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That Old Devil AI
I asked ChatGPT, the AI bot, to write a review of our most recent Damon & Naomi album. It gave us an 8.5. (I didn’t ask for a score of any kind, which maybe shows how deeply the Pitchfork-style scale has embedded itself in our culture.)
The bot also chose three tracks off our album to highlight as “standouts,” none of which exist, including one called “Broken Thing.”
I then asked the bot to write this song called “Broken Thing,” since it seemed to want to hear it. Here’s the first verse:
I’m just a broken thing
Fragile and incomplete
I’ve been shattered by the past
And left with nothing to keep
Maybe you’ve read about the surprising dialogue another AI bot had with a New York Times columnist, revealing its “secret identity” and ultimately falling in love with the writer. I don’t find that any less strange than a bot trained to mine existing knowledge writing a melancholy lyric about being shattered by the past. Was ChatGPT writing a song about its own experience? What’s more, the chorus it provided – this is again not unlike the Times writer’s eerie encounter – is something like a declaration of love:
But you, you see me in a different light
You see the beauty in my brokenness
You pick up the pieces and make them shine
You make me feel whole again
And yet - despite the seeming sincerity on the part of ChatGPT, and my native interest in the kabbalistic image of broken vessels of light - I find this song it came up with particularly cheesy. Had I ever been asked to collaborate with Max Martin, it might have come out like that.
Which is, I think, what is really going on with these AI bots – directed by our questions, they mine existing language. That is, they reflect back a version of one’s particular concerns that hews close to what is already widely accepted as a way to express them. It’s a push toward cliché; or you might say, a push toward the mainstream.
Take this song we didn’t write but supposedly could have, “Broken Thing.” Yes, that’s melancholy enough that it fits a kind of parody version of Damon & Naomi. But it’s not a vicious satire that mocks our typical tropes. It’s a far more gentle ribbing, reducing our interests to generic themes. It’s mocking us by showing us how banal we might be.
Or how commercial…?
The process reminds me of something we noticed early in our music career, when Galaxie 500 was being approached by A&R people from big labels. They were interested in us because we sounded different enough from our peers to attract some attention. But what most of them really wanted was to bring us into line with what was already successful. In other words: they were looking for the AI bot version of us, defined by our interests but filled with generic content.
This actually gives me hope for what AI might do for musicians. If all the commercial crap can be written by machine… well, that leaves art for humans.
Nick Cave put it this way, in response to a ChatGPT song a fan sent him “in the style of Nick Cave”:
“Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past. It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognizes as their known self. This is part of the authentic creative struggle that precedes the invention of a unique lyric of actual value; it is the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness, pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery; it is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognizes in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering.”
When I first read that, I thought maybe Nick Cave wasn’t speaking for me. His very heroic, protean approach to creation is something I admire, but when I end up making a new song, I don’t feel I’m practicing “self-murder.” I’m not sure I’m practicing anything, to tell the truth, other than my guitar which I tend to noodle on until something newly interesting falls out, which in turn suggests a new melody, which then suggests a new lyric. I’m not sure I have ever felt the drama of creation in quite the way Nick Cave describes.
And yet, what ChatGPT shows me is that I might be more protean than I knew. I couldn’t possibly accept writing the kind of banalities that the machine spits back.
Of course I’ve also never written a hit.
It’s no surprise how much excitement AI advances are generating in the business world, music included – like any technological innovation, especially one that has the potential to eliminate labor, AI creates opportunity for capital speculation. But like so many other digital “disruptions,” this one may just be a very old practice in disguise. Writing cliché is far from new. It doesn’t strike me as a sci-fi evil, like the New York Times writer seemed to imply. It’s just the same old devil pitching a sell out. I’ve met that dude before – in the 90s, they wore flannel to try and fit in.
Listening to: Meg Baird, Furling
Cooking: freshly dried persimmon from Korea, in the H-Mart refrigerator case
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