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A Certain Tendency in American Songwriting1
No, Don, the Levee Wasn’t Dry—and No One Was Drinking Whiskey and Rye....
Nothing is as approved as mediocrity—the majority has established it. — Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)
Don McLean’s “American Pie” has been one of the most celebrated songs of recent decades—do a quick web search and you’ll occasionally even encounter it named the best song ever written. It’s regularly trotted out as a fine example of “Poetic Lyrics” in popular songwriting, and there’ve surely been countless precocious high schoolers and callow undergraduates who’ve written papers of which they’re quite proud dissecting the song; detecting references and deducing “hidden meanings” contained therein.
The chorus—almost always regarded as the most important part of any song lyric, and necessarily repeated several times (seven in “American Pie”)—goes as follows:
Bye, bye Miss American Pie.
What I find so annoying is the utter clumsiness—clumsiness not just motored by once and quickly (and so possibly pardonable in a rush of more resonant phrases and melody) but repeated, emphasized, hammered home, with all those iterations.
Levees are never “dry”—or wet—unless we’re talking about a recent rain or a dropped soda. A levee is not a body of water, but an earthwork that contains a body of water. One might note, similarly, that a lake might be dry; but not a bridge. Nor a levee. Period.
And rye? Rye is a kind of whiskey—so “drinking whiskey and rye” is roughly equivalent to “eating eggs and egg yolks” or “watching television and a television show”.
Again, one can perhaps generously excuse a less-well written phrase if it comes in a tightly wrapped package of other ideas and observations, some or most of which stand strongly on their own—or comes along just once, possibly, in passing. That’s not what’s happening here, however—we’re just getting hit with one inanely half-baked notion after the other, with really nothing worthy of attention along the way, and then we’re to endure it all again, and again, and again....
There’s no excuse for treating writing of such abysmal conception and execution with anything other than ridicule and dismissal—and, more substantively (and perhaps unfortunately), for ignoring everything else delivered in the song. To repeat, the chorus above is the very heart of it—the part which needs to be the most elegant, precise, evocative and/or clear. And frankly, if a songwriter can’t even clear that fundamental hurdle, his or her extrapolations, illustrations, allusions and digressions likely do not merit further examination. So, um—ya got anything else, Don?
One can actually find, believe it or not, an apologetics which asserts McLean was referring to a supposed bar called The Levee in his hometown of New Rochelle which closed down—so it went “dry”—forcing drinkers to drive a couple of towns away to imbibe in the town of Rye, and that McLean is actually singing “drinking whiskey IN Rye”. I’m not going to waste my time investigating this—for two reasons. (Well, three if you count that life is too short to squander on deference to obvious stupidities—I also don’t spend time pondering if Elvis is still alive, or if he was the Second Shooter firing from the Grassy Knoll....)
First off, he’s not singing “whiskey IN Rye”—that’s pretty danged clear. (I’ll deal with aspects and examples of popular song criticism that are similarly wild-eyed and fatuous—sometimes from otherwise ostensibly knowledgeable and very respected critics—later in this essay.)
Secondly, if he actually were so profoundly self-referential and self-indulgent, it would make the entire song unhinged and self-absorbed to the point of insignificance. (I’ll propose some basic public and creative responsibilities in songwriting later in the essay as well.)
Then there’s the vacant title—in that chorus, so also repeated seven times. “Miss American Pie” being a heavy-handed manufacture of ostensible cultural personification, but with the critical deficiency that it has really no connection to events in the song or to any external touchstone. (Well except to exist as a clumsy non sequitur signifier, I guess—a “signifier without significance”. And so yes, please, “Bye-bye....”)
The several verses are merely superficial and impetuous delineations of pop culture celebrities and events, sheathed within irritatingly coy obscurations. Why? To what purpose? Is anything served or advanced by the cutesy conceits (the Jester, King, Jack Flash, etc) other than the songwriter’s hubris?
In the end, there’s no necessity in treating writing this innocuous—and this assertively, repeatedly delivered, despite all that blunderbussing—seriously. Does one take anything away, really, from the disquisition? Is there even one useful insight imparted during the long commentary? For all McLean’s aspirations, and the renown the song has attained, in the end it’s but a tediously bumbling and flighty exposition, married to a generally agreeable tune that’s dispatched with bumptious assurance, and nothing more. Exanimate loquacity; reflection shorn of insight, recitation sans revelation.3
And for those perhaps kinder or more indulgent toward Mr McLean’s lyrical maladroitness in “American Pie”, thinking me too exacting or categorical, I’ll later also address why such matters are in fact fundamental to capable and resonant songwriting.
1Titled with apologies to the late François Truffaut.
2“American Pie”, copyright 1971 by Don McLean. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.
3A reader arriving at this early point in the essay with reservations about the general judgment—preferring to see a specific line-by-line analysis substantiating such a categorical determination—is directed to later sections, particularly in Part Four, but elsewhere as well, which do exactly that with other similar songs. There’s not enough time to here go through the lengthy “American Pie” line by line—but the deficiencies and general half-assedness of the effort are not at all unique to it.
“There Goes The(?) Robert E. Lee”
Either one is serious or one is not. — Susan Sontag (1933–2004)
Let’s look at another revered song, one that comes to us from the other direction, in that it attempts (via fictional first person chronicle) to present a very direct and immediately accessible picture of historical actuality—sans “American Pie’s” bogus trappings and ostensible poesy:
Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the bells were ringing,
Back with my wife in Tennessee; when one day she called to me,
Like my father before me, I will work the land,
Where to begin? Well, in the beginning....
This song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” written by The Band’s Robbie Robertson, has three verses, all of them serviceable, workmanlike. The (most important) first verse capably sets up the character, the milieu, his reactions, torment and loss. I quibble with this or that line and word choice, but it’s generally quite good work; demanding deferential attention—and especially promising, even novel, given that I for one can’t think of even one other Civil War remembrance in contemporary or traditional song from either a Union or a Confederate vantage.
But then.......unfortunately........we get to the chorus. And—Oh. My. God....
Of course, there was no single “night they drove old Dixie down”, though probably the most fitting candidate for such designation would be the day Federal troops finally entered the Confederate capital, Richmond, on—I just checked—April 2nd.
Digression: So why the mention of May 10th in the song? The only significant event happening on that date was the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, camped with a small group of loyal lieutenants by a stream hundreds of miles away in south Georgia. But his apprehension was essentially an anti-climax at that point, and of far less consequence than Richmond being evacuated, Lee surrendering on April 9th, or Confederate General Joe Johnston surrendering the largest Southern army on April 26th; among other larger and smaller rebel surrenders all across the South, stretching on to June 2nd. Dwelling on the calendrical caprice is unproductive here, except to note that in a song already cataloguing lesser-known historical events—and Union General Stoneman’s cavalry raids on the Richmond & Danville Railroad are certainly that—continuing such historical authority is implicitly important; and further, affords the availability of an even wider foundation. And just tossing out a date without reason for it is a wasted opportunity. These observations and reservations may admittedly be of secondary moment, but they’re certainly neither picayune nor impertinent. Later in this essay, I’ll look at similar opportunities that were exploited rather than squandered.
But let’s move on, because it’s the chorus as a whole that is such an incredibly cavernous and consummate disaster.
The night they drove old Dixie down (whatever date we’re agreeing that was, though again the only reasonable one is when Union troops captured the Confederate capital, and it’s clear that’s the area the singer was in at the time) “and all the bells were ringing”. WHAT? In the defeated South? In a Richmond set ablaze by retreating rebels, prison inmates all escaped and on the loose, liquored-up mobs looting the stores, the arsenal blown up in a blast so large it shattered windows and toppled cemetery tombstones over a mile away—and the remaining populace braced for even worse from invading Yankee hordes? Bells don’t get rung all over a city in observance of defeat (or by fire departments, none of which are gonna be functional or even staffed in such chaos). They weren’t in 1945 Berlin, in 1940 Paris, or in 1814 Washington when the British set fire to the White House and US Capitol. (The only people celebrating Union victory in the South, and while celebrating doing so with necessary circumspection, were black—clearly not at all the populace the singer of this song is representing.)
But “the people were singing”? Really? The South in ruins, its capitol city engulfed in flames, drunken rioters in the streets—and if you didn’t know that, you surely assumed as much, no? (You didn’t presume the women were all tossing flowers out windows to the hated Northerners; the remaining old men and boys on their front porches offering whiskey to the detested invaders—did you? Or that everyone calmly left their threatened homes and possessions—to walk to church, where they all joined in song there?) Except for the strictly and obtusely mechanical aspect—the lines rhyme—they make absolutely no sense whatsoever. It’s utter stupidity.
However, we’re still not at the most insipid part of this song, believe it or not—this song that began with such promise.
Because what, exactly, were “the people singing”? This is the climax of the chorus, after all—potentially the place where the song should reasonably be expected to have its greatest insight, it’s most profound and lasting resonance and revelation. So maybe it’ll all come together here—somehow justifying those preceding couple of lines and wrapping everything up in an epiphanic resolution.
Oh, no it won’t.
Incredibly—pointlessly, frivolously, idiotically—the people were all singing “Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na; Na, Na, Na, Na; Na, Na, Na, Na, Na.”! (Even while typing this—and having heard the song countless times over the intervening years since it was released—I can’t help but shake my head in disbelieving derision....)
This is songwriting so ineffectual, so nonessential—so ultimately impotent—that it should be laughed at in contempt.
Yet here’s what a few major, widely-respected critics have written about it:
Ralph J. Gleason: “Nothing I have read … has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does…‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ is a remarkable song…It has that ring of truth, and the whole aura of authenticity.”5
Greil Marcus: “What it says was clear from the moment it was released…its power, though, is too great to take for granted…You can’t get out from under the singer’s truth…to this day none of us has escaped its impact, what we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one.”6
Gilbert Cruz: “One of Time Magazine’s Top One Hundred Songs of All Time.”7
My heart goes out to these fellows. They’re all surely bright, generally perceptive guys, and they all certainly and sincerely wanted to hear and engage a substantive and evocative, intelligent piece of lyric writing on this unusual topic, from this unheard quarter—as would I, myself a Southerner. So they simply ignored the actuality…and wrote about what they’d like to have experienced.
Though it usually is, a song’s chorus doesn’t necessarily have to be the lyrically strongest part of a song. In an effort like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, for instance, with so much description and information set in the verses, the chorus could be something entirely distinct from them—and so the divergent but inane “Na-Na-Na”’s replaced with something equally as divergent but genuinely evocative; like the sentiments found in a church hymn perhaps, or maybe general reflections on the senselessness of war. (Imagine first jettisoning the “bells were ringing / people were singing” foolishness and replacing it with another angle of personal or general reflection from the narrator [in similarly patterned rhyming couplet], then following with a direct lift of lines from a Baptist hymnal over the extant tune—or even part an actual hymn or pastoral folk song, including that melody or a recognizable variation on it. I’m not asserting any of this thinking is necessarily the strongest way to go, but just about anything is stronger—more integrated, substantive and consistent—than the maundering drivel there now....) Later on in this essay, we’ll also take a brief look at the obvious general folly of using “la-la-la” and similar in a song which attempts to be a serious piece of work.
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As for the heading of this section—“There goes the(?) Robert E. Lee”—this quotes just one of Joan Baez’s at best ignorant bastardizations of the song in her hit version of it; a song that’s already, as established above, largely a piece of inchoate babble. “The Robert E. Lee” was a paddle-wheel steamboat plying the Mississippi River in the latter 1800s. While one can obviously accept seeing it might elicit bystander interest, this has NOTHING AT ALL to do with ANYTHING in the song. I’ll not take time here detailing the further incoherences she cavalierly inflicts on the piece—it’s admittedly a bit of a divagation—but do some web searches if you’re curious. The song may not deserve great respect, but her departures and interpolations only compound its problems. And it all underscores, again, the superciliousness and superficiality pandemic in popular song and popular song criticism.
4“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, copyright 1969 by Robbie Robertson. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.
5Rolling Stone, October 1969.
6Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll (New York: Penguin, 1975), 55.
7Time Magazine, October 21, 2011.
To What End?
I’m patient with stupidity, but not with those who are proud of it. — Edith Sitwell (1887–1964)
Perhaps the point has been sufficiently made in the previous two sections—but let’s quickly dispense with one more typical example from each of the two equally inarticulate schools of practice in contemporary songwriting that we’ve exposed, before moving forward.
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you some absolute crap—er, I mean “brilliantly imaginative writing”. I give you John Lennon’s “Come Together”:
Here come old flat top,
He wear no shoeshine;
Come together, right now,
He bad production;
Okay, enough, enough.... I said ENOUGH ALREADY!
We certainly don’t need to go on here. Lennon himself grants, “The song was created in the studio. It’s gobbledygook”9. (Yes it sure as hell IS, John—but admitting to that doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for it....)
This utter travesty would make a fine “Exhibit A” illustrating how bad things can get when an act knows It Can Get Away With Anything—and It Simply Does Not Care. It’s a, er, um—technique?—I’ll call “refrigerator magnet songwriting”.
“Come Together” has an unusual overall sound to it, of that there should be little disagreement—and it’s a well-produced recording. A well-produced recording of—well, yes, “gobbledygook”. Like a great-looking classic automobile—without an engine or a steering wheel, sitting on four flat tires. (We’ll look at the differences between songwriting and production—picture and frame—later.)
One can think of so many of Lennon’s songs that were similarly concurrently both endowed and crippled. A fascinating one, for example—musically, I mean—is “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, a great sounding composition, with an arrangement that’s stunningly unique and expertly, inventively produced. And plagued with lyrics that are preposterously self-indulgent and in-your-face stupid. (I’ll carefully separate lyrics from music—and both from production—in later sections as well. This may strike as obvious and unnecessary, but it’s the failure to properly do so that licenses, enables—even allows unquestioning consecration of—so many dumbfoundingly trivial efforts.)
And there’s multitudes of other extremely successful—read: well-known, covered by other acts and commercially lucrative, but ultimately banal—songs like “Come Together”. This, folks, is where exalting stream-of-consciousness idiocy and Dylanesque “Poetic Lyrics” has gotten us—as abetted by the lethal combination of celebrity idol worship and celebrity self-entitlement, both of which I’ll also address here later. And keep in mind that John Lennon could be—could be, when he restrained and applied himself—a capable and occasionally even affecting songwriter. But “Come together, over me”? “Come together, over me”? Does a refrain of that repeated adage—or whatever exactly it is: A maxim? A motto? A rallying cry?—make any sense?....
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On the other side of the coin, here’s one of a zillion available examples underscoring how depressed the bar is in the “Trying to Say Something Clear and Meaningful When Low on Talent” department—this by the doggedly persistent but critically under-equipped John Mellencamp—and another song I’m sure you’ve endured far too many times:
Well I was born in a small town.
All my friends are so small town.
Educated in a small town.
But I’ve seen it all in a small town.
Again, fine, okay, just—STOP! Please let’s not go on.
Utterly abysmal writing—competent, at most, on the level of a diligent third grader trying his or her best. But OH-so-self-important! This car isn’t even a classic automobile—it’s an empty parking spot. A waste of time. (And elaborating on that last observation, is the song really an extollation of the virtues of small towns and rural life—or of Mellencamp himself? I mean he gives no reasons small towns are great places, does he? But there’s a whole lot of him strutting and bragging about how supposedly downhome and authentic he is—and he makes sure we know he got himself the cliché Trophy Wife....)
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If you’re thinking, “Well, it’s easy to criticize songs like the ones above; anyone can do that. They’re obviously lesser efforts.” You’re partly correct; yes, it is like shooting fish in a barrel.
But “lesser efforts” implies they’re secondary aberrations—and that they most certainly are not. Indeed, they are revered, exalted exemplars of what’s held to be the best in popular songwriting. Think about that for a moment....
So do we just continue to accept the tsunami of detritus deluging us daily—and must we resign ourselves to doing so because that’s simply what constitutes the overwhelming vast majority of efforts with which we’re provided?
I say we shouldn’t. I say we don’t.
8“Come Together”, copyright 1969 by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.
9All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono by David Sheff. (New York: St Martin's Press, 2000), 201
10“Small Town”, copyright 1985 by John Mellencamp. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.
A Personal Remembrance
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. — King James Version Bible
When I was in my mid-teens, I performed—regularly, determinedly, earnestly performed—“Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and other songs by Bob Dylan; various songs by the Byrds, Beatles, Rolling Stones; “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel; and whatever other purportedly serious and thoughtful efforts I and others like me were told at the time were “important” and “meaningful”.
But frequently—almost always, actually—nagging at me was the feeling something was missing, something was off or even hollow in what I was singing and playing. I outwardly deferred to the judgments from on high that these were great anthems of progressive, even revolutionary, political, social, and musical importance. Yet why didn’t I really subscribe to that? Why did so much of it at heart seem to me to be jejune, self-indulgent navel-gazings on one end, and inarticulate and directionless rambles on the other?
The songs pervaded the entire culture. I could hear them on the radio several times a day, and a friend do his or her own version a couple of times that evening. In the face of such overwhelming and inescapable confirmation, my reservations and gut caveats were, surely, simple products of adolescent ignorance. I mean, clearly and a priori, they were all on ‘the right side’ of the severe and multiple great societal divides—so who was I to question the merit of those songs, be they merely diverting confections or ostensibly substantive, even inspirational and mobilizing, anthems.
At the time, reaching young adulthood in the oppressively provincial North Florida panhandle, I presumed that I probably just wasn’t sophisticated enough, smart enough or cool enough to fully get it. After all, the Important National Media, the Record Industry, and Other Big Successful Acts all said Dylan’s songs, especially, were “brilliant”, “revolutionary”, “towering”—and he himself was “the voice of a generation”, writing “true poetry” and so on, and so on....
(Bob Dylan’s deleterious influence on contemporary songwriting is so pervasive—and so unquestioned, despite the work itself inconveniently being remarkably shallow and clumsy—that he and it will be frequently referenced and revisited throughout this essay. We’ll naturally focus directly on the songs—and on songs by others who’ve been influenced by him—at length. But unfortunate distractions along the way to considerations of the purely esthetic aspects of Dylan’s own efforts are that he’s also properly spotlighted in the section on plagiarism; and elsewhere we’ll shovel past the mountains of blind celebrity worship from his most obtusely rabid fans and eager disciples. While neither his personal and professional ethics nor the prostrate adulation of his adherents is of direct substance when discussing Dylan’s work itself, those peripheral considerations are necessarily germane in any discussion of the conventionally imputed merit and impact of that work.)
Growing up back there in Tallahassee, I was a particularly zealous fan of the Buffalo Springfield—a band whose members included Neil Young, Stephen Stills and others who’ve almost all subsequently continued on through successful music industry careers. And I was, believe me, Neil Young’s Number One Biggest Fan—to me he was a Great And Profound Artist, and could simply Do No Wrong.
And now? Now I can barely stand to hear the guy—and roll my eyes at his generally banal and poorly written songs, be they more recent ones or those very same efforts about which I rhapsodized so extravagantly Way Back When.
What happened to my enthusiasm for Neil?
Well, I got older, wiser—simply more exposed to and experienced in the world. I became more discerning, discriminating and demanding.
This essay is specifically directed to those who’ve experienced comparable growth and accrued sapience; similarly willing to cast aside convention and cant.
A Later Kick in the Pants
The continual dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content...it’s kind of a growing celebration of ignorance. — Carl Sagan (1934–1996)
Many years following, a friend asked why he never heard me play songs by current songwriters. As I was then slowly preparing to record my next album, I replied that I wasn’t averse to learning recent songs, or even including a rendition of one on my coming album, but I didn’t really listen to much current popular music and so was pretty ignorant about what might be a good fit.
No, I didn’t intentionally avoid what was popular. Hell, over the years, I’d enjoyed hearing the occasional specific song by mainstream commercial pop acts like the Beach Boys, Ramones, Four Tops, Eminem, Lefty Frizzell, Chet Baker, the Who, Snoop Dogg, Celine Dion, Lovin’ Spoonful, Norah Jones, Garth Brooks, the Go-Gos, and others—an almost schizophrenically eclectic assortment I here realize—even the occasional Broadway show tune and French chanson. As we’ll note in a later section, that a song may be light-minded is not necessarily an indictment, nor an indictment of those who enjoy it. There should always be room for divertissements and escape. The common critical error with such material, though, is thinking them more than merely enjoyable trifles. And the fatal error is glorifying them as Great Art.
But it might be fun to work up something similarly light and mainstream—and current—to record! Hell why not? (This was a little after Johnny Cash turned people’s heads by recording Trent Reznor’s song for Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt”. I wasn’t an admirer of the recording or the song—and the match struck me, really, as a kinda cheap gimmick. But the basic idea of doing something outside the expected, if it can be made to work, is one that always appeals to me.)
The following morning my friend walked in with a present: two CDs he’d burned for me the night before. One was a compendium of about 20 songs by different current acts he thought were doing the best songwriting at the time. The other was devoted entirely to songs written and performed by Beck. So the next evening, driving a rental car from LA to San Francisco, I studiously listened to them both several times, hoping to hear something that might arouse my interest and enthusiasm.
As with so much in popular music, and even when I turned the treble up and the bass down, it was hard to understand the lyrics to a lot of what was sung.
Strictly as melodies, however, one song of the 35 or 40 got my attention—a song by Beck Hansen, though here again it was hard to get the lyrics despite repeated plays. But I got enthused about the possibility of working it up and possibly recording it, as I quickly thought I could do a solid job with the music on guitar. If the lyrics worked, or could be made to work with a little tweaking, then maybe this’d be a good song to include on the album. Hey, great!
When I got home to San Francisco, I checked the mail, returned a couple of calls, showered and changed, poured a glass of wine, sat down and slipped the CD into the computer while finding the lyrics on the internet to follow along.
Well, it should have been expected, really. I’ve been around for a while.
Unfortunately, the writing was just more refrigerator magnet songwriting. Pretentious, inchoate rubbish. A waste of any listener’s intelligence and time.
And no, I didn’t feel superior. I just felt disappointed.
Toward a New American Songwriting
In a time of universal self-deception, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. — George Orwell (1903–1950)
In 1798, a book of poems titled Lyrical Ballads, by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was first published. For the second edition, three years later, Wordsworth inserted a long and sweeping Preface—in which he attempted to point out and emphasize the importance of the foundational thinking that had premised the book. (The basic thrust of the Preface, as was intended to be exemplified in the poems themselves, was to move poetry towards a more vernacular language, a revolutionary leap away from the elegant and ornate writing styles dominant at the time.) He even fully recognized the imposing and lengthy Preface might be seen as crass sales craft—as simply an attempt to garner favorable reactions to the poems independent of their intrinsic quality. Yet the urgency of what he had to say about poetry in general was so important, he felt, that a full presentation of those views was incumbent upon him, and necessary to advance the entire art....
In 1954, in the pages of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, then critic (and, of course, within a few years internationally renowned director) François Truffaut wrote what became recognized as the seminal call to arms for the nascent Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) in French cinema. In a critical manifesto titled “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” (“A Certain Tendency in French Cinema”) he documented and excoriated the ossified so-called “Tradition of Quality” then ascendant in French filmmaking. (His central thesis here was germinal in the development of the auteur theory, in which the director—the director who had both talent and the force to maintain a consistent worldview throughout his or her works—was asserted to be the most important creative participant in filmmaking. The director was, more than the screenwriter, producer or actors, the true “auteur”—author—of a film. Movies and film criticism in France—and eventually around the world—were never again the same.)
Two centuries after Wordsworth and sixty-plus years following Truffaut, I take inspiration from both efforts, and similar revolutionary artistic manifestos, to here examine the recent and current state of American popular songwriting (and attendant non-American Anglophone songwriting generally) and the two complementary but equally wrong-headed directions found in general practice: simplistic and directionless lyric writing on the one hand (eg “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Small Town”), and so-called “Poetic Lyrics”—poorly-crafted and inarticulate babble, as epitomized in the songs of Bob Dylan and his adherents, certainly, which have been held in highest critical and often popular esteem in recent decades—on the other (eg “American Pie”, “Come Together”). I’ll offer some thought on why they may actually be two sides of the same coin—why they possibly derive from the very same cultural impulse. And I’ll propose some guiding principles and practices that might help lead American songwriting to more resonance and significance.
I hope you’ll enter this as one might begin an informal inquisitive dinner dialogue with intelligent friends, or a thoughtful afternoon conversation with a trusted pal over coffee or a couple of beers at a neighborhood hangout—meaning we’re gonna jump around, explore tangents, tell a few amusing stories, speculate, offer examples both positive and negative, analyze, digress, and back-track whenever it may be warranted or productive—along the way to some generally hard and fast conclusions. I expect both the general reader and other practicing songwriters and musicians may find many observations and insights helpful, and occasionally even instructive. I hope so, in any event.
By the way—a stylistic note: Throughout this manifesto, when song lyrics are directly quoted, they’ll appear in a way that certainly isn’t unique, but is admittedly unusual: with periods, question marks, exclamation points, commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes, parentheses, brackets and quotation marks as I decide they fit and best help define and convey the thoughts intended in those lyrics. Versions of those songs will be, as best as I can determine, as they are performed by the original writer(s), in respect to exact lyrics and placements of verses, chorus, bridge, etc. (If a major hit recording of the song is how it’s best known—and that version differs from the presumed original—the revised presentation may be the way the song is subsequently performed by the original writer(s) as well; meaning they’ve adjusted it to mirror the hit rendition. Yet I’ve tried to track down the earliest finished constructions when possible, with some note of significant later emendations when of interest.)
And in the effort to find shared familiarity in the material considered, most of the songs examined—like those addressed above—will be works that have been around for a while: songs the vast majority of which will be known by most readers, with only the occasional more recent example or obscure title.
As a writer and guitar player myself, I may offer an occasional minor example from my own work in passing, as a positive or even as a negative example. (If you wanna hear someone Beat the Living Hell out of himself, though, sit me down and ask me to critique my own songs—I can go on and On and ON about things I think ill-conceived, unmusical, inchoate, misleading, untenable, inarticulate, confused, poorly concocted or executed, or just plain flat out fuckin’ dumb. I’m a much, much tougher critic of my own stuff than you or anyone else could ever be, believe me. But I hope I’m also perceptive enough to recognize when something of mine may have merit.)
Finally, I wish to acknowledge and thank the many people who’ve helped me through the years to ponder through and arrive at the formulations herein—I’m one who tends to do his best thinking when bouncing ideas and notions back and forth with someone else, someone for whom I have respect and whose intelligence and insight I find particularly acute. So I’m in profound debt to Garrett Soden, Michael Varhol, Uri Herz and Tré Giles (Los Angeles), Rebecca Chalker and Richard Leslie (New York City), Frank Lindamood and Karen Graffius-Ashcraft (Tallahassee), Steve Arwood (Nashville), Lynne Magin (Chicago), Karl Fredrik Lundeberg (Washington), Michael Robertson, Ken Bullock and Pete Petroski (San Francisco), Tom McFarland (Merritt Island), and Dan Simberloff (Knoxville). Most of these poor people endured some long (and I’m sure often disruptive) phone discussions and/or email exchanges over the years on ideas that are gathered in this manifesto; though I must emphasize that none of them agree with everything here. And some may disagree with just about all of it. So don’t hold anyone but me accountable for factual errors as you may find them, or culpable for critical or intellectual lapses as you may judge them to exist. And I sincerely thank each of the folks above for their time, their forbearance, their taste and their intelligence.
- - -
But before we even get into critical specifics of songwriting at all, I think we should identify and dispatch as much of the accumulated sludge and encrustations that surround and suffocate the topic. Of all fields of entertainment and the performing arts, popular song is perhaps the most larded with extraneous nonsense—from imbecilic posturing and ludicrous marketing of acts themselves to pandemic insufferable fan worship. Inanity ascendant. One of course finds crass preening, cynical pretense and vapid idolatry everywhere in the performing and fine arts—hell, one finds it to greater or lesser extent in every human endeavor—but probably nowhere is the cancer so metastasized as in popular song.
So first—and, admittedly, a long first it’s gonna be—let’s look at several quagmires, snares and dissimulations we’ll try to avoid on our journey. Popular music, so ubiquitous and available, is rarely examined coldly—and the common human desire for heroes, villains, authority and vicarious nobility is so determined—that it’s a field rife with breathlessly delivered superficial appreciations. I’m going to take a patient tour d’horizon of many inconsequential manifestations that regularly preclude or undermine what might otherwise become serious discussions of popular song. While many things I’ll address—perhaps most—are surely obvious to many, I think it’s important to expose and dismiss them deliberately, progressively, decisively, one by one by one….
(If you don’t wish to take time to revisit what should be the indisputable foundations for a discussion of this sort—and find an attempt at such to be tedious or even condescending—please accept my apologies and skip on to Part Two. But, with sincere respect to my readers, even a quick scan of the immediate sections below may still be helpful. We’re in somewhat uncharted critical waters, after all, and so getting initial bearings. Thank you.)
PART ONE: Distractions, Diversions, Deceptions
Ground Rule #1
When not applied strictly to painters, ‘artist’ has a pretentious sound to it.11 — Steven Moore (b. 1951)
I agree with Mr Moore, above. The term “artist” is elitist and exclusionary, and should be avoided, even in casual discussion. I’ll here consciously try to use the terms “songwriter”, “lyricist”, “composer”, “performer”—even the rather clinically cheeky “practitioner”—and similar.
The characterization of someone as an artist is an easy handle, of course, but it also abets legitimization of a lot of impertinent and pernicious nonsense. In everyday conversation, we so often use the word as a superlative descriptor: “The guy’s not just your regular plumber, he’s a real artist!” or “She’s not a simple gardener, she’s an artist!” The two people are lifted above their peers into an exalted realm, “above the riff-raff”, when all that’s actually intended is to compliment the person in question for doing generally capable or even excellent work in his or her field—he does excellent plumbing, she grows some great vegetables. Good for them both, and good for us who benefit from their work.
But artist is indeed a very loaded term, conferring an almost blanket license and excuse for grandiosity and outré self-indulgence—as if someone who has admirably mastered singing in public, for instance, is deserving of specially preferential and indulgent treatment; as though we should almost expect, and certainly applaud and reward, diva behavior. It allows—sanctifies—excess, because (again) they’re NOT just like you and me, they’re lovably crazy, unpredictable ARTISTS. Calling someone working in entertainment (and the so-called performing arts—which is, with similar pretense, really just high-brow entertainment, albeit stationed elsewhere on the cultural continuum, no?) an “artist” is an insidious elevation. It contributes mightily to the tawdry celebrity culture so pandemic in contemporary society—and hallows a whole lot of second-rate work.
Songwriting can be an art; it is most often carefully considered and crafted work. Inspiration really is ninety-nine percent perspiration. And creating a song is, in the end, organized and thoughtful problem solving to reach a desired result, though the solving of the schematic and thematic obstacles—due to the technical exigencies of the task at hand—can often severely alter what had been initially presumed to be that ultimate objective, that ultimate message. Yet whether intended from scratch, or arrived at serendipitously, if an over-arching and insightful vision is achieved, then the work may even be properly lauded as a work of art. The effort to get there, however, isn’t glamorous. It’s a complicated and demanding job.
Similarly, on the matter of the inadvertent or deliberate aggrandizement perpetrated by casually throwing around the word artist and the expanded importance it bestows, I recall writer Garrison Keillor intoning in his thunderous baritone some years back, to comparable end—I’m paraphrasing from memory here—“Writing is a great and noble calling!” (long pause) “Writing is a great and noble calling!...But so is dentistry. And so is nursing. And so is road repairing.”
We do ourselves and songwriting a disservice when we call those working in the field—including singers, instrumentalists and producers—artists. We cheat listeners and actually demean the hard work of songwriters when we mystify the complicated process of writing and composing a successful song.
11The Novel: An Alternative History by Steven Moore. (New York: Continuum, 2010), 7
I’m Your Biggest Fan! You’re My Hero!
Only fools have the habit of believing everything written by a famous author is admirable. — François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694–1778)
The Number One Single Biggest Malignancy that enables the vapidity, superficiality and posturing incoherence so pervasive in contemporary songwriting (and performance) is fan idolatry. Celebrity ass-kissing. Over the top adulation. Hero-worship. And as we’ll address later, that kind of insipid awe-struck reverence—eager, willful ignorance, really—is found just as often among academics and critics who one should reasonably expect to be past such embarrassing displays. But it’s infected just about every part of American society, and popular music is obviously not immune to it. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that’s where it’s at its stomach-turning worst. This is not the place to psycho-analyze the popular desperation that finds satisfaction investing stars with veritable supernatural authority, but it is appropriate to expose it as the profoundly deleterious, even outright destructive, practice that it is.
It’s a common thing to hear “I’m a Beatles fan”—or a Katy Perry, Bing Crosby, Kanye West, Bruce Springsteen, Rakim, Supremes, Bill Monroe or Whoever-the-Hell-ELSE fan. But if that enthusiasm, as it easily can, prevents or significantly colors otherwise intelligent appreciation—particularly precluding ready dismissal of inferior (or even downright incompetent) works by that practitioner when warranted—there’s no clear benefit in hearing your judgments on the act’s efforts. You have no legitimacy as a critic or auditor if you’re predisposed to blindly liking (or, far more perniciously, manufacturing or advancing doubtful justifications for) everything this or that act puts forth. Such opinions are obviously bereft of discernment. You’re a fan—a mechanical, unthinking consumer.
Over the years, I myself have very much enjoyed a lot of what I’ve heard by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos—friends might understandably call me a “Buck Owens fan”.12 Yet I’m well aware he wrote some really—and yes, I mean really—embarrassingly bad stuff along, with the good and the great. I give you the A-side of a 1967 single, a song of his called “Where Does the Good Times Go?”:
Where does the good times go?
This is Plain Bad, on just about every possible level. Anyone disagree?
And the really sad news here—as it was with the “American Pie” lyrics quoted earlier—is that this is the chorus. So it’s heard three times in the just over two minutes of the recording. YEOW!
I’ve also immensely enjoyed recordings and live concerts by the Clash back in the day—I still think their first-ever US concert, at Temple Beautiful in San Francisco, ranks as the most electrifying rock performance I’ve ever attended. And I continue to find their work engaging these many years later. But it’s quite unlikely you’ll ever hear me lecturing someone on how uniformly great their writing or composing ostensibly is, or find me performing one of their songs.
Look, we all have our individual enthusiasms and personal preferences; as we all have our guilty pleasures and transient fancies. And with a little study we can ferret out legitimate factual evidence to serve an illegitimate prefabricated notion—that they’re just so gosh-darn innovative and creatively brilliant. And even if we can’t find it—and whether some actually exists or not—we can make it up. Such is the mental agility and application which is fundamental to everything from brilliant doctoral dissertations to hare-brained conspiracy theories.
And we’ve also all been buffaloed in the supermarket check-out line—our curiosity morbidly ensnared, and our eventual embarrassing continued attention germinated—by this or that bit of tabloid weirdness perpetrated by this or that act; for whatever reason extraneous, or even integral, to the actual material created by the act.
Divorce yourself as much as possible from all that, please. We’re here to evenly examine the work itself.
So while I will here regularly use the facile agency of a practitioner’s name as an easy way into a general discussion of his or her work—standing in for all the collective actual work done by that practitioner—it’s something else that should be only carefully invoked in serious discussion. While not all of Ernest Hemingway’s stories were masterworks, and not even close to all songs by the Beatles were brilliant; yet we calmly speak of loving Hemingway, or the Beatles—or Jan Vermeer, Eero Saarinen, the Rolling Stones, Louise Nevelson, Sam Kinison, Tupac Shakur, or Whoever. Not a single one of them only created masterpieces. So careful with the praise; too much of it and you’ve become that unthinking fan, and an intellectual cripple.
And on the other side of the coin, there will occasionally arrive a piece of work from a second-rate act and second-rate songwriters that rises far above their usual uninspired efforts. And it’s imperative, here as well, to divorce oneself from prejudices about the source and to consider the material itself. Later in this essay, as much as I admit it pains me to do so, I’ll favorably note the significant accomplishment in an extremely well-known song by the Eagles, an act I utterly detest on just about every level as the apotheosis—better, nadir—of insufferable mediocrity and swaggering commercial banality. But the song in question merits appreciation, and such it shall be properly accorded.
Elsewhere, when discussing the musical side of songwriting, I’ll similarly and I hope fairly recognize the melodic gifts of composers whose public personas, in apparent but absolutely immaterial contradistinction, may even radiate plain doltishness; in acts I think thoroughly celebrate mindless vapidity.
One does well to remember the lesson so brilliantly imparted by Peter Shaffer in his play, Amadeus, and in his subsequent screenplay for the film version, directed by Milos Foreman. The world isn’t patently guaranteed, all black and all white, every actor easily pigeonholed; intelligence, morality and various talents distributed to any individual in equal measures.
12I produced Buck’s first two concerts after Dwight Yoakam coaxed him out of retirement many years back. “Michael Koppy presents Buck Owens and the Buckaroos”, in Sacramento and San Francisco: both SRO, hundreds turned away. The shows got me on heavyweight promoter Bill Graham’s radar—not necessarily a good thing. But that’s a story for another essay one day.
13“Where Does the Good Times Go”, copyright 1967 by Buck Owens. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.
Herds of Rampaging Wildebeests Stampeding Across the Veldt!
Fifty Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong! — Title of a 1958 record album
If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. — Anatole France (1844–1924)
Similar to blanket idolatry is the argumentum ad populum “proof” that this or that song—or this or that act—is unquestionably wonderful because it’s just so dang popular and commercially successful. Everyone goes to the concerts; the act is pulling in zillions of bucks each week; the songs are all high on the charts!
As I’ve written elsewhere before, there’s also no doubt McDonald’s hawks the most hamburgers and Proctor & Gamble sells the most toilet paper....
That Buck Owens song, “Where Does the Good Times Go?”, mentioned in the previous section? Well, it was the Number One Song on the Billboard Magazine sales charts for four straight weeks, and sold millions of copies. And? Does that mean it is well-written, insightful and substantive after all? Of course not. Or that it’s unambitiously pleasant and infectiously painless? Well, maybe—I guess, to some extent, for whatever that’s worth. But it was primarily just product—product quickly marketed to pull in as much money as possible while the act was the biggest draw in country music, at the zenith of its popularity. And bad product—embarrassingly bad product.
Countless many writers, composers, painters, and performers who (and songs that) were wildly popular in past eras and decades have been completely forgotten by history—mention of their names today draws only uncomprehending stares. The same will come to pass for 99.99% of the exceptionally popular practitioners and their efforts of today. Hell, the vast majority will be forgotten by next week, as the tightly packed herds of au courant taste-makers and conformist fans dash madly en masse, first this way and then that in desperate, panicked search for the next serving of perfect pablum.
For so many reasons, popularity is an extremely feeble metric to invoke in any assessment of artistic merit.
Science Explains Why Peeing Your Pants Beats the Hell Out of Nostalgia
Any of us who are worth anything spend our adulthood in unlearning the follies and expiating the mistakes of our youth. — Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)
In everyone’s life—and especially during stages of adolescence and early adulthood—there’s a soundtrack of popular songs associated with specific events and people: a love affair, a memorable afternoon or evening, a political awakening, an unfortunate incident, etc. The songs become emotionally invested with far more personal involvement than any musical or lyrical appreciation of intrinsic application or merit might legitimately warrant. We are partial and attached to the entire milieu with which we associate the song; it has become inextricable from and wholly emblematic of the memory, whatever that memory may be. Critical detachment is obviated and a warm feeling of self-absorbed engagement and satisfaction is provided.
No news here.
Peeing one’s pants also provides a warm feeling all over—but it additionally rids the body of material which has been depleted of all nourishment.
Nostalgia simply bathes and revels in the unleashed warmth....
You gloried in this or that song when you were newly investigating the world, in love and 18 years old. Fine. That doesn’t mean it’s good work. It might be, but it most probably isn’t. Got it?
Madonna, Coldplay, Bieber, U2, Maroon 5....
It’s easy to kid yourself about how clever a lot of second-rate stuff is…Bullshit is the true American soundtrack. — George Carlin (1937–2008)
As observed earlier, we also all indulge in guilty pleasures—work which provides not even an emotional connection to particular life events, and which we candidly know to be patently inferior, but which we still find amusing, soothing, welcomely unchallenging or similar. (Quite often it’s simply stuff with which we’ve been assaulted so many times that it has become familiar—and therefore unthreatening, safe.) One might just plain Have a Soft Spot for an “American Pie” or “Small Town” or whatever, fully knowing they ain’t really great art. Fair enough. My own list of guilty pleasures in popular music might be said to include recordings by Gene Autry, the Yardbirds, Ricky Nelson, the Doors, Ernest Tubb, the Buzzcocks and others more recent. The songwriting is almost invariably simple journeyman concoctions—nothing more was considered or even likely—as are the performances. So while I personally find it occasionally comfortable—and may even myself sometimes perform one or more of the songs I first heard by these performers—I wouldn’t for a moment presume to champion many of the songs as more than pleasant trifles, light filler. I hope you will recognize your own such diversions, and affectionately dispatch them as well.
- - -
Garbage is always. We will die, civilization will crumble, life as we know it will cease to exist, but trash will recur and endure. — Robin Nagle (b. 1961)
And then there’s the Daily Dreck—from a galumphing army of disposable acts incapable of more than the most transient postures and hackneyed trivialities; unequipped at displaying even a remote indication they might be other than subcontractors in the cynical marketing department of a major industrial polluter; belting out the innocuous, insidious and generally histrionic detritus that clogs radio, shopping malls, web channels, movies and television. The less time spent here, the better.
One can try to intimate substance, artistry and depth—and convince oneself it’s truly there—but crap is crap. Having a weakness for this or that expression of it is all too human—and while properly embarrassing, is grudgingly harmless so long as one doesn’t flounder in it to the exclusion of works of actual value, or insecurely defend that vulnerability to it by going on to waste time imputing substance that doesn’t exist and asserting stature that doesn’t obtain.
See You at the Grammys!—A Note on Industrial Smarm Festivals
These things are fiascos. It’s just idiots all taking themselves far too seriously. — John Lydon (b. 1956)
This section is directed as much, probably even more, to my fellow practitioners as it is to general readers, because it’s people who work in entertainment who are really the biggest suckers and advocates for the repulsively low-rent buffoonery of awards.
While I’ve never read anything divulging Woody Allen’s reasons for not participating in the Oscars, I expect his thinking on such events may parallel mine. I know when I’ve done good work; I know when I’ve done lesser or even bad work—and admit it, you do (or should) as well. It’s certainly affirming to receive praise for one’s efforts—even necessary to some social extent. But I don’t require—or want—confirmation of any of it in the form of some tawdry award, or lack thereof, from my purported peers, ostensible fans or public vote. Yes, such things can be viewed as “all part of the game”—ways to help sell more merchandise—but is the game, really, simply to move product? If it is, then deck yourself out in a “meat dress”, wear modified motorcycle helmets and claim you’re robots from outer space, have someone else (someone more technically capable) write and sing and play the instruments for you, put on diva airs and the most revealing attire you can; and have at it.
Though all such affectations and deceits are obviously peripheral to the actual act of writing, composing and performing—and so have no direct effect on the quality of the work (and can perhaps therefore be defended as “harmless fun” or similar)—involvement in such industrial smarminess in fact rubs off; one becomes what one has beheld. One per force buys into prevailing enthusiasms and celebrity, competes with it—and slowly becomes champion of, and commodity in, the basest of swap meets.
Some years ago, I wrote to a major pop music critic, chastising him for an incompetently blind article. His indignant response closed with what he clearly thought was the perfect put-down, the ultimate kiss-off: “See you at the Grammys!” he scoffed. When I read the line, alone in my office, I burst into an audible laugh. But I honestly felt a little sorry for the poor guy as well. The Grammys clearly meant something truly deep and conclusive to him; having one was presumably the ultimate sine qua non of creative substantiation and legitimacy, and not being part of that scene at all a defining damnation. Without the Grammys, however would we know what’s good?
Personally, I’ve never even watched more than a few minutes of a Grammys telecast—or a Tonys, Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, MTV Whichevers, People’s Whatevers, Kennedy or AFI Whoevers—and would never, under any circumstances whatsoever, participate in person in such an embarrassingly shallow and oleaginous industrial circle-jerk14.
The entertainment industry has pretty much the same percentage of folks in it who are plain hacks as does any other line of work—meaning the vast majority generally do what’s reasonably expected, with not many readily capable of much beyond that. And while I’m an admittedly very demanding critic, very few of my so-called peers ever actually do something for which I really have honest unqualified admiration. It does occur, most certainly, and when I encounter it I’m loudly effusive with my recognition and praise, believe me. But it’s rare. And so for me to even accept the vast majority of hacks as peers is to effectively denigrate my own efforts. There are some opinions I very deferentially consider—but placing any value on what the mass of the industry thinks is simply an abrogation of responsibility; a cry of desperate high-schoolish insecurity.
For an award to be welcomed as authoritative confirmation that this year one has done masterful work equally requires implicitly accepting that not getting an award next time around means one’s work wasn’t so good that year—when in fact the actual creative accomplishment may be far more significant. Again, you should know when you’ve done the best you can, when you may have found, through diligence and application (and occasionally actual inspiration), an innovative idea or presentation; and when you’ve successfully or unsuccessfully completed the work within the availabilities, limitations and exigencies present. Doesn’t a patronizing pat on the head and a pot metal paperweight actually kinda cheapen the efforts?
I strongly expect that in a hundred years or so, our current societal fascination with asinine awards and awards show spectacles will be seen as a laughable illustration of the vapidity and hubris of our time. Awards and awards participation are not worth nothing; they’re worth less than nothing. This goes for those considered more high-brow as well: Pulitzers, MacArthurs, Nobels—does anyone honestly think a war criminal like Henry Kissinger or the unctuous and deplorable Mother Teresa deserved Nobel Peace Prizes? Or that Barak Obama properly merited the same award—just a few months after becoming president, having at that point actually achieved virtually nothing of international consequence? Laughably, the Nobel nominations closed only 11 days after he took office! (In Obama’s case, obviously, his greatest accomplishment at the time, to the Nobel folks, was in merely not being his dimwit predecessor, George W. Bush. While that’s most certainly an entirely admirable quality—and Mr Obama is clearly brilliant and an apparently wonderful human being—you and I ain’t Bush either, and we didn’t even make the short list.)15
Do not take or cite the fulsome flummery of awards and industry accolades as anything other than transient celebrity ephemera, devoid of merit. I repeat, awards are not worth nothing; they’re worth less than nothing. No one should care how many Grammys or other statues an act has been handed—while not definitively exclusionary to having created great work, it is on balance more indictment than accomplishment; a diversion from the purported intrinsic merit in the work itself. Awards have absolutely nothing to do with art and craft. Ignore them.
Enough said; moving on....
14Many years ago, relatively new to the Entertainment Industry in The Big City, I was handed an award, for “Best Overall Production”—or maybe “Best Musical”, I can’t recall—but it was spoken of as “the biggie” at some critics’ affair in San Francisco. (This despite that I was the only producer and director in Northern California who as a matter of policy never gave out a single free press pass—every single critic attending one of my shows came in holding a full price, paid-for ticket. The principled reasons for why and how I engineered that policy is another story for another essay one day.) Someone phoned informing that my show had been selected, so I went to the event—held in a packed 1,400 seat theater—said a few words, and left shortly after. Really, it was a waste of time—and the plaque itself nonchalantly tossed into a dumpster on the walk back home. Who needs that stuff?
15For a long list of Nobel disputations, underscoring the regularly brutal nitwittedness of even that most-exalted of accolades, here’s a Wikipedia entry on many of them: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Prize_controversies.
Ethics? In POPULAR MUSIC...?!?
The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. — Hunter S. Thompson (1937–2005)
A primary point I’m trying to make in these opening sections is that one place to not seek to find heroes and demigods is in the entertainment industry—popular music in particular, and songwriting as a specific handicraft and livelihood within it. The transience and essential insignificance of so much of the work, the capricious permutations of luck, and the potentially vast amounts of money to be gained all conspire to generally boot higher aspiration and principle from the field. (There’s an old saying: “The three places you can make a lot of money quickly are the stock market, crime, and entertainment”.) It’s actually common knowledge to even the general public—and despite the robust romanticization bestowed on practitioners (“artists”, see above) by that general public—that entertainment, and again, especially popular music, is a demimonde of hucksters, incompetents, parasites, cheats, dirtbags, sleezeballs and corporate accountants. Those many who’re not fully corrupted by the incessant debasements and compromises—and even those fully impervious to them—must navigate around them regularly.
So while Elvis Presley’s manager, Tom Parker, famously told associates—only a couple of hours after Presley’s death—“This changes nothing!”, performers (and songwriters) can themselves be just as much or even more cynical, calculating and avaricious. The tremendous odds against “making it big”, the stifling competition to be the one who hits the jackpot (and then keeps on hitting it), and the jealousy of those others who have actually scored big time financially and critically, altogether severely dampen much if not most of any initial innocence and altruism an aspirant may have once had.
Songwriting, like any other pursuit in entertainment, is ultimately just a job—an enterprise. An enterprise with specific tasks to be tackled step by step, objective by objective, obstacle by obstacle. One that can pay big financial and other dividends if fortune responds—but that response is bestowed with only little reference to talent or application.
All too often, a songwriting credit (and most substantively, remuneration) is taken by someone—a manager, a star performer, a producer—who had absolutely nothing at all to do with the writing or composing of a song. Sometimes, more artfully, the credit is properly proclaimed—but the financial stipulations contractually required of the writer(s) and composer(s) in order to have the song recorded do the same damage. And sometimes, as we’ll note later, a song is just plain outright stolen. It’s all just part of the low-rent power politics of the music business.
And though brilliant architecture—designed or serendipitously stumbled upon—is indeed most often a significant part of what makes a great song great, the quotidian challenge is more down-in-the-dirt engineering (and, business-wise, simple self-protection!) than receiving divine architectural intervention and concomitant proper recompense. A lousy song, well-promoted, can make a career.
I hope that with just the couple more sections following below we may have properly punctured and deflated all or at least most of the romantic illusions, obsessive exaltations and impertinent prejudices found when addressing popular music, so that we may begin to tighten focus in on the actual work of songwriting itself. Bear with me….
Dunno Much ’Bout Art, But I Know What I Like!
When small men attempt great enterprises, they always end by reducing them to the level of their mediocrity. — Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821)
In most of these introductory sections, I’ve attempted to place some limits on unsupported enthusiasms. Here I wish to open up the other side, to expand appreciations—and knock off some negative predispositions.
Don’t like rap? Absolutely hate Broadway musicals? Simply can not stand grunge? Delta blues? Bel canto? Funk?
Really? Reminds me of a proclamation I hear all the time from people about a certain kind of television program—and perhaps you’ve said it yourself—“I hate sitcoms!”
My response? “It’s not the form of the piece, it’s the execution. You’re allowing your understandable habitual disappointment to make you focus on the wrong thing.”
Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s play a little game. I’ll name you a bunch of live four-camera sitcoms from the past many years—no animation (Family Guy, The Simpsons, etc), no single-camera show (M*A*S*H*, The Office, etc). There’s no doubt whatsoever that we’ll disagree on which ones we think were “good” and which ones were “bad”, but I have absolute confidence you’ll agree that some of these shows were indeed well-done, first-rate work. You actually enjoyed—admired—this one and that one. Ready?
Some from the UK, some from the US, in alphabetical order: All in the Family, The Andy Griffith Show, Blackadder, Cheers, Community, The Cosby Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Fawlty Towers, Frasier, Friends, Gilligan’s Island, The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mork and Mindy, Northern Exposure, Parks and Recreation, Roseanne, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, Yes Minister.
No, I didn’t say they were all great. (To me personally some of these are just plain awful.) But as with me, I guarantee that you also didn’t hate every one of them; because the ones you liked were, well—and I’m quoting YOU here—“the exceptions”.
Yes, they were indeed. And so it turns out you don’t actually dislike sitcoms. Sure, personal tastes differ—especially when it comes to what we each find funny. Humor is perhaps the ultimate reflection of idiosyncrasy. But what you really dislike is incompetent work and stupidity—not situation comedy as a genre. And you are right that ‘incompetent work’ and ‘stupidity’ are terms that most certainly and accurately describe the overwhelming vast majority of sitcoms. But it’s really the execution that was insufferable, not the format.
The same self-awareness and openness should hold for genres of popular song. Yes, most of all the stuff in (country, cabaret, bluegrass, heavy metal, R&B, fill in genre here) is complete garbage. But it’s not the form—the style—it’s the execution. And that even goes for styles in which the presentation—death metal, anyone? opera?—seems to be, or even actually is, determined to be as off-putting as possible to all but an intended narrow fan base.
Good work—incisive, entertaining, relevant, well-crafted work—can be done in just about any format.
Ever Notice the Worst Writing in an Insightful Pop Music Review—Even a Rave—Usually Shows Up When the Critic Quotes the Band’s Lyrics?
Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. — Martin Mull (b. 1943)
A quick digression to begin this section: There’s very little actual music discussed in a review or other article on popular music or musicians that is directed to a general readership. And that’s understandable, of course, insofar as even the rare musically knowledgeable critic faces the brick wall of an overwhelmingly musically illiterate readership. Less than 2% of the population can read music at even a rudimentary level, and the percentage which understands even a loose general lexicon of musical terms and their audio effect is still very small. So our hypothetical musically conversant critic is largely precluded from entering into a full critique of the actual music in question. What’s left for him or her to comment upon and fill out the article is the act’s lyrics, the record production, and—most easily mined for presumably factual material by the critic but of least significance—the biography, posturing and industrial marketing of the act. This can perhaps then extend on to the critic’s posited cultural antecedents or impact of the act being examined. It’s a challenge to not waiver off the track into press agentry on one side, and speculative cultural fantasy on the other. Neither is popular song criticism.
