Work: Surviving the Arts

Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.

~by Scott Pinkmountain

On Ambiguity


Below is a written conversation between the composer/songwriter Michael Zapruder and myself. (MZ in italics)


A week or so ago we were talking about ambiguity in songwriting (or the lack thereof in the case of a particular song of mine). It’s something we’ve spoken about at length in the past, and a creative principal I’m strongly committed to. And yet, for some reason, which maybe I’m still struggling to articulate, I intentionally avoided a high degree of ambiguity on some songs I recently wrote. I understand and cherish the value of ambiguity – its expanded potential for meaning and interpretation, its grounding in realism and the lived experience, access to a greater depth and resonance – but I wonder if it’s a necessary ingredient in all art. Can there be some creative circumstance that call for limited ambiguity or none at all? If so, what might those be? If not, is ambiguity the defining element that separates art from entertainment (or something else, some non-art expression)?

I think writing or music or any art is too contextual to single out one element, even something as important as ambiguity, as a defining element. I see ambiguity as having a special status, but your question makes me think of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, large parts of which consist of the annihilation of ambiguity, really. So there’s an unforgettable and wonderful book which emphasizes extreme accuracy and thoroughness, not ambiguity. That’s also an answer to your question above, about whether there can be some creative circumstance in which ambiguity is a bad thing.

As to your question about ambiguity in art vs. entertainment, I find it really hard to make any definite connection there. What does a pop lyric like Lorde’s “We live in cities you’ll never see on screen / not very pretty but we sure know how to run free” really give you, specifically? Not much. It might even be “bad” writing, since it’s so general (You can’t really judge a lyric without its melody in my opinion). Still, the vagueness really stimulates my imagination. “Cities you’ll never see on screen” reminds me of pretty much everywhere I’ve ever been. In my mind, that’s the power of ambiguous writing right there.




I always use this example, but in Horseleg Swastikas by the Silver Jews, “I’m drunk on a couch in Nashville / in a duplex near the reservoir” is pretty specific, but is then followed by “and every single thought is like a punch in the face / I’m like a rabbit freezing on a star.” Those similes are abstract and less specific, yet they communicate the real reason for the song, i.e., the real emotions that make the song necessary. So that’s kind of a situation where a specific, unambiguous setting is almost justified by poetic ambiguity.

Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat is an incredibly vivid song, and it comes across as strict autobiography. When he sings “New York is cold but I like where I’m living / there’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening,” those are facts and are not ambiguous at all. But then, you get “and you treated my woman to a flake of your life / and when she came back she was nobody’s wife,” a line that is fundamentally ambiguous, and yet which advances the action in the song more than the facts did.

To take a contrasting example, in Going to Tennessee by the Mountain Goats: “Baseball season will be starting soon / but we have no baseball team here / I’ve got a house right on the river / I can see Arkansas from where I am”… and later “you’ve washed your face with that apricot scrub again.” That’s a song that is so specific that the specificity becomes a kind of poetic device somehow.

Maybe there’s something implied here about how ambiguity is somehow more emotionally specific than facts. The point, though, is that ambiguity, like anything else in creative work, is never an end in itself, but is always a means to some more important end. That is, ambiguity is necessary and useful just up until it isn’t anymore, at which point it should be abandoned.

It feels insane to try to define it, but for the purposes of kicking this back and forth, would you agree that creative ambiguity refers to a productive kind of incompleteness – something between the overly vague (“the rain today makes me feel sad”) and the overly specific (“nine raindrops just landed on my REI fleece, wait now another one did, and I’m sad about how I surfed the web all day instead of cooking bouillabaisse”)? Ambiguity is one of the controls a writer has, like yaw, pitch and roll in flying an airplane. You can’t fly without taking them all into account, but that means you can’t fly using one of them alone, either. 

So I’m picking up on a few different threads here. One of them being that in the Silver Jews and Cohen examples, there’s something happening where maybe the concrete, or unambiguous parts of the song are somehow activated or resonated by the ambiguous sections. Or that the two approaches excite each other – the contrast maybe sets a kind of mental vibration or tension into motion.

Likewise in the David Foster Wallace. It’s certainly true that the detailed descriptive elements of Infinite Jest strive for a kind of nano-concretism, but it’s countered by the overall non-linear structure of the book, gaping holes in narrative, non-specific placement in time, and massive unresolved plot points, which again might point to this kind of frictive balancing of concreteness with ambiguity.

I really like the way you put that. I think that gets really close to one of the ways that ambiguity in writing can be effective. And in the particular examples I chose, there really is a clear one-two punch going on between the two, which I hadn’t noticed. 

In the Lorde example you cite, a line reminding you of everywhere you’ve been, is maybe more problematic. If someone writes, “Imagine the indoors and outdoors and also that space where you’re passing under through a doorway and part of you is inside and outside at the same time,” it makes me think of everywhere I’ve ever been in an way that obliterates the potential significance of specificity.

This is maybe the topic of a totally other conversation, but it raises the issue of ambiguity’s breaking point, where it becomes either so broad and all-encompassing as to be meaningless, or likewise, so impenetrable as to essentially become Dada or gibberish. Obviously Dada art has a following and a longevity that speaks to its value, but “fish waffle bimm long honey bot” might be ambiguous Dada and it’s still crap. Is what makes it crap that there’s zero element of, or reference to the concrete? If so, the value or meaning of ambiguity is arguably generated through its relationship to the real and grounded. Maybe the answer to my question lays in the converse to this; that the purely concrete needs some element of ambiguity (however small) in order to give it weight. Or maybe I’m setting up a false duality of the concrete versus the ambiguous and there are other crucial factors I’m missing entirely? It wouldn’t be the first time.

