The most romantic music is often inspired by the most dysfunctional relationships. Allison Shrager explores the conundrum of the muse ...


The Hollywood version of me: a young starlet with impossibly shiny hair and a tweed blazer. She was playing a Columbia economics PhD candidate with a dissertation that sounded a lot like mine, on a network sitcom written by my ex-boyfriend. The principal character on the sitcom is his television alter-ego, and the fashionable economist played his new love interest. My actual relationship with the comedy writer was brief and definitely over. So I was surprised that such a short and unsatisfying relationship would inspire anything at all. Did my former boyfriend just need material? Did he realise that every sitcom needs a pretty, young economist? Was he playing out some unresolved feelings for me? In principle, inspiring a sitcom character would seem very romantic. In practice it was flattering, but also uncomfortable and confusing.

The role of the musesomeone who can inspire something wonderful, moving and ever-lastingoccupies a romantic space in our psyche. We’d all like to think we have a little Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel in us. But while she inspired great music, she also had painful and fraught relationships (hence her many surnames). More often than not, if someone creates art about you, it’s probably because the relationship itself was difficult and unfulfilling. Legend has it that the song "You Give Love a Bad Name" was inspired by Jon Bon Jovi’s brief fling with Diane Lane. Bon Jovi ended up marrying and having four children with his high-school sweetheart, but this lasting romance doesn’t seem to have yielded any memorable ditties.  

To an economist, the inspiration behind creativity is a compelling mystery. Creativity fuels innovation, which leads to economic growth. Successful innovation often comes from some form of conflict, a problem that needs solving. Personal turmoil, however, can undermine productivity—that is, unless you work in a creative industry. For artists, personal conflict tends to be a source of inspiration.  

My experience with the comedy writer made me curious about what drives the creative process in popular culture. Like television sitcoms, music is among the more accessible art forms, and songs about love tend to be the most popular forms of music. But if you listen carefully, most love songs tend to be about romantic disappointment, or nostalgia for something that’s gone. There are notable exceptions (eg, PJ Harvey’s joyful album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea), but most happy love songs verge on cloying (eg, most everything Paul McCartney did when he was in Wings). In interviews with several composers and songwriters about the relationships that inspired their music, few said they wrote about happy, long-term relationships while they were in them. 

Sxip (pronounced Skip) Shirey (pictured right), a composer and performer, is still recovering from a brutal break-up. But this has resulted in some of his most successful work to date, including a song called "Melody for Lizzie", which was performed by the Boston Pops on New Year's Eve 2009.  “Art is borne out of necessity,” he explains. “Music is a tool and men are doers. When a relationship is working, you don’t need to write a song—you need to get toilet paper.”

Indeed, the music he writes often conveys a desire to win a lover back. “When a relationship ends you still want to interact with that person,” he says. I asked if that ever works. “No, never,” he replies quickly. “But the songs I write for my last girlfriend are usually what attracts the next woman in my life. Women are attracted to the idea that you’re emotional and romantic.”

Sometimes Shirey writes about women he was not really involved with at all. “One of my most commercially, popular songs, “Knockin’”, was about a woman who kept coming over with wine, but wouldn’t sleep with me—so frustrating.”

Jonathan Meiburg of the band Shearwater also never writes about happy relationships. “It’s too much pressure,” he explains. “The girl may not like it or I might reveal something about my feelings I don’t want her to know. Or, I might uncover feelings I don’t want to acknowledge.” His last album, The Golden Archipelago, was recorded just before a serious relationship ended, and the songs certainly reflect this tension. Meiburg, a trained scientist, believes conflict and tension are what enable creativity. Friction sparks any process, scientific or creative, he says.