(And don’t get me started on the ubiquitous “Best Songs of All Time” lists passed off as informative and definitive reportage. Anyone can make up a “One Hundred Best”—or Five Hundred Best—list, but we don’t presume to try to sell them to people in supermarket checkout lines. Rolling Stone, in particular, seems to never stop finding things to um, er, “authoritatively” list: One Hundred Greatest Songs! Five Hundred Greatest! Greatest Guitarists! Performances! Singers! Albums!—hell, Rock Star Bean Dip Recipes! for all I know [or care]. If a publication or web site gets into relentlessly compiling “best of” lists, cancel your subscription or don’t ever click there again. You’re being held in contempt by clowns.)
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These critics with all the illusions they create about artists—it’s really just idol worship. — John Lennon (1940–1980)
Limitations imposed on a musically educated and serious pop music critic by his or her musically illiterate readership are unfortunate but predictable. Of far greater note—another dimension entirely—is authority invested in ostensibly sober-minded academics and professional critics who turn out to be just plain incompetent, or worse, panting lovesick groupies.
But the frenzied infatuation of over-anxious fandom can be encountered anywhere—from the patriciate to the hoi-polloi. And so I give you just one example, from probably the most prominent deliriously swooning academic of them all: former Cambridge and Oxford University (now Boston University) professor, author of over 30 books on poets and poetry, knighted by the Queen, and insufferably cretinous Bob Dylan cultist, Sir Christopher Ricks:
I think it’s an immense privilege simply to be alive at the same time as Bob Dylan! We should all be so grateful!...Not a day goes by when I don’t listen to him or at least think about him!
Yes, academics and intellectuals can be just as embarrassingly besotted with celebrity and idol worship as anyone else. Lemme repeat that with underlining: Academics and intellectuals can be just as embarrassingly besotted with celebrity and idol worship as anyone else. There are well over 250 hagiographic books published just on Dylan and his songs, for instance, and that number grows annually. (Why Dylan and his poorly-written songs are such an ideal match for the currently ascendent crop of baby boomer academics and their feverish ravings will be looked at in a later section.)
But let me also be absolutely clear that finding meanings hidden in artistic works, diving beneath the surface to unearth resonant, substantive and internally consistent alternate readings and applications of what the writer has provided—whether such was intentionally created by the writer or wholly imputed and supported by careful critical analysis—is a valuable and, if successful, vastly rewarding scholarly venture. Secondary meanings and allusive harmonies in a creative work can be a sobering proof of artistic accomplishment—though, importantly and absolutely, a work may be admirably insightful and eloquent without them. Any questions? We’re not philistines here.
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Those who can do, those who can’t become teachers. — George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950)
Within popular music academia we find a lot of frustrated latent, and de facto, conspiracy theorists—scholars and would-be scholars who can (and will) find and pound together the most absurd connections, concordances and extrapolations from the most tenuous evidence, all to support his or her pre-existing idol worship. Religious zealots do it all the time—and so can the ambitious and/or willfully obtuse academic.
Let’s look for a moment at the aforementioned Mr Ricks and his galumphing and utterly dreadful 528-page homage to Bob’s lyrics, Dylan’s Visions of Sin16. It’s one of the best-known examples of what might be termed a Dylan devotional—and a book so poorly written and smugly self-satisfied with its juvenile half-clevernesses that one quickly wants to simply throw the damned thing across the room in unalloyed disgust. Aside from the just plain vaingloriously sophomoric writing, it’s packed with disheveled sophistry and embarrassing genuflections—comparable, perhaps, to a lengthy North Korean news chronicle of the Dear Leader’s latest divine interventions. Ricks, as with so many obsessed fans, is the ecstatic parasite finding immortal magnificence everywhere he looks. And I do mean everywhere! Forget about “careful critical analysis” as mentioned above; this guy suffers from childish over-excitement, proudly trumpeting whatever half-baked disconnected notions enter his wide-open head at any given moment. One presumes the fellow may be an infectiously enthusiastic teacher to bright-eyed college freshman out in the Big Wide World for the first time. But he’s an utterly lousy student—a walking personification of what might be called “literary confirmation bias”: his preconception dictates his judgment. Per Ricks, every song Bob’s written is brilliant. Dylan wrote it? It is, ipso facto, simply dazzling. But this Ultimate Eager Fan—his pious and penitent devotional attendance is required at every performance his idol plays within driving range17—is more than just your average tormented groupie. He goes so far—and I know this is hard to believe, yet it’s true—as to write the most insipidly embarrassing fan letters to Dylan. No, no, not at all of the “let me ask about the literary antecedents or poetic evocations of this line in (insert song title here)”, but complaining with deep personal anguish about how Bob dresses or about his moustache—like some lovelorn pre-pubescent girl moping in her room beneath her wall of cherished boyband posters.18
(In case you wonder, I became curious about Ricks after suffering his jaw-droppingly inane book and recalling I’d just seen a similarly disjointed piece by him on another matter in The New York Review. So I clicked around to get some background, and the weirdness just kept piling up. And as I argued earlier in the section on awards and awards shows, my strong advice to readers is to not be cowed by credentials and resume. Intellectual bantamweights like Ricks—like other occasional high-energy/low-wattage characters prominent here and there around the world—can sometimes build impressive careers. Good for them. But let’s withhold deference and respect until we encounter genuine talent. On paper, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump and Sarah Palin have also had impressive careers.)
I’ll go on a bit here, because the abject puppy love of this “academic authority” is just so ridiculously revealing, and it’s emblematic of the fact that with characters like this we’re not dealing with thoughtful analysts but simply with ordinary obsessive fans—obsessive fans who happen to toil in classrooms. Ricks himself not only owns nearly 2,000 bootleg Dylan albums and studio outtakes, but he keeps in his office—and again, I am not making this up—the actual bathtub that came from Dylan’s childhood home in Minnesota, purchased on eBay, “It’s where the baby Bob made his first splash!” gushes Ricks. Ye-ow.
Haven’t laughed enough? Then here’s a final bit of carefully considered, sober analysis from Sir Christopher:
Bob Dylan is unquestionably the Greatest Living User of the English Language!
Okay, fun’s over.
While downright creepy infatuation with his hero obviously doesn’t alone rule out the guy as a critical commentator on Dylan’s writing, his critiques unfortunately (but naturally) do indeed end up fully consistent with what one would expect: rapturous, unhinged, acrobatic panegyrics supported by the thinnest of conceits and the most pretzeled of arguments, interspersed with the occasionally interesting but irrelevant factual notice. In the end, an over-caffeinated confusion of giddiness and plain idiocy. An in-depth review of Dylan’s Visions of Sin is far outside the scope of this essay, but to get some idea of the cloyingly bad writing and general ineptitude displayed, you might read one or more of the reviews mentioned in footnote 19 below.19
I go on at length about the unfortunate Ricks here because he’s perhaps the highest-profile Dylan worshipper, and he’s so singularly cringe-worthy and laughable. But there are many, many more like him out there. That goofiness is NOT unique.
And as noted earlier in the section entitled “I’m Your Biggest Fan!”, idolatry is not criticism. And you know something more? It’s really not even appreciation.
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…and those who can’t teach become critics. — H. L. Mencken (1880–1956)
Finally, we come to the Eighth Circle of Hell20: the exclusive backstage VIP lounge of fungible “rock journalist intellectuals”—almost an oxymoron, this—like (again), veteran Greil Marcus, to pick just one:
I’m not interested in what the songwriter thinks he or she is doing, what their desires are, what their intent is. What I’m interested in is what happens to the song when it’s out there in the world…Performance is more important than composition to me.21
With the absolutely stunning remarks above, Marcus fairly disqualifies himself as a critic of popular song. A song should arguably stand on its own—generally, that is, albeit most certainly not always—and we’ll get to that later. But that’s not what Marcus is arguing, as he’s clearly not really interested in actuality, but in his own tail-wagging-dog solipsistic pseudo-anthropology. (See his take on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, earlier.) And of course performance is obviously quite secondary to composition when analyzing a song—indeed composition, the writing, is the inextricable foundation of any discussion of performance22. His many books, including Mystery Train, the re-release of which was the focus of the above interview quotes, while superficially well-written, are essentially the purple prose of the impetuous infatuate who’s just not really listening—and he’s obviously in water far beyond his depth when opining on popular songs themselves.
Not convinced? Here’s another bit of ruthlessly tough and incisive, no-holds-barred insight from Mr Marcus:
If by classic blues you mean any recording from the ’20s and ’30s, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a bad classic blues.23
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The problem with rock criticism is the lack of criticism of the criticism. — Jon Landau (b. 1947)
I don’t know and have never dealt with either of the two fellows I excoriate here, and surely Marcus and Ricks aren’t stupid. Yet they’re far from being outliers, and the swaggering, staggering ineptitude is hardly unusual. They’re just starry-eyed fans, that’s all; starry-eyed fans with credentials. And so perhaps a good fit for their talents would be writing regular columns in Seventeen or Sassy or Tiger Beat, their breathless ejaculations wedged between similarly gripping articles on “Beating Acne For Good!” and “Planning the Perfect Slumber Party!”.
For popular music to rise above the inconsequential, the clueless, the puerile, it’d be helpful if writers on popular music also rose, en masse, above the inconsequential, the clueless, the puerile.
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But back to the immediate matter at hand: the rhetorical question intimated by the heading to this section, because journeymen like Marcus and Ricks at least know the language, and of the two at least Marcus can also evocatively use it.
So how many times have you delved into a music review in a reputably literate publication and/or by a knowledgeable critic only to find, down deep in the piece when the act’s lyrics are finally looked at, that those lines are totally or near-totally lacking in intrinsically worthy observation or insight? They just lie there, flat and lifeless.
The worst writing in the article, yes, ends up having been those quoted lyrics—providing yet another illustration of the pandemic unfocused poverty in American songwriting.
16In deference to William Morris’ famous instruction, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”, stuff this brazenly bad should certainly be neither purchased nor despoil anyone’s bookshelves. (If you’ve simply got to see what could warrant such disgust, your local library probably has a copy; see it there. Send me an email with your own reactions....)
17Similarly, see New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s obsession with Bruce Springsteen (reportedly 141 concerts and counting), or any ardent Deadhead’s devotional pilgrimages.
18New York Times, 9/9/2004, in an article by Charles McGrath titled “Dylan, Master Poet? Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”: After the release of Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album in 1997, Mr Ricks was upset by the thin little mustache that Dylan had begun sporting. “I just don’t think it looks good,” he said. “Do you?” He added that he thought about getting up a petition reading: “Mr Dylan, please remove the stipple from your upper lip.” “I didn’t send it,” he said, “because my students said it might hurt Dylan’s feelings.”
19Some thoughtful and intelligent reviews include ones by Christopher Hitchens in The Weekly Standard: http://www.weeklystandard.com/americas-poet/article/5491; Eric Ormsby in The New Criterion: https://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/blowinwind-1483; Jaime J. Weinman in Maclean’s: http://zvbxrpl.blogspot.com/2004/07/why-i-dont-dig-dylan.html; and Luke Slattery in The Australian: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/bob-dylan-rocks-but-as-a-poet-he-is-just-bland-on-bland/news-story/0b7d7028aa86e5d47422e3351075c9f5. And here’s a somewhat lighter and more deferential, but also generally on-target review by Andy Fogle in PopMatters: http://www.popmatters.com/review/dylans-vision-of-sin/.
20Fraud. (And, okay—to many, this manifesto will seem to have originated in the Sixth Circle: Heresy. Good!)
21ASCAP.com, 7/28/2015, interview by Steven Rosenfeld titled “Rock Critic Greil Marcus on the Power of Songwriters”.
22Similarly, in another field, here’s comic actor Jason Alexander on the success of the television show, Seinfeld: “Well 90% of the journey was in the great writing. The four of us (actors) just took it the last 10% of the way.”
23RockCriticsArchives.com, 3/12/2002, “Online Exchange with Greil Marcus”.
PART TWO: On Performance and Genre
“Yeah I Know It’s Crap, But You Really Hafta See ’Em LIVE!”
You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. — Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)
We’ll now start to look at how popular songs are presented to us, and whence they derive.
And to start off this short section, let me quote myself—a dictum I attempt to present, whenever necessary, in as close an approximation as I can to Charlton Heston playing Moses thunderously parting the Red Sea: A Recording Is Not A Performance. I’ll repeat that—forwards and backwards, with doubled exclamation points at the end: A Recording Is Not A Performance! A Performance Is Not A Recording!!
Excitement elicited by a performance is entirely unrelated to excitement elicited by a recording. In basest example, there’s no doubt one can be lifted to congenial enthusiasm drinking beer with friends, listening to or dancing to some practiced bar band covering hits of the day and yesterday. A fun evening is had.
A recording, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with that or any other live performance—and if the act, and the material of the act, actually merits recorded (meaning strictly aural) presentation, a whole other set of considerations derives24.
