Hold on, as we are about to get all meta-analytical up on this piece. Here are the top 10 best songs about writing. These are the musical musings on the act of making something out of nothing. The tunes about the process of taming the ethereal and tapping into that great big atmosphere of inspiration. Whether it’s an attack on grammar Nazis, the beast of burden that is writer’s block, or word play and verb flexing put into melody, these are the songs that give us insight into the sometimes self-indulgent struggle that is putting pen to paper. Write on.
10. “Losing It” – Rush (1982)
We’re starting things off with a classic. Rush is the true music nerd’s band. With complex, often strange arrangements and lyrical content, Rush is for serious enthusiasts only. Here, Rush makes a stand against some of that and try to paint a truly poetic picture to break anyone’s heart. They compare the life of a washed up ballerina looking for her lost fame, who finds only “the echoes of old applause” as “she limps across the floor”, to a washed up writer in the midst of heavy writer’s block. Geddy Lee and company eschew the old logic of, “better to have loved and lost than ever loved it all.” instead they proclaim “sadder still to watch it die/than never to have known it”. For a band as grandiose as Rush, this song tends to swing toward the corny side. And ending it with a Hemingway title (For Whom The Bell Tolls) surely doesn’t help. But as for as metaphors go, being compared to a dancer isn’t so bad for writers.
09. “Writer’s Block” – Just Jack (2006)
We go across the pond for the next song. Just Jack is your average bloke/rapper from the UK, the kind that raps in that heavy cockney accent over some odd Moby or Fatboy Slim-inspired track. Marvel at the first couple lines: “I get this writer’s block, it comes as quite a shock/and now I’m stuck between a hard place and the biggest rock…” Of course, what would one expect from a rapper who is suffering from writer’s block? It’s a lot of lines in that same simple rhyme scheme and depth, but then just before the chorus, Jack hits us with something big and revealing: “Sometimes at night I think too much/about life and love and music and stuff.” It’s nice to get a peek behind the mask that rappers, regardless of hardcoreness, often wear. And sure, the song isn’t super poetic, but it’s a realistic look at the feelings of anxiety and pressure that occur within musicians. It’s hard knock life, even for English electro rappers.
08. “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (2004)
Yet again more writer’s block. A theme if there ever was one. But of all the people you’d expect to suffer from it, Nick Cave, with his dark, poetic lyrics and magic touch with nouns and adjectives, might very well be on the bottom of that list. But unlike other perpetually depressive musicians, Cave isn’t desperately forlorn over the loss of his muse. No, he recognizes it will leave (“there she goes, my beautiful world”) and also recognizes she’ll back (“there she goes again”). And like some fed-up drunken lover dancing to himself in the dark, Cave plans for her return as he rattles off the way other greats have grabbed that curvy dame called inspiration. “John Willmot penned his poetry riddled with the pox” and “Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital“. Because she’ll come and go and give Cave the world and take it away, and each time, like on a slave on his knees, he let her do what she wants. Something about lemonade of lemons seems apropos all of a sudden.
07. “I Love You Period” – Dan Baird (1992)
Dan Baird, of the Georgia Satellites, left the band after the commercial failure that was the band’s In The Land of Salvation and Sin album. And while his leap to his solo work didn’t see any artistic growth, the work on his Love Songs for the Hearing Impaired is a down home effort that seamlessly combines a bit of rock and roll and a country sensibility. In the only real hit from that album, Baird sets up a too hot for teacher-esque scenario where he tires to impress his teacher (the one he “mentally undresses”) and writes his feelings down in a note. Instead of a cat walk down some desks or a snuggle in the school bus, Baird gets a lesson in punctuation (Dear Penthouse…). He learns his lesson and uses is new found skills to impress girls with question marks and vast quantities of exclamation points (who wouldn’t melt with lines like “I want to hold you in parentheses”). We’re almost certain this went on to be a School House Rocks episode.
06. “Mr. Writer” – Stereophonics (2001)
This song is about writing in the same way that your drunken rambling is about your ex-girlfriend: Each are the target of a tirade filled with anger and possibly resentment or jealousy. The Stereophonics paint rock critics and journalists in a pretty harsh light. First, those dastardly wordsmiths “…hang names on your wall/then you shoot them all.” After a sporting round of career killing, the band asks “Are you so lonely?/don’t even know me/but you’d like to stone me/Mr. Writer, why don’t you tell it like it is?” It’s an interesting look at the rock star/critic dynamic, but it does come off sounding like these boys can’t handle bad reviews. It doesn’t exactly spin the whole music media business on its head, but it exceeds its mission in putting a human face to the often faceless rock stars and that the music and its corresponding criticism are social contracts and deserve credibility. It put the fear in us for sure. Or maybe it’s that violent clown car accident in the video.