I do love the flight metaphor you use (yaw, pitch and roll) for the different elements all being necessary, but their balance needing to be in constant, agile negotiation. But it’s also bringing up the question for me – do we consider ambiguity to be a technique, a fundamental, or is it a stylistic gesture or embellishment? If the yaw, pitch and roll of songwriting requires us to balance say, structure, technique, style, meaning, emotion (other things too, I’m sure), where does ambiguity fit into the equation? Where in the hierarchy of importance does it fall?



To your first question, about whether ambiguity is a technique, a fundamental, etc, I think it’s really hard to say anything more than, yes, it is both of those things and lots more, too. Like I said earlier, I think it has a special status somehow, but it’s probably impossible to pin it down. Any aspect of a piece of writing or music can be ambiguous. Think of inversions of chords, or polychords – that’s musical ambiguity, and in songwriting, even, that can be a critical part of the overall meaning. I’m thinking of all the inverted chords in God Only Knows by the Beach Boys, for example. If the chords were all in root position, it would all mean something completely different.

I think “importance” might not quite be the right word for the special status ambiguity has; maybe usefulness or even power is better. Ambiguity is a power, I think, and it can live in any and all aspects of music or words. 

Given that this is all contextual, maybe a better question is, In what contexts is ambiguity necessary, or most significant, most valuable?

I think it depends only on the specific needs of the piece of music or writing, but I think it’s hard to imagine a song or poem or novel that has no ambiguity anywhere but that is still excellent. So maybe I am saying that it’s not where the ambiguity lives, but simply that it lives somewhere.

Regarding the issue of specificity that you bring up with the REI fleece example, I wonder if the problem isn’t when something is overly specific, but when it’s specific in a particular kind of way. There’s banal specificity, which I think can be weirdly alienating in asking the listener to care about something inconsequential, and there’s unique specificity which can have a reverse effect of drawing the listener in even if they don’t know the references or directly relate to the experience.

I am thinking about Yoni Wolf of WHY?. In Good Friday, he sings, “Picking fights on Dyke Night / at Shirley’s, in Locs and / snatching purses. / Doing Elton at karaoke and / forgetting all the verses.” I don’t know Shirley’s or what “Locs” refers to, but I know it’s specific to him, and that somehow triggers the “specificity” node in my brain, which fills in what Shirley’s looks like in my mind.

I love his writing! To me, Dyke Night at Shirley’s is a really great mixture of specificity and ambiguity, though. I have no idea where that specific place is or what Dyke Night is like, but I know it’s a thing, and I immediately picture something. He does the same thing with Elton – that has to be Elton John, of course, but he doesn’t say what song he chose, and definitely doesn’t get lost in details about what verses he forgot, etc. 

By contrast, another Beach Boys song – Busy Doin’ Nothin’ – is incredibly banal and does kind of get lost in details:

Drive for a couple miles
You’ll see a sign and turn left
For a couple blocks
Next is mine, you’ll turn left on a little road
It’s a bumpy one

You’ll see a white fence
Move the gate and drive through on the left side
Come right in
And you’ll find me in my house somewhere
Keeping busy while I wait

My favorite part is “You’ll find me in my house somewhere.” It’s a fundamentally small song, and I think that’s at least partly due to the fact that he gives actual directions to his house in the lyrics. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about that REI fleece example you gave for overly specific writing. It strikes me as problematic if the writer is delivering that kind of writing as “confessional” or autobiographical, but potentially really excellent writing if it’s fiction or they are embodying a persona. It’s very telling of a character – someone who feels the labels on their clothes and the micro details of the day-to-day life are worth wasting other people’s time with. So with the same piece of writing, intent and delivery could manifest in very different meaning, and even value of the work itself.

I totally agree. I would say that in some basic way, traditional songs might be especially challenging for the kind of detail we’re talking about. A song wants the one or two things that represent the whole. Plus a song usually has the music providing emotional and maybe philosophical detail in a non-linguistic way, which might be why lots of very specific details seem redundant. But again, this is contextual. A song with many instruments and textures paired with words is very different than one with just an acoustic guitar. Or a song with drum machines and vocals. Or hip hop, where there might not be a melodic component to the words, and there’s room to talk about Heckler & Koch pistols or Cookie Monster or Yankee hats or whatever.

When it comes down to it, I think Tim Gunn has it right when he says, “Make it work.” Anything is possible, extreme specificity included, so long as you make it work.

And I guess as a last comment, about the special status of ambiguity, if you listen to instrumental music, something like Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major from his Op. 118, there is a kind of vastness that can only come from masterful use of ambiguity.

Ultimately, I think whatever true greatness is, it has the quality of turning the listener towards something large and real that can’t be named, and ambiguity can do that.




Michael Zapruder is an award-winning songwriter and recording artist, and a co-founder of San Francisco’s Howells Transmitter arts collective and record label. His recent work, Pink Thunder, is a collection of free verse pop art-songs made from the poems of more than twenty contemporary American poets. It’s available from Black Ocean Books.

Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in Pioneertown, CA. His writing has appeared on This American Life, in The Rumpus, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and other publications, and he hosts the Make/Work podcast for The Rumpus. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs. He works as a music analyst for Pandora Radio. He can be found at and @spinkmountain.

Aaron Hawn
is a photographer and musician who lives in Pioneertown, CA. In 2012, after cycling the back roads of Louisiana and Texas, he released a book of photography called, “Warm Dome”. Hawn’s images frequently feature barren and personal landscapes.