A Good American Life Examined: THE MYSTERY OF SONGWRITING PART 4

When I wrote the song A Good American Life everything happened pretty fast. I’d stopped at Whole Foods on the way to the office and had a friendly exchange with the woman at the register. She’d mentioned how the previous evening she’d come home, made herself dinner, and settled in to spend the evening binge watching one show or another on TV. I quipped “sounds like a good American life to me,” causing us both to laugh as I headed off to continue my day. But as I walked to my car the words struck me as interesting, and a song began to form. By the time I arrived at work 15 minutes later the song was basically done and it received little treatment thereafter, other than some structural editing. Since that day I’ve had time to consider those lyrics--words that came through me more than from me--to ruminate on how writing that song directly about myself would have meant so much less in the end.


A Good American Life Examined: Starting out on the right foot

 The song begins as follows:

I wake up in the morning
The alarm clock tells me when
Pour a cup of coffee and hit the road again
Find the nearest freeway
I got places to be
Sounds like a Good American Life to me

I’m headed to the office
Or the job-site or the mill
Time to make some money time to pay some bills
‘Cause they’re charging me for things
That I used to get for free
Sounds like a Good American Life to me

Are these words about me and my life? Of course they are, if they weren’t I couldn’t sing them with honesty. But my experience of the “American life” is not just mine, it’s a shared experience. There are lots of people feeling frustration regarding how much work is required just to survive in this, the self-proclaimed greatest country on the planet.  While this song is authentically about me and it’s true that my feelings of dissatisfaction did stir inspiration to action (allowing the song to arrive almost automatically), those feelings were channeled into an inclusive structure rather than an exclusive one.

The song doesn’t get into my specific route to work or my chosen occupation or my local utility company’s name, but rather uses general language to express those same ideas and, in doing so, leaves itself wide-open for others to relate to. 

A Good American Life Examined: The Rubber Meets the Road

At this point the song reaches its chorus:

Sounds like a Good American Life to me
Just trying to catch my breath
So I can tell myself I’m free
Feels like I’m running in circles
Guess I’ll wait and see
Sounds like a Good American Life to me

In the structure of this song the first two verses are highly relatable, or rather, they are written in a way that most people in the world, whether American or not, can find some commonality with. However, the chorus of the song represents a choice point for the listener, the line just trying to catch my breath so I can tell myself I’m free presents the possibility of interpretation in one of many ways. The listener is free to read as much or as little as desired into this line. It is suggestive, yes, but it’s also something that the listener can choose to assign value to based on their own comfort-level, on what freedom means to them.

The song has led the listener to this point with relatable content and from this point forward the listener will decide what, if anything, the song will mean moving forward--how deep they want to think or feel--if at all. The first two verses are something of a hand-railing that leads to this “choice” line, they are a comforting feature built into the song: the song has been safe so far, only ever inviting the listener to project their own life details onto the lyrics, so why not keep going?

A Good American Life Examined: Setting both listener and song free

 The song finishes as follows:

Now we’ve got ships in the gulf
We got ‘em in Japan
Got boots on the ground in Germany and Afghanistan
They got families and loved ones
And kids they ain’t never seen
Sounds like a Good American Life to me

I keep waiting on a whistle
When everyone will stop
But they keep right on telling us there’s room up at the top
So I’m getting up tomorrow
Guess that’s how it’s gonna be
Sounds like a Good American Life to me

By the 3rd verse the song has moved into the vicinity of the military industrial complex, and by the last verse nothing less than capitalism is up for discussion, depending on how one chooses to interpret the lyrics, that is. The idea is that once a song has established its “safe” structure it can expand quickly and freely, taking on larger and larger topics with less and less need for explanation or reassurance, as if this expansion were expected somehow. The song's evolution is natural as it continues, with earlier verses working to acclimate listeners to what's ahead, much like preceding rings in a tree explain successive rings. Of course this must be done respectfully and carefully.

A Good American Life functions as a song because it adheres to a single rule (I’m not talking about song forms and structures, although many of those rules are all present as well): the song never tells the listener how to feel about a thing, it only provides the listener with the opportunity to ask themselves how they feel about that thing. The song paints pictures that are all too real, giving a voice to things most of us see every day. It dwells on weighty matters that find us after we’ve turned out the lights at night and dances with dangerous thoughts and ideas that have been known arrive when we are silent, waiting for sleep to come. In the end, that is the designed function of the song: the lyrics communicate aspects of reality that are often ignored and offer a safe space in which to consider those things.

The song offers no answers. It’s not that they’re well-hidden, they’re simply not there. The song didn't arrive with any answers, and that's a good thing I think. If I'd included my version of answers into the song it would be ineffective, really. What good are my answers? The only thing that matters in the end are the answers we all agree on together. This is the reason I’m such of fan of songs that let people consider these things in their own way and their own time, their own space. 

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Americana Singer Songwriter Ed Dupas’ lived-in melodies unwind with reflective lyrics that speak to the current state of the human condition. Soothing where possible, agitating where necessary, and calling for change where appropriate. Ed Dupas creates and shares well worn wide awake music.

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