The recent visit to Capitol Hill by former executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was a fascinating study in personalities; under intense grilling from members of Congress, these powerful men stonily refused to admit they had made mistakes while serving as chief executives of their respective companies.
They obviously aren’t songwriters. Now that they have more time on their hands, they may want to take it up.
The interconnected themes of regret and redemption — not to mention that of the mighty and the proud getting their inevitable comeuppance — have long been rich veins mined by artists, particularly in traditional country music. Hank Williams sang “I Saw the Light” 60 years ago about his alcoholic ways and his struggle to overcome them.
Charlie Walker sang “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down,” penned by songwriting legend Harlan Howard, about someone who left humble beginnings behind and now might have to embrace them again while slinking back home. It hit the charts in 1958, and it’s about as good an example of schadenfreude as you can get in musical terms.
The term singer-songwriter often seems to be preceded by “confessional” and/or “sensitive” (I am leaving out “chick” — that’s another column in itself) so it’s easy to assume that those of us in that line of work spend a great deal of our creative energy revealing our secrets, our mistakes and our wish to start over.
As much as the songwriters I know (myself included) would like to dodge the cliches, the words have stuck. I would be hard-pressed to name an established artist lugging around an acoustic guitar who hasn’t been accused of having written a sensitive song or two on the way to indie/major-label success.
Speaking of major-label success, one of the biggest hits of this year has been Coldplay‘s “Viva La Vida,” which tells the story of a once powerful person’s fall from a very high perch:
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing:
“Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!”
One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt, pillars of sand
The song is full of violins, cymbal crashes, galloping percussion and gorgeous singing by Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. I have had it in my head constantly these past few weeks. Click here to watch the video.
From Hank Williams to Coldplay, the need to write from a deeply personal place has motivated songwriters for generations. Perhaps it has more to do with connection than with confession. To forge a connection with one’s audience is to find redemption of a different kind - the kind offered by someone just like you, not some higher authority.
After coming away empty-handed from an initial trip to Capitol Hill in pursuit of bridge financing, the heads of the Big Three automakers learned that they needed to be more like the people they were asking for help — the American taxpayers. They needed to connect. So on their return visit they drove instead of firing up the corporate jets.
There’s no telling what these current and former leaders of industry and commerce will be doing after New Year’s. If they are inclined to let loose some creative energy, they could do worse than write some songs. It might lead to some inner wisdom, and after all, isn’t Joe the Plumber writing a book?
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