05. “Paperback Writer” – The Beatles (1966)
The ultimate song about writing, at least in terms of its debut, overall catchiness and a wondrous lack of critic hatred. Of all the songs on the list, this is arguably the most famous and basic as it fulfills a very essential archetype: Sadly desperate writer willing to do anything (“I can make it longer if you like the style/I can change it round and I want to be a paperback writer”). Sure, it doesn’t have any of that angst and rage of say a Nick Cave song, but its got a catchy hook and was something new from the same old boy-meets-girl dynamic of the Liverpudlian’s previous work. It’s one of the first songs where they begin to stray away from what brought them to the pop god table (classic structure, unprogressive chords, etc.) and would lead to more experimental work (Sergeant Pepper’s, Yellow Submarine, etc.). Plus, Ringo Starr totally gets cut out of the shot during the video’s performance scenes!
04. “Love Letter” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (2001)
The illustrious Mr. Cave makes a second appearance. This time out he’s no longer in the position of not finding the words; rather, he’s found the wrong set of words and drove his woman away (“said something I did not mean to say/it all came out the wrong way”). So, he sends a letter and waits in the midst of a storm (of both the literal and figurative variety). Cave has always had the ability to lean toward the more depressing side of life, but he aims for something shiny and hopeful with this song, even with little reason to. With this song, Cave plays a bluesy piano line and keeps it sounding very melancholy, all while seeming cautiously optimistic. It takes his trademark longing and shows a more genuine vulnerable side to his efforts. It’s a great place for a guy like Cave to come from.
03. “Oxford Comma” – Vampire Weekend (2008)
It was our hopes in putting this list together to create a sampling of the most premier pop/rock/whatever songs about the sophistication and struggle that is the writer’s experience. So, it’s only fitting that we end up with a song at No. 3 that asks “who gives a fuck about an Oxford Comma?” Certainly not us, Vampire Weekend. This song takes a huge, messy swing at the personification of stratified and stuffy language restrictions: The Oxford Comma. This bastard of punctuation represents all that is wrong with language and writing standards. The critique here is to take something simple like writing and attack the whole class system that goes on because of a simple placement of a comma. It’s getting at the idea that all the naive cliques and walls and stupid rituals built around a concept so simple need to be done away with. Or, Ezra Koenig thinks we should all just stop giving a fuck about all that cosmically insignificant stuff. Either way, if you don’t believe a word of that, remember that “Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth”.
02. “Screenwriter’s Blues” – Soul Coughing (1994)
We as critics and writers have gotten a bad wrap. We tend to look down and openly critique not only the music of rock stars but also their life choices. But now it’s our turn to live like coked out sleaze mongers who imbibe all that Los Angeles has to offer! In the band’s trademark spoken word style, the song tells the story of the greed, pettiness, desperation, and sex that fuels the men who came “…to Los Angeles to build a screenplay/about lovers who murder each other”. It’s about the sad kind of things like “..going to Reseda to make love to a model from Ohio” and spending time listening to the sounds of Los Angeles as it eats people alive. That’s the kind of life a writer has in Soul Coughing land. It’s a wondrous, nearly addictive sounding description of a life full of nothing but whoring yourself out. And with a vocal style that slings out each painted line like a beat poet, it’s hard to recognize the blues as anything bad at all.
01. “Everyday I Write The Book” – Elvis Costello (1983)
As Costello’s first real hit in the U.S. and the song he calls a “bad Smokey Robinson song,” it happens to stand as one of the songs that best represents the Costello sound: Bookishly smart lyrics and a faintly New Wave sound from a man with the horn rimmed glasses that moves like a scarecrow. In the song, he compares love to writing a book. But like a really bad book that takes forever and you don’t actually want to write in the first place. The first few chapters are a miss as the woman goes back to her old vindictive ways. And Costello isn’t making it any easier, claiming that “all your compliments and your cutting remarks/are captured here in my quotation marks.” Jealousy, thy name is Elvis. But like the sucker most men are, he keeps on each day writing that book.
In comparison to the other songs, the concept comes off as potentially hokey (the awesomely bad “when your dreamboat turns out to be a footnote” comes to mind). But Costello crafts a simplistic song that is both nebbish and painfully overjoyed about the whole long, often miserable yet always exhilarating situation called love. He ignores the writing on the walls as it were and is dedicated to the chaos, demonstrating a near Zen-like focus on his craft and his work: The girl he’s always longed for that maybe he shouldn’t. That seems like love to us.