I am not sure that Michael Jackson’s comment that “good songs write themselves” is original, but it’s sure at the heart of any great song.
As social creatures, we have conversations, and they seem to write themselves. It is probably more likely that we do not remember learning to have them, and that after all our practice we coast along on experience. A song is a conversation. It writes itself when we recognize the other party for who he is.
But conversation is more than what we say. The sound of our voice is a crucial element; our body language and facial expressions exist in the mix as well. A song has lyrics (what we say) and melody (the sound of the voice). An artist has ways to produce a physical “identity” with postures and attitudes and convey something similar to a facial expression.
The common perception of listening to music is that an artist creates something unique and original “out of nothing,” which is then digested by an audience who react with emotion. This could be described as the “audience/performer paradigm. There is also another element at work, it is referred to as the “world stage” paradigm.
When Michael Jackson says “let the song write itself,” my guess is that he sees himself as tapping into mysterious spiritual forces. Maybe the forces have more to do with his intimate understanding of the “world stage” and how audiences help to “perform” music (albeit, primarily in their heads) than it does with supernatural or otherwise unexplainable forces.
Bob Dylan would probably contest that perspective – judging from his interviews, his songs were divinely inspired and his talent had little to do with how and where it came from. Listening to his “Slow Train Coming” record he put out years ago cannot help but support his position, the songs were pure genius.
Songs often “write themselves” as they come from real life experiences, feelings, and circumstances. As you live your life and go through these experiences you will find yourself naturally coming up with a song’s lyrics and meaning rather than sitting down to come up with an idea for a song. For me this means, “don’t overthink it”.
Moving on to the speech Dylan gave at the Musicare Awards in which he gave as detailed account as he ever has on his writing and where the songs come from. This speech was interesting, for it was Dylan’s chance to say “all these characters in these songs are all coded messages to do with the need to follow what is laid down in the Bible,”
In 1991 Paul Zollow did an interview with Dylan for “Song Talk”:
“The melodies in my mind are very simple, they’re very simple, they’re just based on music we’ve all heard growing up. And that and music which went beyond that, which went back further, Elizabethan ballads and whatnot… To me, it’s old. It’s not something, with my minimal amount of talent, if you could call it that, minimum amount… To me somebody coming along now would definitely read what’s out there if they’re seriously concerned with being an artist who’s going to still be an artist when they get to be Picasso’s age. You’re better off learning some music theory. You’re just better off, yeah, if you want to write songs. Rather than just take a hillbilly twang, you know, and try to base it all on that. Even country music is more orchestrated than it used to be. You’re better off having some feel for music that you don’t have to carry in your head, that you can write down. To me those are the people who… are serious about this craft. People who go about it that way. Not people who just want to pour out their insides and they got to get a big idea out and they want to tell the world about this , sure, you can do it through a song, you always could. You can use a song for anything, you know.”
“The world don’t need any more songs. They’ve got enough. They’ve got way too many. As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs. For every man, woman and child on earth, they could be sent, probably, each of them, a hundred records, and never be repeated. There’s enough songs. Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story.”
Not soon after this interview the iconic song of singer-songwriter Tony Arata who painstakingly worked to perfectly compose a piece called “The Dance.” The ballad blossomed into what we now know as Garth Brooks cornerstone song. According to Nashville-based music publisher Don Tolle, the song was inspired by the Kathleen Turner movie Peggy Sue Got Married. “It just hit me so hard,” Arata explained in a 2013 Tennessean interview about the classic song. “It hit me that you don’t get to pick and choose your memories in life. You have to go with things as they play out. You don’t get to alter them.”