I get it—the novelty of entering a prompt and seeing coherent text appear near-instantaneously is undeniable, and it’s a pretty short leap from there to “I wonder if this thing can write songs.” And it can— sorta. A supercomputer trained on the right data can emulate the technical formalities and structure of a poem or set of lyrics (such as the syllable count or the rhyme scheme), but they usually only approach emotional resonance incidentally or accidentally. Far more often, it will create a simplified pastiche of pre-existing art, devoid of the elements that make the original interesting (Colin Meloy wrote that ChatGPT’s new Decemberists song is “remarkably mediocre,” while Nick Cave assessed an AI-generated Nick Cave song as being “a grotesque mockery of what it is to be human”).
It’s foolhardy to expect this new generation of large language models to instantly generate meaningful, finished art. But what if we view these tools as collaborators rather than an instant song factory—less an outsourcing of creative work and more an infinitely renewable deck of oblique strategies? As with most machines, the best output tends to come from the most refined input. So rather than tasking ChatGPT with creating an idea from scratch, I figured I at least needed to give it a title.
I first typed the phrase “time is running away from me” in an email at work—I was searching for a different figure of speech (perhaps “time is catching up with me”), but that’s what came out instead. I had a vague idea for a melody behind those words, a vague sense of what the title implied (a subtle indictment of the time crunch that capitalism puts us all into?), and a spare 10 minutes. So I directed my web browser to ChatGPT, performed a CAPTCHA to prove that I myself wasn’t a robot, typed "write a buncha verses of an uptempo rock song called Time Is Running Away From Me about losing track of goals and deadlines because of the inexorable passage of time” and hit enter. Ten seconds later, I was staring at a lyric sheet: