporary. Sometimes I'm not entirely correct in my guess. It may be a hanging note here or there that forges a link in my mind, but it's the same way that we can see one aspect of a person's face and think they look like someone they do not look like. It's a bag of tricks, all this comparison and contrasting.

Initially, I planned to focus in only on songs about writing. But, as any reader, writer, or interesting person will tell you: When people write about writing it's usually an exercise in mundane masturbation. Luckily, there is only one song about the "writing process" in this list, and even that one has more to do with using writing to track a timeline of love than about the process itself. That's just a kind way of keeping us from getting bored. A song called, "I'm Typing for the Eighth Month Straight" isn't selling any records. And we're lucky that most songs, with the exception of a couple sappy love songs I wrote back in high school, don't reference "songwriting" immediately in their lyrics. We prefer art to be self-aware, but not always self-referential. It's an afront to the listener, like the excellent Twitter @humblebrag. Artists are supposed to, in some sense, create without being too cloying about it. We don't want to know where the work comes from, that it was a human process of insight, failure and complaint. We prefer the magic trick, unspoiled, to be wow us each and every time. So, here are 10 Songs About Art. One of them, Cursive's "Art Is Hard" actually just all that complaining, but in a rocking enough way that I think we'll all find it palatable.

1. "The Engine Driver" by The Decemberists from Picaresque
This is a sort of universal song about love and wishing it wouldn't haunt us in our worst hours. Colin Meloy is especially earnest with his lyrics here, juxtaposing broad-stroke concepts of different professions with the cry that love is a sort of curse. Throughout the song, no matter what persona the principle character takes on, he can't escape the fact that love is the thing that has let him down. Love is the thing that holds him in stasis, keeping him from growing into something "happy" regardless of all his achievements. And the bridge refrain, "I am a writer. A writer of fictions. I am the heart that you call home. And I've written pages upon pages trying to rid you from my bones," speaks so directly to the cathartic property of art, and the temporary nature of catharsis, that it becomes haunting in itself. Art becomes an addiction, a good one, but one that provides little boosts that we thrive on for a short time. Unfortunately, we always need to make more. No project ever really ends, we just give up on it to get a fresh, new high from a new creation.

2. "Modern Art" by Art Brut from Bang Bang Rock & Roll
Despite the playful and semi-ironic tone of this track, Art Brut is capturing the vivid powerful feeling of sublime existential crisis that some art can evoke in the viewer. Modern art, specifically, can do this well because there's the glow of color and the power of undefined shape. While a classic portrait may lead us to bask in the beauty of its construction, the art that really gets under the skin is the stuff that we have to impress our own experience upon. Looking at a canvas of pure color makes us feel the things we associate with that color, and while there are "rules" about color theory, a certain red may make me remember the color of my '66 Mustang convertible or the blood on the asphalt following a car accident when my father was a volunteer firefighter, it may make another viewer think of cherries or something more charmingly banal. It's eye of the beholder shit. And if modern art makes Art Brut want to rock out, then it's entirely possible it could make another viewer want to break down in tears.

3. "Write About Love" by Belle & Sebastian from Write About Love
Stuart Murdoch is really singing about love here. And the way that in our most desperate/loving moments we want to find the spell that will break our mundane worlds apart and bring the person we care about back to us. Of course, love is drug in this case, and spells are just a magical stand-in for drugs too. Art too is a kind of drug, as I noted above. We turn to art, and writing and whatever additional expression we can find to get some welcome respite from our busy lives. And that's why all of this important. All Dystopian novels tend toward worlds (with the exception of Brave New World) where art is completely banished. Human expression is a curse and a necessity. It's funny that something so simple, just wanting to be emotionally resonant can be considered such a suck on productivity. Happy workers are healthy productive workers. Art, then, should be everywhere.

4. "Art House Director" by Broken Social Scene from Forgiveness Rock Record
This is kind of just a song I like, for it's frenetic pacing and machine gun horns, but also it's about that "creative process" I noted earlier. Art has struggles built into it inherently. We often don't see them because we consume art in its "finished" form, but this song's interest in the starlet who seems to be ruining a film's production highlights that struggle and points to the human drama that involves all art. We've seen montages of writers attempting to write, balling up page after failed page and casting them to the wastebasket until it overflows and it seems sort of hackneyed. But it's true. There's a lot of failure in art. There's failure inevitable when creating anything. Not all the pieces fit. Not every word or line falls into place. And well, love is that way too. Some projects seem to work better than they actually do, and some projects thrive on error, getting better with each incorrect turn and misplaced sentence.