What works on stage doesn’t necessarily work on record—and vice-versa. A wrong or slurred note on stage will be imperceptible to 99.9% of the people there—on record it will likely stand out like a cacaphouglaring, flashing red light to everyone who hears it. Such “imperfections”, so-loved by starry-eyed romantic purists and academics, can drive the actual performers nuts, of course—because if he, she or they had it to do again, the mistake wouldn’t be there! “Hell, every other time we played it right, dammit!”
Similarly—and of particular note to the objectives of this essay—a lyric that is pretty damn trite or just plain idiotic when heard on a recording can be mitigated, obfuscated (indeed effectively buried) by purposeful slurring, rushing through, an instrument playing a particularly loud or intrusive note or riff at that moment, an eccentric physical mannerism or stunt, or other diversion when performed live. But it remains absolutely there in the actual song, an artifact and proof of inferior songwriting25.
A live presentation is called a “performance” for a reason....
24Within the recording industry, business-wise, the live album has been traditionally considered a kind of holding action in an act’s stream of product—a way to stay in the public eye, and ostensibly stay current, without having to actually write and prepare new material. It also serves, naturally, as a promotional device to help the act sell more tickets out on the road. (Quick note here: I one time asked a performer who’d put out one of the most successful live albums ever released how it all transpired. He chuckled and revealed that they’d only used one song recorded at the live gigs, and they went into the studio immediately afterwards to record all the songs again in that controlled environment. The audio engineer added an audience track to each cut—cutting in crowd hoots, hollers, laughter, applause—and it was all edited together and released as a massively successful “live” album. The wowed critics wrote about how exciting, magical—and necessary—the record was; because, of course, “Man, you gotta hear ’em live!” Not even one saw through the contrived artifice, the de facto hoax.)
25Many tricks, though obviously not all, that are used to distract from inferior writing in a live performance can also be implemented when recording, of course. This will be dealt with in a later section.
Over the Top? Ya Think?....
Beauty of style—and harmony, grace, and good rhythm—depend on simplicity. I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character. — Plato (428–348 BCE)
I’m gonna continue on performance considerations here, because obviously it’s the vocal that brings the actual writing to our ears.
And a great vocal instrument—a voice that hits the notes squarely and rhythmically—is but the first step. The subsequent and far greater measure of a singer is his or her ability to deliver the intention of the lyrics without drawing attention to that delivery itself. Two educative cases come immediately to my mind: Eric Burdon’s well-known vocal on “The House of the Rising Sun” (sung to a memorably effective orchestration by the Animals, especially on guitar by Hilton Valentine and keyboards by Alan Price; of Dave Van Ronk’s from-the-ground-up re-arrangement of the traditional folk song) and the similarly well-known “I Will Always Love You” written and first performed by Dolly Parton. Again, these are songs with which every reader is certainly familiar, so good.
The traditional “Rising Sun” is a folk song in simple 4/4 time arranged across as few as three chords (Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, others) that we presently know, primarily via the Animals, as a song in 6/8 arranged across five basic chords—and which is, incidentally, really the first mass-market example of folk-rock, easily antedating efforts by the Byrds and others.
And while Burdon clearly has a powerful voice and solid intonation, it’s his phrasing of the lyrics to the song that fail to fully express the sentiments of the lyrics. He allows the 6/8 meter to chop his delivery into an almost galumphing staccato: “There is......a house......in New Orleans......they call......The Rising Sun……and it’s been......the ruin......”, and so on. Given all the positive attributes of the rendition, and his natural gifts, it’s unfortunate that he turns the song into as much a rote recitation as an evocative and powerful admonition. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly works as presented, but I’m not being picayune in pointing out the definite vocal deficiency here. And it is unfortunate. But it’s an aspect of singing just about any song that can be effectively anticipated and obviated with enough attention and care. Stretching this or that word or syllable, anticipating the beat here and there (meaning singing the last word in a lyric line ahead of the beat upon which it naturally falls) and/or retarding the lyric elsewhere, as may be found helpful there—all these things help to overcome any natural “sing-songy” tendency of a specific song lyric. While discussing phrasing may seem to be a minor and peripheral matter, it’s what has kept Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday (for just two examples of great singers) in highest regard for so many years. Sinatra’s actual intonation—his nailing of the notes—wasn’t perfect or even consistent; and Holiday’s vocal range was really quite limited. Indeed, the argument could legitimately be advanced that Burdon was gifted with a more capable innate instrument than either. And yet Sinatra or Holiday—singing to the Animals’ great arrangement—likely would have diminished his exertion to insignificance in comparison. For an example of “Rising Sun” in which the phrasing is more capably handled, get a listen to Bob Dylan’s rendition on his very first album (pre-Animals, but post-Van Ronk, and in 6/8, so I believe credit for that now standard time signature for the song is properly Dylan’s, and it’s a significant step in the song’s evolution). Dylan obviously has no great instrument and he’s annoyingly affected, but he’s not at all a bad natural singer—not at all a bad deliveryman—and his serviceable utility in that department is displayed here.
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Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” offers textbook illustrations of so much of what has gone wrong in English-language popular singing. The song itself is precariously—but in Parton’s very capable writerly hands26, quite effectively—balanced between fey and heartbreaking. And it’s that innate slippery purchase that has made hearing so many other renditions of it such an excruciating endurance test. Yes, I’m looking at you, all of you Whitney Houston wannabes and various contestants on The Voice, American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent and innumerable other repellently déclassé TV shows.
The musical term “melisma” means holding a word or syllable for more than one note—perhaps its most common manifestation to those of us in the US is in the two notes allocated to the very first syllable of “The Star Spangled Banner”. There’s nothing at all inappropriate, cheap or deficient in using melisma—either through intentional writing or, if carefully invoked, in singing. What is insufferably self-indulgent—and almost always profoundly detrimental to a well-written song (as “I Will Always Love You” most certainly is)—is the addiction in recent years to over-the-top melismatic grandstanding as if such utterly irksome showboating somehow actually adds depth to a song. It does the exact opposite. Compare Houston’s tacky and overwrought singing of the song to, in particular, Parton’s own earliest 1970s performances of it. Yes, Parton uses melisma—again, it’s not the vocal application that’s objectionable, it’s the garishly assertive intrusion of that vocal application on a song itself that’s so pernicious. Parton’s melismatic delivery is simple, effective; in contrast, Houston’s peremptorily tosses all sincerity, resolution and heart into a dumpster so she can show off like an insufferably spoiled adolescent. Ridiculous and altogether painful—and again, detrimental to the intrinsic actual emotional effectiveness of the song.27, 28
26By the way, a quick note back on “The House of the Rising Sun”: Parton recorded her own version of that song—unfortunately in a musical production that is just plain BAD—but in which her re-write of the lyrics does a marvelously expansive and thoughtful job of both making the song more easily sung and more lyrically coherent. Dolly Parton—to those who may not know—is a very capable songwriter; one of the current true masters.
27What does work, and to electrifying effect, in the Houston rendition, however, is the uncued a capella key change 2/3 of the way through. It is such a powerful device, however, that melding it with a properly self-aware and deferential performance of the rest of the song would require a lot of care and circumspection—and it may admittedly still be ultimately impossible to square the two objectives. But had she and her producers been able to restrain themselves everywhere else, just this single device, correctly integrated, would have given them both a potentially great performance of a memorably romantic ballad—Houston certainly had the vocal instrument—and the hooky “star vehicle” they coveted. (En passant excursus: as to the occasional charge that a modulation—a key change—is a cheap trick, its use just a cheesy obviation of the otherwise possible necessity of writing an additional verse, I’ve several thoughts. But without taking too much time to go through them all here, let’s simply note there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the device—as with any tool the question is how it’s used and to what effect; and sometimes a song may even benefit from eschewing an additional lyric verse. Further, even the absolutely—assertively—musically unsophisticated proto-garage band, the Ramones, used a so-called “truck driver’s gear change” modulation in “I Wanna Be Sedated”. Again, the consideration is how and to what effect it’s used.)
28It’s my understanding that Elvis Presley was determined to record his own rendition of “I Will Always Love You”, but his manager demanded Parton hand over 50% of all the song royalties if Presley did it—claiming (probably honestly) that this was the deal they made on EVERY song Presley recorded and released, as an Elvis record would almost guarantee the sale of lotsa copies and so lotsa royalties. It’s to Parton’s credit she refused the avaricious business entreaty—and it serendipitously for her eventually resulted in certainly gaining her much more money(!) from the song—but unfortunate that Presley didn’t record the song anyway, as one must expect his generally brilliant ability to precisely and effectively navigate between bombast on one side and commonplace on the other would likely have delivered a spectacularly, definitively affecting rendition. We’ll never know....
Yes, Yes, We Too Are ALL SO PROFOUNDLY SORRY You Weren’t Born on a Mississippi Cotton Plantation!....
Acting is the expression of a neurotic and insincere impulse. Quitting acting, that’s the sign of maturity. — Marlon Brando (1924–2004)
Anecdote #1: I remember an edition of Fresh Air, the NPR interview show, some years ago in which the host, Terry Gross, interviewed John Fogerty of the band Creedence Clearwater Revival. When Gross asked Fogerty to simply say the words “turning” and “burning”—key words in the chorus of his song “Proud Mary”—he answered something like the following: “Uh, uh—turning and burning. But, but—when I sing, it just comes out ‘toynin’ and ‘boynin’. I don’t know why; it just naturally comes out that way….”
I’m so glad to have ‘loyned’ that—I used to think you were just a parading poseur, John, but you’ve really ‘oyned’ my respect. (What? Oh, that. Well, ya see, John, when I talk I say “learned” and “earned”. But when I write, for some reason it just comes out “loyned” and “oyned”. Honest. I don’t know why; it just naturally comes out that way.)29
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Anecdote #2: A few years back a good friend sent me a link to a song performed by a then emerging act with which I was unfamiliar called Alabama Shakes. I clicked to it and endured no more than 30 seconds before reaching my limit with the florid travesty. That it turns out the lead vocalist is herself half-African American does nothing, of course, to license her blatant and ignorant de facto contempt for the rural black culture she pretends to represent and personify with her cavalierly disrespectful burlesque. She clearly has a capable voice; it would be nice to experience it without her inane plaster of pretension and condescension. Perhaps she’s even a good songwriter, but I may never know.
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Popular song performance allows—better: seems to actively encourage and reward—the most baldly contrived and manufactured personas, inauthentic presentations, and counterfeit conceits; all the while pompously dissembling as exactly the opposite. It’s another measure of the innate and insecure poverty of so much in the discipline that acts (vocalists in particular) regularly seek to obscure their authentic selves behind insufferably concocted masks and fabricated “characters”—and that news media and public are so often at best acquiescent to, at worst eager collaborators in, the wholesale and demeaning charade.
The tendency in the vocal presentation is perhaps most apparent when a traditional blues song comes into play—suddenly the most erudite, educated and cosmopolitan performer will affect a slurring delivery and over-the-top accent he or she thinks is required to render justice to, or at least to properly perform, the song. “I jes’ be a-singin’ dis heah song so’s y’all ken be a-enjoyin’ muh truthful poh’boy se’f up heah on duh stage—ya gots me?” or some such similar act.
Earlier I predicted that a hundred years from now awards and awards shows will be viewed as a quaint and treacly hallmark of the hubris of our times. A second prediction I’ll make here is that in the not too distant future the kind of condescending and heavy-handed vocal mannerisms exhibited by so many performers today—especially when appropriating presumed rural black dialect—will be viewed with the same distaste and disgust with which we presently adjudge performing in blackface.
From Tom Waits’ (and one-time inamorata Rickie Lee Jones’) slurring barfly fabrications, to the self-indulgent grunting inarticulations of Van Morrison and, to a lesser extent, Randy Newman, to the outright racist “I jes’ be a uneducated cotton plantation share cropper” (or more currently, “Suburban-Boy-Wants-to-be-a-Ghetto-Gangsta”) crap of so many blues players and rappers, to the contrived “good ole country boy” twangs of Dwight Yoakam and (occasionally and incredibly) even middle-class bred Englishman Mick Jagger(!), the weirdness infects just about all branches of popular song performance
Singing in character is one thing—with a song in which the writing is clearly invested in a specific characterization and scenario (cf musical theater). In just about any other circumstance—and particularly with a song that merits serious attention—it’s simple vainglory, and it’s ultimately inimical to producing the desired effect. It demeans the songwriting.
Eschewing such bald contrivances also ultimately confers greater legitimacy and authority to the effort—the irritating vocal forgery is forsworn in favor of a more believable authenticity. Over the years, my “go to” examples to underscore and substantiate the point have varied, but consider the effortless and largely unaffected singing of folkies Doc Watson and Gordon Lightfoot; or rockers including Joey Ramone, Jim Morrison and Sting—and of course there’s many others current or past who could be likewise cited. And look, isn’t the advice always given to a performer insecure about how he or she’ll be received, “just trust what you’re singing and be yourself!”?
A good song—and that’s what we’re concerned with here—doesn’t need, and shouldn’t have inflicted on it, a singer’s vaunting impostures.
29For the record, no, Fogerty wasn’t “Born on the Bayou”, but in cosmopolitan Berkeley, California, and raised in the comfortable suburb of El Cerrito, a few miles north. And singing that song and others in his œuvre without the irritatingly counterfeit vocal contrivances would not diminish their impact. He’s not a bad songwriter.
Art School Confidential30
What all the posturing results in is a vast detachment and cynicism on the part of the performers, since it’s impossible to have respect for an audience that’ll take just about anything you care to dish out. — Lester Bangs (1948–1982)
Because ever-newer handfuls of promotional pasta are constantly whizzing by our ears, with the throwers hoping this time, finally, something will firmly stick to the wall, the rest of us become simply The Gullible Marketplace. The act attempts try after try, experimenting sequentially with wholly new manufactures of song orchestration and production, or (much, much more often) of costuming and “image”. The regularly lodged license for all such contrivances and manufactures is one we dismissed earlier: no they’re not entertainers, after all. They’re Artists.
