How Being Vague Gives You Extraordinary Creative Powers

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I was talking to a rapper friend recently. He’s a very popular artist, one of the most popular on the planet, if I’m just being honest.

I asked him about people picking apart his lyrics online, whether he felt any responsibility to explain himself.

“Not at all,” he said. “As an artist, that’s not something you should really get in the habit of doing. I don’t judge anyone who does it, but it’s not for me.”

I asked him why.

“That’s part of the mystique,” he said. “More importantly, if I could explain the thing I’m talking about, I wouldn’t be inclined to write a song about it. I’m not good at explaining or talking about things — that’s why I make music.”

I chuckled. What he said was funny and telling. Most musicians I know have trouble explaining their songs, let alone anything else. It’s just not something they’re good at. The ones who are, oddly enough, make terrible music. Maybe it’s because their music is too deliberate, too on the nose.

There is, I think, a collective move towards explaining things nowadays. Entire websites — “explainer” websites — are filled with articles where journalists explain things. With news, this has a lot of value.

But when it comes to creative work, I’m not so sure. Of course, it’s good for the fans. Picking things apart, trying to figure out what something means, that’s the beauty of being a fan.

Only the creator really knows what something does or doesn’t mean, what their intent was, and so on. And some things are so deliberate that they don’t need to be explained.

When a rapper says: “I fucked that bitch,” what he really means is, he fucked that bitch. There is no ‘unpacking’ that. It is very literal.

But seriously, that dividing line — this is what I mean vs. this is what you think I mean — is important, because when it ceases to exist, the work itself can be terribly affected.

Think of all the guesswork around Bob Dylan. How many books have been written based on what people “think” his lyrics mean. Hundreds. If Dylan just came out and completely explained himself, well, that might diminish him.

Mostly, I think the real fun is not knowing. In the part where you speculate — what does this mean? The Sopranos. I mean, Jesus, how many years were we all we sitting wondering what it meant when the screen suddenly went blank at the end. Here is an entire shot-by-shot breakdown of what someone thinks it meant.

And then, per The Atlantic, David Chase went ahead and finally explained it:

[T]he biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don’t stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That’s what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don’t stop believing. There are attachments we make in life, even though it’s all going to come to an end, that are worth so much, and we’re so lucky to have been able to experience them. Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it’s really worth it. So don’t stop believing.

That kind of answer, it takes some of the wind out of the ending, for sure. With the ambiguity gone, you kind of feel like, well, maybe it wasn’t that good of an ending, really. Maybe it was actually kind of terrible. Or just okay. Certainly not spectacular. Damn, maybe The Sopranos wasn’t even that good.

The point is, there’s a lot of power in ambiguity, in leaving things vague. Whether it’s a novel, music, a movie, a painting — heck, even relationships — leaving things open to interpretation allows people to draw upon the totality of what they know to make inferences. Thus, they imagine:

This is what I think it means.

When you eliminate a person’s need to infer — when you explain things — you take the mystery out. By doing this, the person experiencing the art uses their mind less; they no longer imagine, no longer question, no longer contemplate. This limits their overall emotional connection.

Give people part of the picture. Give them most of it. Almost all of it. Enough to where they can complete the puzzle on their own. But don’t be so literal as to make things too easy. That’s just boring and unnecessary.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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