Your Take: Sentiment vs. Sentimentality
Craig Bickhardt recently touched on the pitfalls of excessive emotion in songwriting on his Ninety Mile Wind blog post “Cold Eye, Warm Heart”:
The world was like a distant storm
I could feel it on the breeze
But it made so little difference here
Just a whisper in the trees
Mending fence for room and board
Was mostly all I’d done
For I was still a prisoner here
The sucker rod on the windmill creaks
Now and then you hear a car
There’s thunderheads across the southern sky
But they won’t get this far
(“Six-Year Drought” by James McMurtry)
Sentimentality is wrung out of this and left to evaporate on the parched earth. McMurty’s lines are as hard and pitiless as the Texas plains, and yet they still touch something pulsating with life inside. I bet he sees his struggling ants and sheds no tears for them.
While I hold McMurtry’s standard in the highest esteem and wouldn’t change a word of it, I suppose I’m just a sucker. I’ve flirted with sentimentality all of my writing life, and maybe I’ve even crossed the line sometimes. The truth is it’s damn hard not to cross it if you feel any pity at all for the world.
Softer art for harder times? Probably won’t fly. Yet we must feel something in order to be human. There must be emotion when it is warranted, and there is indeed a perceptible difference between emotion and sentimentality even though it sometimes takes a microscope to see it. After all, it’s our compassion that keeps the human race going, and we don’t want to lose that.
In the writing we can err both ways. On either side of the good, observant narrative there are pitfalls; effusiveness or stolidity. The line between is walked with a cold eye and a warm heart.
The line between sentiment and sentimentality can be a fine one, and it doesn’t take much for a song to take you from feeling moved to feeling manipulated. Songs with strong emotional ties such as Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” BOMSHEL’s “Fight Like a Girl,” Rascal Flatt’s recent single “Why” and George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” all toe that line, with a million different results individual to millions of different listeners.
What’s your take? Are you a sucker for sentimentality? Give us an example of a song that you think effectively evokes appropriate emotions in a way that you appreciate most.
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