What’s Your Message?

I recently saw Lady Gaga on Ellen. Ellen was kidding her about her outrageous outfits. She asked her , “So what’s this all about?” This was her reply:

“The whole point of what I do–the monster mall, the music, the performance art aspect…I wanna create a space for my fans where they can feel free and they can celebrate, because I didn’t fit in in high school and I felt like a freak. So I like to create this atmosphere for my fans where they feel like they have a “freak in me” to hang out with–and they don’t feel alone. This is really who I am. And it took a long time to be OK with that, because [I felt] discriminated against…Sometimes in life you don’t always feel like a winner, but that doesn’t mean that your not a winner.”

Standing ovation. Thunderous applause. I got a little weepy as I watched her talk. This is one of the best examples of an artist’s message that I know of. With her quirky performance style, risque and even funny lyrics, ridiculous hats and rubber dresses, Lady Gaga has created her own world that she can safely exist in. And anyone who wants to can visit her there. It is generous and brilliant.

OK I’ll stop gushing about Lady Gaga. Who else in the music industry has a strong and evident message? How about Kenny Chesney? The Nashville Scene did a feature article on Chesney entitled “Why This Guy?” In a very respectful manner, the entertainment publication discussed how a 5’6”, very average-looking, average-sounding guy could be one of this biggest-selling artists in the world. The key: his message.

Think about it. Many of his big hits mention the names of epic songs (“‘Jack and Diane’ painted a picture of my life and my dream” from his hit “I Go Back”). Most of his hits talk about sand, toes, margaritas, tropical destinations…places that his target listener will not be going any time soon. His albums are produced with an Island feel, and the artwork drives the message home. Another one of my favorites: Dolly Parton. I’ve never heard Dolly say what her message is, but I bet I can guess: “I doesn’t matter where you come from, what you have, or what you don’t have. Life is there for the living. God gave you the ability to choose your destiny.” I hope she doesn’t mind me putting those words in her mouth, but her unspoken message has been major influence on my life and my music.

What’s YOUR message? What do you want to say with your music? This is going to be one of your toughest challenges as an aspiring artist. Here is your homework. Print this section out and work through it.

  1. Make a list of landmark events in your life that have shaped you and made you who you are. How can you use these past hurts, failures, bad breakups, as well as your triumphs to shape your art/music? (Ex: 1987 house burned to the ground/lost everything; 1991 my son was born; 1996 graduated college; 2000 saw Bekka Bramlette perform for the first time; etc…)
  2. What do you want your audiences to take away with them from your shows? (i.e. do you want them to feel like partying all night? Go be alone with their significant others? Go home and cry?)
  3. Write down 3 artists that you love, and describe each one’s message.
  4. Write down a list of 10 songs from different artists that you wish were yours to record. Have fun with it. Put them in the order you think they should go. Now, find the common thread in these songs. NOTE: If your choices are all over the map, then you chose poorly. Focus your style better, and try again.
  5. If the above list was actually the track list to your new album, what would the name of it be? If you’re really getting into this, sketch out or describe the album cover, too! Do it right here:

You will hear me say this many times: If you are serious about being an artist, then figuring out your message is not optional. You must figure it out. Your audience will not try to see it. You must show them. Many years ago, my childhood idol was the great Christian artist Steve Green. I remember how my arms would go numb from adrenaline when seeing him live in concert. When I finally got to meet him, I was a nervous, hot mess (I was 12). I shook his hand and blurted out something like, “I want to do what you’re doing!” His reply burned a whole in my heart, so that I’ve never forgotten it. He said, “Well, that’s good. But don’t be in a hurry to get on stage, and then have nothing to say.”

An artist who has nothing to say is of no use to anyone. Word.

Oh, and by the way, here’s that Lady Gaga interview:

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Making of the B.A. Mechanic

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