5. "Classical Records" by Department of Eagles from In Ear Park
This Grizzly Bear off-shoot band opens with a question about whether we listen to classical records anymore. Or do we let them sleep in their sleeves where they dream? It's a haunting track that builds into a clattering clockwork of musical expression. And it's clearly a partially constructed song, since these were mostly B-sides in the first place, but the implication that music, or any art, sleeps and dreams when we do not look at it is intriguing. Art is meant to be experienced. Left to its own devices, if art were sentient, it would almost certainly go insane, like a singer without a voice or a writer without words. The whole concept of expression is predicated upon another experiencing it, otherwise, the value is unknowable and the emotion almost doesn't exist anymore. This is a Zen kind of concept, if art is hung in a museum and no one ever looks upon does it make an impression?

6. "Nose Art" by Flying Lotus from Cosmogramma
Nose art refers to the artwork done on the noses of war airplanes and fighters through the two World Wars and beyond. It's a kind of graffiti, but it's the ultimate expression for men who identified themselves by their modes of transportation/warfare. The track itself runs on a loop that sounds like the combination of a propeller and roaring engines. It's a disorienting song that places you right in that nose art, making the listener merely a picture upon front of a war machine. The experience is chaotic, booming and looping, almost maddening. As insane as battle may become, these little touches of art grounded pilots and personnel in their lives, allowing that minuscule glimmer of humanity to blink through when it was needed most.

7. "Art Is Hard" by Cursive from The Ugly Organ
This is possibly the most self-aware song about art and writing that I've ever heard. The lyric seep with complaints and notes about the process of writing a song. Even using "Oh a second verse" to open the second verse. The refrain "Cause we all know art is hard, young artists have gotta starve, try and fail and try again" marks that struggle with most honesty. Many people do art as a way to ward off insanity, as that catharsis I discussed earlier, but there's also the issue that we all know the "starving artist" concept and that it is divisive depending on who is viewing the artist. Some people think artistic pursuits are wasteful and silly. Others admire the choice. And still more people choose the appearance of artistic starvation as an excuse to not grow up. Art breeds strange thoughts.

8. "The Painter" by I'm From Barcelona from Let Me Introduce My Friends
The insanely sweet pop of this song makes it instantly enjoyable, though a bit cloying. The beauty of horns and and a chorus of voices telling us that we shouldn't give up on our dreams. It's a song that attacks the idea that success means doing things that are traditionally successful, money making, etc. Instead, the painter in the song acknowledges that he "does [his] crappy art" but also that he sees something special in people. The artist's eye isn't only expressed in the things he creates, but in the things he notices. Being artistic doesn't mean making something big and beautiful or selling a lot of gallery tickets, it can be as simple as just looking at the beauty in the world with an open mind and an open heart.

9. "Photobooth" by Friendly Fires from Friendly Fires
We love to capture moments. We love to think that we can keep photos and keep the memory. Really, it just keeps the memory more vivid. The photo booth is a great example of this. It gives three brief moments, where as they say in the song "we're posing like this year's models," and those moments are just impressions of reality. They are bookmarks for our memories, the way that all of our senses can cue such reactions about place, time and space. With photos though, we have the opportunity to alter the light of the image or even more importantly alter the perspective. We often don't look at ceilings. I think about that a lot. And I try to look at the ceiling in every place I go because it's the part that we don't pay a lot of attention to. Ceilings are artificial skies. We always look at the sky because it represents future, but never ceilings, even if they can (though not always) represent security, safety and architectural greatness. The point I guess, is that art can make us look at things in a new way, specifically in a new direction, from a new angle.

10. "Everyday I Write The Book" by Elvis Costello from Punch The Clock
Pretty simple link here, book writing links to art. We all know this song well, but the beauty of it is that while it starts as a song about the creative process, it's ultimately about how we write our own narratives about our relationships. Not everyone's versions of the story may match up exactly, but when provided information from one writer, the story seems to be very clear. Sure, it's not essential to break life down into chapters, or to catalog relationships that way, but we do it. It's easy to start chapters at milestones, keeping a close eye on moments that changed the way we saw another person. When we said "Hello," when we said "I love you" and when we moved in together... to when we said "Goodbye." Costello's book is aware of all the nuances and errors that have been in and out of the relationship too. It's a great testament to how we perceive our worlds and our lives. Also, it's a fine song.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Art Star by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Art Bitch by Cansei De Ser Sexy come to mind...as soon as I saw Cursive on the list, they just popped right on in there...

    1. Both good additions. It's always hard to choose the right 10. Thanks for reading!

  3. Thank You for this! I needed this for a drama assignment!

    1. Right on! Thanks for reading. I hope the assignment works out!

  4. Solid recommendations now in my spotify. Thank you! Another you might enjoy is Ten Thousand (Macklemore and Ryan Lewis).

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