Authorial Intent: Music’s Constant Custody Battle

Somebody once told me Smash Mouth’s Astro Lounge is actually allegorical of the UK’s Suffragette Movement. Of course it isn’t, but herein lies an interesting quandary: with whom does the meaning of a piece of art belong?

At the heart of every work is a message, transmitted from a creator to their audience. A personal anguish, a concept, an observation. Every artefact has a purpose, and that purpose can fall anywhere on the spectrum between “vessel of self-expression” and “explicitly related to a specific event or series of events”.

Meaning can only lie squarely with the creator if their work is never shown to anyone, for it’s not the job of the listener to research or to know of artwork’s purpose prior to engaging with it. There’s nothing personal about imbibing something through the eyes of its creator, not much cause for connection. And when something is so literal that it can only really be read in a certain way, it threatens invalidating itself. If it can’t be interacted with, what’s it worth?

Leaving it all in the hands of the creator can breed bad results. You know when a character in a studio-set TV show picks up a big boulder, struggling under its weight and grunting as they launch it off-screen, but it’s quite clearly a hunk of airbrushed polystyrene? The intention is clear: this character is so angry as to channel it into supreme strength – it just looks silly, though, coursing through the air in exactly the way an actual boulder would not, with no regard for the laws of physics. Laws which are exempt from public scrutiny and interpretation. Similarly fraudulent is Muse’s Drones. Here’s an album which, if it wasn’t already obvious, outs Matt Bellamy as having just discovered the internet and various conspiracy theory sites, paranoid about an impending dystopia because he has to make up something to worry about as he plots his eventual pilgrimage to the Moon.

It really is stifling when an artist is overly possessive. These things are portcullises to exploration and comprehension.

In this instance, the intended (or invented) meaning is that the government (a secret society known as The Pentaverate) is spying on, and killing, the world with drones. It’s very subtle. The only known method to combat such unruly fascism is death-by-boredom, in this instance repeating a recycled riff for six minutes. The whole thing can actually be salvaged, though, if you interpret it as a parody of delusional artistry. Look at Drones through that particular viewfinder and suddenly it’s much more enjoyable. Chalk another one up for audience response.

I wouldn’t say that I completely subscribe to the notion that music belongs to patrons. We the many and vocal just don’t do well with the responsibilities afforded to us when we’re allowed to scrutinise music. In acts of near barbarism, we’ll aggrandize that which we hold dear because, man, do we love the sweet allure of enigma.

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds? It’s right there in the name! It’s definitely about LSD and it doesn’t matter that such has been refuted repeatedly. And did you know that you can synchronise The Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz and it totally works? These are infamous, if dated, examples, sustained by overwhelming consensus and hivemind attraction, but I’d say that they’re indicative of a collective persistence to find further meaning that isn’t necessarily there. We’ve accrued a dependency on getting our minds blown, staggering up to the internet’s front door and shouting “got any more of them sick facts, bro?” through the letterbox, so that we may bestow them upon the rest of the world like a mighty harbinger of rad epiphanies and receive the appropriate adulation – to the point where anything that can’t be posted as a Reddit TIL holds no value.

There’s a sort of spectrum of ownership, then. I don’t want to discount the artists and strip them of their craft, and I don’t think that any fans are entitled to do the same. But it really is stifling when an artist is overly possessive. Track-by-track descriptions serve the same purpose to an album as a running faucet does to a plate of fine food. Sometimes, the interview that you think is shedding light on the themes of your album is actually the white lab-coat from any film, listing everything that’s happened because your audience is too thick to work it out for themselves.

These things are portcullises to exploration and comprehension. Stories can be told and subject matters utilised without the constraints of over-explanation. Leave it open for entry so that listeners can amble in and get lost.

Ashley Collins
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Ashley Collins

Ashley is a Noted co-founder, scribbling his thesaurused thoughts on music and all its accessories from his South England sty.
Ashley Collins
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