I’m procrastinating right now. I’ve got a massive drawing that needs to be finished by next week. Somewhere between worries that I’m not quite good enough to get what I want, strong compulsive impulses to keep working on my graphic novel, and a backwards emotional response that I have to all paid work: where working on paid work paradoxically makes me feel guilty that I don’t do enough paid work; I’m stuck in a place that art does not flow.
Luckily, I have things in place for such an occasion. Namely: more art. So here’s ten (ish) songs (or song-like-things) that get me through artist’s block.
The Secret of Kells Intro Sequence
I know, this is barely a song, but it’s on here for a good reason. “The Secret of Kells” is a 2009 animated parable about a young artist in ancient Ireland, told by his uncle that his pursuit of art is frivolous. It’s a short movie, with a fairly simple moral, but as someone who’s also been told that, it resonates. There are “illuminated” works, that turn darkness into light. And the intro snippet reminds of that.
Aesop Rock – No Regrets
This song is the story of the life of a painter named “Lucy”. The description of the intense drive to create is vivid and detailed in a way that most non-visual artists don’t really get.
Marina and the Diamonds – Oh No!
Speaking of the intense drive to create, this is a song about maybe a little too much of that. It’s up-beat and poppy, but is ultimately asked a question about how much of real life you should give up in exchange for success.
Tenacious D – Tribute
Okay. So, the thing about deadlines, whether they’re from a company, or from a literal demon, is that they aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, you’ve just play something because you’ve got to, and if you’re really lucky, it’ll happen to be the best thing ever. Mostly it won’t. But there’s not really a choice, is there? So just fucking do it. Also… it feel like this says something about how important having fun is to making the best thing ever.
Chicago – Twenty Five or Six to Four
Most people don’t realize this song is literally about writer’s block. “Twenty Five or Six to Four” is a reference to 3:34, or 3:35 AM. It really encapsulates that frustration. The raucous semi-improvised guitar feels so satisfying, after “sitting cross-legged on the floor” with the poor author for the first half of the song. The combination of the upbeat song, and the joy of having someone who gets what you’re going through, really stirs my paint.
Twenty One Pilots – Pet Cheetah
Speaking of getting what you’re going through, if you know me, you knew this was coming. This is another song about writer’s block. The author doesn’t know what to write so he “takes this beat he should delete” and just goes on a rampage with this (intentionally) silly metaphor about a Pet Cheetah that writes music for him. It’s got the weird tonal whiplash of living between moments of manic creation, and the frightening moments where the flow just stops, and you’re not sure where to go next. It’s nice to know one of my favorite artists isn’t immune to creative blocks. And it helps remind me that going slow, and just sitting with things is still doing work.
Watsky – The Moral of the Story
This is not a song about sitting with anything. This is a song about pushing-through-fuck-it-all-we’re-doing-this-NOW. That’s not a block: that’s a mountain and we can climb it! This is the antidote to all the magical thinking that says art should be easy. Also this video was shot all in one take, with all the wires showing, because Watsky knows how to stick a message like that.
Misterwives – Machine
I feel like writing a song about the difficulty of frustrations of the music industry is a rite of passage for up and coming bands. (See “The Moneygoround” by the Kinks for probably the most explicit version of this.) But this one is my favorite. Misterwives, to me, is proof that joy need not be anti-intellectual. They’re aware there are serious things in life, and that’s why they make flouncy, dance-able music, with all the positive feels. And a great horn section. This is a beat you can draw to, while putting up a middle finger to anyone who ever tried to tell you the “right” way to be.
Weird Al Yankovic – The Hamilton Polka
Okay, so this one isn’t really about an artist exactly. But it follows up on the “hard-work begets talent” theme, and the line “if there’s a reason I’m still alive, when so many have died…” always really stuck out to me. And why do you write like you’re running out of time? This is just a masterpiece, and nothing gets the blood moving like a polka.
Frank Zappa – That Would Be the End of That
Okay, this isn’t really a song at all. But it gets me going. This is a not song that’s maybe about the power of “I don’t know” and subjectivity. Or it’s just a few silly stoners talking for a few seconds. I don’t know.
Twenty One Pilots – Kitchen Sink
If you take this song apart, you get a philosophical argument for the worth of human life, an explanation of how to use art to create meaning, and a personal view on subjectivity and applicability of symbolism in art. Sorry, I had to put two Twenty One Pilots songs on here. They both made such distinct statements about art, I couldn’t get rid of either.
Bob Ross remixed by John D. Boswell – “Happy Little Clouds”
Is there anything more comforting to a struggling artist than Bob Ross? This is basically the philosophy of “The Joy of Painting” condensed into a bite-sized, cotton-candy-flavored three and a half minutes. It’s just… all the feel-good vibes.
So that’s my list! If you know any other good songs (or soundbites) that are about art, or if you’ve got favorite music for pushing through artist’s block, let me know. I’m always looking for more creative fuel.