Tension is also what inspires Marc Urselli, a composer and music producer. A serial monogamist who is now in a happy relationship, Urselli rarely writes songs about romance, preferring to write about travel or his life in New York. He can recall creating only one song inspired by a romantic relationship, called "Oz on the Moon" on his new album Past the Mark. It chronicles something brief that happened years ago: he pursued a woman who was elusive, then as he lost interest she began to pursue him. The song features voicemail messages from her that mark the shift in power. I asked him why this relationship inspired a song when more meaningful and lasting relationships did not. He claims it was the intensity. “Long-term relationships are less intense because the emotions are so spread out. So many emotions are condensed into a short amount of time with a brief relationship or a break-up.”  

Kerry Muzzey, a gay composer for film and television, says he can’t even imagine what a song inspired by his current stable relationship would sound like. He explains he needs a relationship to be over for him to be able to reflect on it creatively. “Someone is not a muse until they are gone,” he says. “Creativity is the result; it is borne of something that happened and is now over.”

One of his better known songs is called "Looking Back". It was written after a relationship ended and Muzzey was alone with his piano in an otherwise empty apartment. He started improvising to “wallow” in his feelings, and he ended up recording the results. The music is now the love theme on the popular television show "Glee". He finds it remarkable that a song he wrote so quickly was the one that has become so popular, when other pieces he toiled at are not. He suspects it is the raw emotion in a song like 'Looking Back' that resonates with the public. What is also interesting is that music that is meant to capture the euphoria of new love is in fact a break-up song. How many other romantic songs—the kind played at weddings, saywere actually inspired by a doomed relationship?

Several artists remarked it is the intensity of a break-up that fuels their creative process. But what about the intensity of a new relationship? Why doesn’t the intoxication of early love inspire music? Urselli’s explanation makes sense: when he’s in that stage of a relationship, he’d rather spend time with his new lover than write music.

For Muzzey, composing music after a break-up is his way of dealing with his feelings. (For this reason, he finds that going into therapy stymies his song-writing, and so is best avoided.) When you’re lovelorn, it’s like “two things grinding together to bring forth creativity,” he says. “In the euphoria stage of love there are no two opposing forces grinding.”

Is the relationship between love and creativity any different for women song-writers? I asked Elizabeth Ziman of Elizabeth and the Catapult, who just finished her second album “The Other Side of Zero”. Her first album, written during a happy relationship, contains few, if any, love songs. But her new album, written during a break-up, is nearly all about love. Did she hope to win back her boyfriend with any of these songs? “No,” she replies firmly. “I was hoping to explore my feeling about the break-up and see what I could learn about myself, so I could do better next time.”

Dayna Kurtz, a songwriter, agrees. Now happily married, she says that most of her work was inspired by the many bad relationships she had before she met her husband. Writing these songs was often about moving forward and gaining closure. The happiness she enjoys with her husband in fact inspired two years of writer’s block. Kurtz now rarely writes about love or relationships.

Is turmoil a necessary ingredient for artistic success? Quite a few musicians I spoke to worry that peace in their personal lives robbed them of their creative spark. Most of them listed artists they admire whose work suffered when they married. Muzzey expressly wonders whether a happy, stable relationship might jeopardise his financial success. The male songwriters and composers spoke of the creative influence of tension and conflict, and one even mentioned rage. But when I asked if writing songs relieved that tension and helped them move on, most looked at me strangely and quickly said no, that only comes with time or meeting someone else. This contrasts with the women I spoke to, who often said they sought closure from their songs. For them, songwriting was a way to reflect so that they could learn and grow.

A love song is a snapshot of a time in your life. These songs are powerful for the way they preserve an intensity of feelings, and remain potent long after the feelings of the composer change. Alas, the same is not true of a character on a long-running sitcom, which can be tweaked and tinkered with over time. I knew my ex-boyfriend was over me when the love-interest of his television alter-ego, that lovely young female economist, was suddenly transformed into a lesbian who marries the woman she has a baby with. So it goes.  


Allison Schrager is an economist based in New York. Picture credit: VERY URGENT Photography, Xanetia (both via Flickr)