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Nick Cave, This Much I Know to Be True
Nick Cave, This Much I Know to Be TrueVia YouTube

Nick Cave has the fire of hell in his eyes, and it’s ChatGPT

The musician says AI songs generated ‘in the style of Nick Cave’ are ‘bullshit’ and ‘a grotesque mockery of what it is to be human’

Since Chat GPT’s launch in November 2022, dozens of people have messaged Nick Cave with songs written “in the style of Nick Cave” by the AI chatbot. Most of these people are excited to share its work with him – “buzzing with a kind of algorithmic awe” – he explains, in a recent post on his blog The Red Hand Files. The songwriter himself, however, isn’t such a fan.

Sharing one such song, sent to him by a fan named Mark from Christchurch, New Zealand, Cave initially offers a simple but damning evaluation: “This song sucks.” Even worse, though, he suggests that the song is a sign that – far from AI ushering in a new utopian age – “the apocalypse is well on its way” and apps like Chat GPT will be to blame.

How can a song be so bad that Nick Cave believes it heralds the end of the world? Is it really so bad? Well, let’s take a look at some of the lyrics. “In the depths of the night, I hear a call,” begins the first verse. A voice that echoes, through the hall / It’s a siren’s song, that pulls me in / Takes me to a place, where I can’t begin.” 

Admittedly, it’s not the most compelling songwriting of all time, and the last line kind of breaks down into nonsense. However, it does set a familiar tone for a Nick Cave song, which continues into a chorus filled with dark biblical imagery: “I am the sinner, I am the saint / I am the darkness, I am the light / I am the hunter, I am the prey / I am the devil, I am the saviour.” Ok, this obviously isn’t written by the same guy who brought us Ghosteen or “Into My Arms”, either, but as a cheap AI knockoff it’s passable.

Not according to Cave, though. “What ChatGPT is, in this instance, is replication as travesty. ChatGPT may be able to write a speech or an essay or a sermon or an obituary but it cannot create a genuine song,” he says, adding: “Mark, thanks for the song, but with all the love and respect in the world, this song is bullshit, a grotesque mockery of what it is to be human, and, well, I don’t much like it.”

“Although, hang on! Rereading it, there is a line in there that speaks to me – ‘I’ve got the fire of hell in my eyes’ – says the song ‘in the style of Nick Cave’, and that’s kind of true. I have got the fire of hell in my eyes – and it’s ChatGPT.

Interestingly, Cave’s criticisms are more to do with the origin of the song than its actual contents. “Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel,” he says. “Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend.”

What makes a song great, he goes on, “is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognises in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering”.

In his criticisms of ChatGPT, Nick Cave may seem out of touch with the realities of modern technology, and his assertions that good songs “arise out of suffering” and require “an act of self-murder” do seem a bit... grandiose. At the heart of his argument, though, there’s a good point about the rise of AI creativity, and the widespread backlash: isn’t the human element of art like Nick Cave’s – whether that’s the suffering, or the romance, or the moments of transcendence despite all our flaws – what we love about it in the first place? And so, can AI ever really eclipse human artists, as many fear it will?

Currently, Nick Cave is writing songs for a new album with the Bad Seeds – the follow-up to 2019’s Ghosteen. “It may sound like I’m taking all this a little too personally, but I’m a songwriter who is engaged, at this very moment, in the process of songwriting,” he concludes at the end of the Red Hand Files blog post. “It’s a blood and guts business, here at my desk, that requires something of me to initiate the new and fresh idea. It requires my humanness.” AI models like ChatGPT may be advancing at an unprecedented rate, but it doesn’t feel like that’s going to change anytime soon.