We are told the commercially successful act—the Britney Spears, David Bowie, Björk, Madonna or (insert-name-here)—is “reinventing itself”, with the procession of consecutive “re-inventions” presented as a sure sign of the act’s Continuing Cultural Importance. Of course, most of the “re-invention” (and I’ll put that spurious term in quotes every time I use it here) is nothing more than, and quite literally, just an uncomfortably tenuous and self-conscious fashion parade—entirely dispossessed of considered insight or cultural relevance beyond the most transient, the most superficial. “Ziggy Stardust”, anyone…?31
Alternatively, for the as yet unheralded act, the rebrandings serve as a door opening device; a serial set of calling cards on industrial and public awareness, in desperate hopes that sooner or later one of the constructions commercially clicks. I mean, dammit, what do we have to DO to become Big Stars, after all!?!? We can be as weird as they are!! As for the songs themselves—what it’s supposed to be all about, no?—novelty and production receive far more attention than the actual writing and composing.
The cart has come completely off the rails and wildly careened about ten miles downhill; while the horse looks down on it all in confused consternation. It’s art school run amok. Signifiers sans signal.
And while there’s nothing intrinsically disqualifying in preposterous and desperate attempts at being noticed, the begged question is how much such ridiculous theatrics and flatulent affectations ultimately undercut any claim to genuine significance. After all, if you wander into the room or on stage, in serious demeanor, wearing flowerpots on your head—or arriving in a fiberglass “egg” and unctuously introducing yourself as “Lady Gaga” or some such32—there is, certainly, a strong likelihood what you have to say will be as equally pre-fabricated, shallow, and bereft of authenticity. Cheap show-biz contrivances, dumbed-down schlock and “artsy” empty posing are the primary gambits of the vacant wannabe.
We all dress our best—and put on an act; well, put our best foot forward—when trying to impress. And a good half of show business is most certainly just trying to make an impression; to “sell the wares”. But significant content invariably requires time to germinate, gestate and effectively convey—not a process normally embraced by the impatient and fame-obsessed.33
And as for the art school crowd34, so determined to appear—desperate to somehow, somehow be—“cutting edge”, even (cough, cough) “dangerous”(!), I offer this lovely and properly deflationary reckoning from French symbolist poet Paul Valéry over a century ago:
Everything changes. Everything changes—except, that is, the avant garde.
Far better to take the time and produce the sweat to perhaps end up offering actual substance in the material being delivered—the songs—than in yet more eye-rollingly imbecilic behavior, pretentious posturing or flamboyant dress.
Popular song is not alone, of course, but more than any other area of show business and the performing arts it encourages, celebrates—even sanctifies—the most banal and ersatz; impression over expression.
30This section’s subhead taken from the title of the four-page graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (subsequently adapted by him into a screenplay, with the resultant film directed by Terry Zwigoff).
31Let’s be absolutely clear about this and similarly vapid and uninhabited “characters” portentously trotted out by desperate acts as if such self-indulgent games of dress-up bear any resemblance to something worthy of consideration. A character is an entirety; not just a pretty frock and a blank stare pasted on a human frame belching out non sequitur song lyrics. That kind of artless display is, rather, simply the embodiment—the literal personification—of empty and pretentious posing for fashion; devoid of merit or relevance; entirely undeserving of our time or attention.
32Or, similarly, if vainglory results in you naming your band “fun.” (sic—yes, with that period) or your single self “tUnE-yArDs” (sic), “Will.I.Am” (sic)—or any one of the myriad other idiotic monikers rampantly infecting rap, hip-hop and heavy metal in particular but permutating throughout popular music—one can’t help but wonder if you simply have too much time on your hands. Here’s an idea: instead of trying to impress us with your self-importance (and your so awe-inspiringly courageous contempt for prevailing orthography!) spend that time re-writing some of the crap you’re performing and recording. Just a thought....
33Words of advice: when asked what someone wants to be or do, be wary if he or she immediately responds, “I want to be famous!”—otherwise known as “Art School: The Patti Smith and Madonna Curriculum”. As should be clear by now, such objective, while not inimical to creative ability and artistic merit, is at best most usually an egotistically counter-productive diversion from it.
34I myself was a student at both the San Francisco Art Institute and the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts). Art schools are a great environment in which to experiment, play and have fun; rarely availing milieux in which to create actual art or challenge convention.
Dance? Okay fine. Dance! Now go away....
If anything, a lot of electronic music is stuff that hardly anyone listens to at home.
It’s really only heard when people are out at a club. — David Byrne (b. 1952)
Where lyric writing is subjectively weakest—in which sub-streams of popular songwriting one finds the least craft and inspiration—is open to debate and personal bias as well as disciplined study, of course. As generalizations, a run-of-the-mill Nashville audience might understandably find rap songs worthless; a Broadway audience might dismiss songs from the punk sphere—and so on. We each have our personal prejudices, predilections and enculturated expectations. But I expect most would agree that songs intended primarily for dancing—from fiddle tunes to disco to electronic dance music—might be excused from criticism of puerility, inconsequence or plain inanity in what’s being sung above the pounding beat and foot-friendly syncopations. There may be an overarching point advanced via the vocals in the occasional dance number—if so, and if it’s accomplished exceptionally well, that’s certainly praiseworthy—but what’s actually being said, and how evocatively, how inventively, is really quite beside the primary point. Let’s dance….
It’s Greek—Urdu, Swahili, Kazakh, Latin, Bengali—to Me
Melody is the essence of music. — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Popular music with lyrics in a language the listener doesn’t understand obviously renders those lyrics and the vocal presentation of them as a solely musical experience—quite literally just another instrument in the musical mix, certainly devoid of precisely discernable content or message—and so also outside the scope of this essay. Excusez-moi. Je suis tellement désolé….
La-Da-Da-Da / Na-Na-Na-Na / Lie-La-Lie, Lie-La-Lie / Sha-La-Ti-Da
There is nothing more awful, insulting, and depressing than recurrent banality. — Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)
A look at what’s technically termed ‘non-lexical vocables’ is perhaps in order here. As the section subheading above indicates, non-lexical vocables (we’ll abbreviate them as NLVs) are vocal sounds of all types that aren’t actual words—so not just ‘La-La-La’, but the comparable nonsense syllables found famously (or perhaps infamously?) in the long appendage and fade-out of Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude” and the chorus of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer”; and scat singing, whistling, cowboy yodeling, cheap Disney claptrap like “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee”—even a throw-away sigh, growl or similar—and so on.35 In some sub-genres of popular song they’re a major, even definitive, component (c.f. doo-wop, for instance, or again, yodeling in cowboy songs).
There are so many different possibilities for use of such sounds in a song that I hesitate to make a blanket judgment—this is an area in which there are going to be wide variations in employment and significant exceptions. An act like the Swingle Singers, for instance, or Bobby McFerrin, exist as brilliant exemplars of what the human voice can do when invoked solely as a musical instrument bereft of responsibility to convey shaded rhetorical objectives.
And there’s countless traditional songs in which entire refrains or the entire chorus is nothing but NLVs, as well as whole genres of songs—in cultures spread around the world—that are constructed of essentially nothing but NLVs.
Given all the above, however, some general observations are surely appropriate here. And I think, while being open to multiple exceptions, we can offer that rarely—very rarely—can NLVs be justified within a song the remainder of which is presented as a serious or substantive effort at linguistic communication. A little of this kinda thing goes a long, long way.
I wonder if that’s not because using the human voice in the service of absolutely and assertively not transmitting identifiable information can seem a.) a cavalier contempt by the songwriter for the effort at communication generally, and/or b.) an admission that the songwriter was simply phoning it in at this juncture, treading water, resigned to being drained of ideas with space yet to fill, and/or c.) a signal to listeners that the words in this song—in this part of it, certainly—really aren’t that important after all. Though perhaps seeming innocuous, NLVs can be a virulent menace to a serious effort. A failure of songwriting.
On the other hand, yes, occasionally a guttural wail or similar may be a legitimately indicated cri de cœur in the context of a song that deals, for example, with profound emotional distress or longing; a sigh can underscore a wistful resignation, longing or remembrance; and etcetera. (Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” is perhaps particularly noteworthy here. Before starting in on each verse, he hums the single note on which the first word of that verse begins, for several beats. But because the affectation is so underplayed it avoids being an intrusion on the substance of the song and becomes, instead, a unique and entirely engaging appliance. Rare.)
I addressed the absurd use of NLVs in the chorus of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” earlier. And while Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” isn’t likely to be something leaping into mind were we asked to suggest a “serious song”, he at least sets up—legitimizes—his “Sha-la-la-las” in his chorus there; deploying his NLVs as stand-ins for (presumably forgotten?) actual lyrics within the context of the song, or as the self-aware youthful nonsense they otherwise are:
Do you remember when we used to sing
Morrison may intrinsically somewhat justify his chorus here, but to my ears the song still and clearly drops several levels in accomplishment with the descent into nonsense vocables so high-lighted and integral to it. And as we’ll see in a later section, even ostensibly validating NLVs by slyly introducing them en masse as a long coda just to fill out the time and to perhaps afford reflection on preceding information—or as a kinda “universal song code”, the precise lyrics of which are immaterial—does not, ipso facto, support using them.
This stuff is like playing with fire.
35While I’ve resolved to largely refrain from discussing my own work in this essay, it’s perhaps pertinent for me to confess I’ve used a non-lexical vocable in one of my own songs—a well-placed belch, believe it or not. It works perfectly in the song, and always gets exactly the intended big laugh it was designed to elicit; and so is exactly the opposite of treading water, phoning it in. NLVs can work, in the right application.
36“Brown Eyed Girl”, copyright 1967 by Van Morrison. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.
Country Music is “
I enjoy the videos with the sound off, where you can look at the belly buttons and everything. Some really pretty girls; but I don’t know about the music. — Merle Haggard (1937–2016)
Today’s Tin Pan Alley is Nashville, a songwriting factory town if ever there was one, and the songs derived therefrom essentially a highly lacquered and polished Southern-accented analogue to the mechanical rock band noise found in any bar down at the beach. Country music’s well-lubricated industrial muscle mostly churns out commodified rubbish that’s only a distant, cynical and cluelessly incompatible simulacrum of its forgotten white proletarian antecedents.
And the marketing of all that detritus underscores and exacerbates the wholesale poverty of the genre. A performance by one of the Nashville machine acts is really rather indistinguishable from watching a two-hour beer commercial. And it’s all delivered with the practiced oily glibness found at a convention of real estate agents.
The unfortunate socio-political foundation of current country music is a hardcore conservative-to-outright-reactionary politics married to the basest and smarmiest retailing cynicism. Even the most circumspect and judiciously politically progressive or intellectually mindful songwriting and/or presentation presents a tangible challenge to parochial Nashville’s reigning mandarins—predictably resulting in the dumbest and shallowest dissimulations imaginable. Even the slightest “mis-step” can invite career homicide (cf the Dixie Chicks), while welcomed with raucous cheers and open arms is retrograde sexism, cretinous braggadocio, calculated religiosity and sanctimonious flag-waving. Find an old pickup truck, sign on some practiced video girls, affect a deeper, more “manly” baritone growl—then perhaps add in some cutaways to dogs, beer bar tableaux and pseudo-“down home” paraphernalia; dress the sets with patriotic props and working class marginalia—and rush the aggregate disheveled mess of footage to the editors to cobble together yet another video version of the same old same old.
The one true and unassailable positive about Nashville and country songs, however—and a critically important aspect we’ll return to later in this essay—is that the words in a country song are always clearly delivered, for easy and full comprehension. This isn’t just a vestige of Tin Pan Alley; it goes way back—past the songs of Schubert, Grieg, Beethoven; past the troubadours Blondel and Bernart de Ventadorn; deep into history, surely—to the first vocal recitals that were accompanied by pounding rocks and sticks together. And while the overwhelming vast majority of country song lyrics that are so clearly delivered and comprehended is hack drivel, the current dominance of Nashville songwriting and country radio is testament to the importance of language. And it’s a tangible rejection of the oft-promoted thesis that melody is the most important component in a popular song. (The preceding sentence is seminal, and may be worth reading again.)
Basic Nashville songwriting practice is to take one and only one interesting, novel or even substantive statement or locution—a key line, most often the whole or part of the ultimate song title—surround it with filler lines, repeat the key phrase a few times (in case we idiot listeners didn’t get it on first hearing), later during recording add in as many “hooky” performance and production decorations as can be developed—and move on to the next effort.
If there’s any helpful lessons to actually be learned from the malodorous effluvia pumped out of Nashville and environs, it’s primarily just the most basic and rudimentary practices of simple song structure—as noted above, today’s country music is the wayward scion of Tin Pan Alley and its historical conventions. Valuable knowledge, to be sure, and a great starting point—but only the most elementary starting point.
Country’s Brainier Half-Sibling: Americana
After they have been reassured and have lost their fear, they are so artless and so free with all they possess, that no one would believe it without having seen it. — Christopher Columbus (1451–1506)
While I’m having a bit of fun above—the explorer was talking about the innocent natives he intruded upon after landing on Hispaniola in 1492, after all—he may’ve well been describing today’s Americana music scene, because that’s where all the oh-so-sensitive-and-sincere-singer-songwriters have settled in. It’s been written that “it takes an Americana song five minutes to say what a country song says in three”. Whether a legitimate comparison or not, it’s indicative of the cognate and inferential relationship of Americana to country. While country is freighted with obtuse swagger, however, Americana is the land of solipsism run amok—a national open mic night. (Also notable, en passant, is that like country music it’s an almost entirely Caucasian milieu.)
