The Lord knows best that I don’t give a damn about anyone /
Here’s something a little off the beaten track for you.
A record that snarls at you through a thick fog of smoke. And when the smoke lifts, you’re slumped up against the bar at some dusty backwater saloon. You turn to find a man who looks like Roy Orbison looming over you with a glass Coca Cola bottle in one hand and a flick knife in the other, a menacing grin behind those big sunglasses. There’s a bitter taste in your mouth, like aluminium foil. Outside, the engine of a Mustang rumbles. A clapped out old jukebox stuck on the chorus of a Ronettes song; soft sweet voices muffled behind the Spectorian wall of sound. The man’s muttering, but you can barely make it out. As you strain forward to hear, you can smell something burning, off out in the distance. A neon sign behind the bar blinks to life, bathing him in a pink glow. One frame of his glasses reads “NE”. The other, “PO”. He lurches forward, so you can smell the Lucky Strikes on his breath. You lean in, grabbing at the lapels of his black denim jacket. A coarse dirt coats your fingers, as you pull yourself closer. And there it is. The chant:
That’s the best way I know how to describe the aesthetic of this record. Its dark Americana. The throbbing basslines and tinny hi-hats that drive all the way through side A of Badlands – the first full-length release from Alex Zhang Hungtai’s (now defunct) solo project Dirty Beaches. But it’s not all pulsing menace, motor oil and leather, sailor tattoos and stale beer: Side B opens with a pair of delicate pop songs. A perfect little diptych of doo-wop and 60’s French chanson. Namely, True Blue and Lord Knows Best.
This ray of light amongst the gristle is purportedly a tribute to Hungtai’s father, who briefly had a rock’n’roll career in the Philippines back in the 60’s. And while these two tracks may carry the same schmaltzy conventions that eventually consigned those long-dead genres to the musical dustbin, it is this genuine connection, this musical heritage, that gives the songs a tender authenticity.
And not to get all “Thing X which plainly has nothing to do with copywriting actually reminds me of thing Y about copywriting…” but this does pertain to a creative impulse that I sometimes feel while writing.
I’ve used terms like “pop” and “commercial” in these 52 records posts before, and I think it’s important to point out that while some may consider these terms pejorative, I really don’t. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with accessibility and catchiness. I’ve got a bitter, savoury palette, sure, but I still enjoy an ice cream every now and again. And True Blue and Lord Knows Best are like a spoonful of ice cream alright: cool, sweet, timeless and just… just really, really good.
Yet for Hungtai, the enduring mainstream appeal of these two songs in his otherwise avant-garde oeuvre became an issue. In an interview with The Quietus in 2014 about why he was bringing the Dirty Beaches project to a close, he was asked about why he had chosen to reject this commercial sound. “It seems,” the interviewer asked “that if you stuck on that path, you’d have made a mint. Yet you steered away from that direction and have kept driving down different roads since. Would you ever think of going back to that kind of plangent style?” Hungtai responded: “Washed out has-been never-was wedding singer for hire? [laughs] Nah, I’d rather be a cook and work in a restaurant, maybe go back to my old job as a sous chef.”
Of course, he is far from the only artist to have resented their own biggest hit: take Radiohead and their breakout single Creep, or REM and the jangly treacle of Shiny Happy People. Ian Curtis of Joy Division even wrote his manager a scathing letter upon the release of Closer: arguably one of the best records ever committed to wax.
There’s a tension between authorial intent and commercial appeal which I think is really interesting. Roland Barthes’ The Death of The Author posits that a work of art exists separately from its creator (which is fantastic news for those of us who still want to enjoy The Smiths’ records and the films of Woody Allen). And while I can understand why it might be frustrating for the most popular thing you’ve ever created to also be your most simplistic, I think there’s real merit in making things that people enjoy.
Don’t get me wrong, I like much of Hungtai’s more avant-garde work. His dark, moody soundscapes, the droning electronics and sparse, evasive vocals. His work since has explored fascinating ideas about dual nationality and identity: his sense of statelessness. There has been film scores, instrumental piano pieces, ambitious double albums. But if I could only listen to two Dirty Beaches songs ever again… I’d pick True Blue and Lord Knows Best. (Sorry, Alex.) And that’s the conflict that makes this record so fascinating. In its terse 25 minute run-time, Badlands dips in and out of the darkness, stumbling along the tightrope between artistic integrity and commercial accessibility.
So what does this have to do with writing? Well, indulge me a little here: as professional writers we often end up liking a version of the copy we deliver that is the cleverest, the most technically intricate, the most writerly; the copy that uses our favourite adjectives or grammatical constructions. But sometimes, that’s not what clients are after. They often prefer the familiar option – the one that fits most closely with what they think good marketing copy should be. After all, that’s why commercial things are popular. People like familiar. Familiar works.
And that’s OK! As a professional writer, you have to get comfortable with killing your darlings; being able to stand on the smoke-enshrouded train platform and wave a tearful goodbye to that lovely little subordinate clause as it sets off to join all those self-indulgent semi-colons and wry pop culture references in the great recycle bin in the sky. It’s just the game we play.
Sure, there’s room to push back and fight your corner. But there’s a time and a place (and a way) to defend the less obvious bits of our copy. Just because you can write something fresh, edgy, and smart, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Sometimes, the ‘commercial’ option is the best option. And commercially friendly isn’t necessarily lesser, either! Writing something effective and popular is hard. We might want to write a ‘Services’ page that references Homeric verse or an annual newsletter which uses the word ‘fastidious’, but what most clients want is whatever drives sales and clicks.
Write on your own terms too, but do it in the right places. Write a book, tweet something cool, contribute to a DIY punk zine like Creative Rehab, do a blog post about an odd little record that you love but everyone else has forgotten about in which you indirectly compare yourself to Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe and Ian bloody Curtis. A blog post where you make meta fourth-wall-breaking jokes about your own writing. (Ahem.) It’s fun. It’s great practice. But you don’t have to see this kind of writing as higher or better than the commercial work that comprises a copywriter’s bread and butter.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, be careful not to get lost trying to make Speedway King when all the client wants is Lord Knows Best.
A playlist inspired by this week’s record, in case your ears haven’t been treated enough yet today.