But of primary relevance to this essay, it’s a genre in which words—again, as in Nashville country—are generally of paramount significance. And it’s also the musical marketing category (which is how it was originated) most likely to produce material of lasting significance—this because Americana acts generally produce songs in which the words are presented for clear intelligibility and which largely aspire to thoughtful and perceptive presentation and reception. Whether such is actually achieved or not is another matter, of course, and the unfortunate and cancerous blight of inarticulate “Poetic Lyrics” is a regular occurrence in Americana songwriting—a natural tendency, perhaps, given the current critical endorsement and approbation given to it.
The awkward relationship of Americana acts to country—the Americana Music Association is even headquartered in Nashville and hands out its own annual awards there—serves as something of a brake on the creative freedom from industrial concerns and blandishments that full severance might encourage. As it is, there’s a constant pull and frequent cross-over from one brand to the other. And a song that appears on the Americana music charts can concurrently appear, without much fuss, on the country music charts. The Americana label has even been the latter day tag and marketing classification for formerly MAJOR country acts, of course—a kinda “retirement home” for Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and others when newer, fresher meat (and ever more cynically imbecilic songwriting) is being championed and mainlined by Nashville. The fact that such acts were essentially marginalized by Nashville also effectively substantiates that it is country music itself that has devolved and depleted so appreciably over past decades. The current meretricious miasma of posturing country music bozos and bozettes is not at all an evolving continuation, but rather an outright rejection, of the traditional higher aspirations and measures of the form itself in favor of its more menial representations.
Further and after all, if the songwriters right next door are making Big Bucks writing asinine “bro country” garbage while you’re the starving La Boheme Americana artiste, the temptation to finally buy a nicer used car can easily be an understandable if unfortunate enticement to enthusiastically begging your way into the foulest of déclassé souqs: Nashville country music.
Tradition, Permanence, and the Illusion of Same
I thought the blues was a simple 12-bar format and it’s like a jam—we just improvise. Sonny Boy Williamson kicked the shit out of that for me. He said “We’re gonna do ‘Nine Below Zero’” and I thought well fine—it’s a blues! My assumption was you just tell me the key and the tempo and I’ll make it up. So I started, and he virtually whacked me round the head and said, “No, it starts with this!”, and he sang the opening motif to me—and then there’s a drum part, and then this happens, and so on; it was all very carefully and specifically constructed. I realized, suddenly, the blues isn’t an interchangeable jam at all—each song is very formally composed.37 — Eric Clapton (b. 1945)
A folk song does not exist in any of its variants, but rather in the aggregate of its variants. — John Lomax (1867–1948)
Traditional songs present some considerations unique to the genre when discussing lyrical content.
First up is that the songwriters—well, loosely, at least until the mid-nineteenth century—are usually unknown, the song’s specific origins lost in time. This makes the song malleable, even amorphous; finding a “textbook version” becomes impossible—there are no textbook versions. As soon as a song or a specific line is taken apart, analyzed and re-assembled, one can stumble on a slightly divergent version of the song or line elsewhere that obviates any conclusions at which one may have just arrived. As John Lomax intimates above, a traditional song is a kind of stew, out of which each ladling can bring forth slightly (or wholly) different tastes and textures. So while one’s attempted re-write of, say, “Heartbreak Hotel” might be immediately exposed as counterfeit, a previously unfamiliar insertion into a traditional song—or a new and novel inversion or revision—could easily be (or if entirely fabricated, be duplicitously ascribed to) legitimate cultural anthropological research and exploitation.
Second is that actual folk songs (and I of course include blues here) are almost invariably derived from a working class environment and so tend to eschew intricate constructions—the poetry in traditional songs tends to be a direct, moralistic or aphoristic presentation, largely devoid of formal literary aspirations or allusions.
And third is that what I’ll call “mainstream traditional songs”—folk and blues songs that are in today’s common canon—have already essentially gone through a curatorial process: the discarding, polishing and emendations of words, lines, entire formulations and ideas that, for one reason or another, were judged ineffective or of lesser resonance before the presently dominant construction. There’s a de facto curatorial reason this traditional song, in this generalized construction—and not that song over there—is regularly performed and recorded.
Which brings up another point I want to make here, implied by the above—and one that will disturb and offend the easily upset fragile rigidities of so many adherents and purveyors of folk, bluegrass, old-time, blues and other traditional forms: not all traditional songs are well-written, well-crafted or even musically interesting offerings. Just because it was born in the cotton fields or the coal mines, in the Appalachian hollows or on great wooden sailing ships—or originally recorded in the back woods and released on 78rpm record—does not mean the song is musically and/or lyrically at all meritorious, or even significant. It may be of unquestionable interest culturally and historically, but it’s not necessarily accomplished or laudable intrinsically.
More to the point, it is absolutely proper to note lapses in the songwriting if and when they occur—and where possible, to address and possibly favorably affect those lapses. The danger, of course, is when such efforts yield a song version stripped of any real relationship beyond the most superficial to its heritage. We do owe something to the notion of fidelity.
Often of great help, and again as alluded to in the statement by John Lomax above, a traditional song can be like a gigantic bibliography, offering a potentially rich source for ideas, nuanced alternate lyrical realizations, different interpretations and divergent melodies for the song.
Discussing traditional songs is obviously appropriate here because so many such songs are recorded and performed right alongside material from contemporary songwriters, and so deserve to be not simply ignored, exempted—or worse, patronized. These are not museum pieces: precious, frozen, sanctified.
I occasionally do blue collar union work in the Hollywood studios, where what’s usually blasting out of radios and internet connections—even despite the exponentially expanded options presented by Spotify, Pandora and similar—is the same fucking fifty or so nominal “classic rock” songs, over and Over and OVER again, ad-god-damn-nauseum. Yet one day recently, while working with some guys who were as sick as I of the expected rote playlist, I suddenly heard the first few notes of a song and performance I instantly recognized from many, many years before: one of the guys38 had somehow brought up “Lula Walls” (sometimes called “Lulu Walls”), by A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) Carter and recorded by the Carter Family in 1928. The tide of memories that flooded over me brought actual tears to my eyes, such was both the complete and utter unexpectedness of it in the present circumstance and the length of time since I’d last heard the song—a perfect illustration of the power of nostalgia, (see above). Indeed, I’d learned and played “Lula Walls” as a teenager growing up in the Deep South.
But despite the power with which the song entered my hearing that morning, looking at it with dispassion yields a piece of writing that, with the sole exception of the two word description of the titular character preceding mention of her name in the chorus, is about as pedestrian and banal as one might possibly devise:
One evening getting dark we first met at the park,
Such a star I’ve never seen;
If she was only mine, I would build a house so fine,
One evening getting late I met her at the gate
Folks, this is platitudinous vapidity. The only substantive thought or experience in the entire song is the idea of a beautiful woman being an aggravation—not easily courted by the singer. An “aggravating beauty”—I’ll buy that idea and locution. But now DO something with it! Because everything else here—all the adulations and all the mises en scene presented—are empty clichés, vacant of insight, evocation or interest; with the rhymes arriving with all the delightful subtlety of a Sherman Tank. In short, “Lula Walls” is a fair example of what today’s country songwriting continues to spew onto the American public: one half-baked but serviceable notion—surrounded and smothered by absolutely nothing beyond innocuous bromides and padding.
The original Carter Family was a clear and wholesome representation of the heart, and evocation of the aspirations, of working class rural white America in the early twentieth century—an important and largely unaffected act whose recorded performances stand the test of time. But as one of the two generally recognized major founding acts of the today’s country music (the other being Jimmie Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman”—and we might add a third, Uncle Dave Macon) the songwriting constructions that in their hands delivered generally genuine and innocent, if unsophisticated, paeans has devolved into the hack and cynical manufactures vomited out of today’s Nashville. Rather than move above and beyond its antecedents, today’s country music maneuvers ever further beneath them.
- - -
Yet, to be precise, even the Carter Family doesn’t represent—their songs aren’t fully quintessential of—strictly traditional music, insofar as much of their material was either written ground-up or near ground-up (largely by A.P. Carter). The remainder was primarily songs derived from commercially created pieces that wended their way into isolated rural areas via informal person-to-person transmission, in a songwriting version of the children’s game of Telephone—such as, archetypically, the well-known song, “Wildwood Flower”, wayward descendant of 1860’s “I’ll Twine Mid the Ringlets” by J.P. Webster and Maud Irving).
So let’s briefly discuss a song that is incontestably a traditional song; authors unknown, but there were surely scores of them—arguably hundreds—spread over several centuries on at least two continents. There’s not even a certain title for the song, though, through the general democratic curatorial process mentioned above, most people today know it as “The Cuckoo”.
As the preceding sentences should understandably prepare us to accept, there’s a zillion variations: in what verses to include (of the perhaps thirty or so documented. Fifty? A hundred?...), in what order (if any) they properly appear, in what each individual line might convey—and possibly in what each and every individual word should be. Here’s the basics of the version I’ve played now and then over the years.40
Oh, the cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird,
Jack o’ Diamonds, Jack o’ Diamonds,
I've played cards in England;
I’m gonna build me a log cabin
Yeah, the cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird,
My practice, when dealing with—when looking to take on and possibly performing—a traditional song is to look at what’s available in the stewpot; to look around for as many flavors or ‘collectable elements’ (verses, basically, but significant variants of those verses as well) as may be available and to then carefully determine which ones best work together to common end. In the above “Cuckoo” I use just four verses—from the perhaps 20-30 I’ve encountered here and there over the years—with one, what we’ll here call the “title verse”, used to bookend the others; to open and close the song. Nothing at all unique here, except perhaps the very limited number of available verses I incorporate.
My reason for that severe limitation is that this song, like so many traditional songs (again, including blues songs) can quickly devolve into a dish with too many flavors, I feel—so many disconnected verses (read: ideas) that it becomes more an inchoate litany of disparate complaints or uncoordinated observations, or a mix of both, than a cohesive whole.
Traditional songs tend to be constituted of very simple and straight-forward building blocks. But simple doesn’t mean simplistic—it can also be an adjective used to otherwise properly describe elegance and power, both of which there is a lot of in a really good traditional song. (And yes, there’s often also a lot of dross.) And to my ears, even with verses of roughly uniform eloquence, just pumping out verse after disconnected verse diminishes the overall impact—there’s a strong suggestion of “throwing in the kitchen sink”. Verses in a traditional song can be so lean and potent that it can be like pouring way too much gunpowder into a canon if you stuff everything you have into the song. Where there’s a wish to lengthen the song for time, my choice, almost always, is to call on the instrumental accompaniment, or to possibly designate one specific verse as a de facto chorus and re-insert it more than once into the proceedings. Again, neither solution is at all unusual.
In my rendition of “The Cuckoo”, we have, along with the title verse, two of the remaining three concerning gambling, with the final one concerning admiration for a particular woman—so just two primary propositions, wrapped in a somewhat amorphous but engaging bracket. For dancing and similar—where words are of secondary importance and as much as anything else serve to simply break up the monotony—throwing everything ya got into the stew is fine, naturally. We sometimes have a real surfeit of those great, but conceptually entirely independent, ideas and verses—in most cases it’s of little consequence, so good. But to my ears, for literate presentation—for there to be an actual reason for these words to be listened to, and not just danced to—there should be a continuity either obviously delineated or clearly implied. More than one general theme is fine, I think—two certainly, and possibly even three. But careful! This a form in which less is more.
Later, we’ll look at another traditional song I’ve also played for many years—a down and basic 12-bar blues—and matters examined here will be looked at from another angle.
The objective, when assembling a traditional song—and “assembling” is a good way to put it—should be to seek concordances, continuities and complementary angles when possible, and to massage and mold them into that coherent presentation that lets the listener know there’s more here than just a heap of words from all over with no armature, no reason for internal association other than an indeterminate and confused historicity.
As I briefly mentioned in footnote 26, earlier, Dolly Parton did—intelligently, capably did—exactly what I describe here to “The House of The Rising Sun” in preparation for her own recorded performance of it. She presumably spread out the extant available verses on her desk, studied that material and physically re-arranged the pieces and parts, and added in her own slight editions. (But caveat emptor: The musical accompaniment and production on her recording of the song is just plain retched—a bad reminder of how vapid Nashville production can be, as insipid back in the 80’s as now. Her construction of the lyrics, however, is great—as is her singing, naturally. But the rest? Well, consider yourself warned.)
Traditional songs require the same thought and precision in construction—or again, in assembling—as a song written ground-up, but with the critical and pivotal additional requirement that the song eventually presented be properly, intelligently consistent with historical antecedents. I think that’s a kinda proper respect we owe past generations, and a reflection of our own self-respect.
37Mojo, 3/2/2013, interview by Michael Simmons, titled “Eric Clapton: My Life in the Yardbirds, Cream and Beyond”.
38I later learned it was one of the set painters—a New Yorker born in Puerto Rico—who knew, very much liked and had specifically typed “Carter Family” into the internet connection; a rewarding exemplar illustration of the wonderful and unexpected stew of cultures and ethnicities that comprises America. It made me smile broadly, with humility and pridedeference.
39“Lula Walls”, copyright 1928 by A.P. Carter. Quoted here as permitted under the Fair Use provisions of 17 U.S.C.§107.
40Probably mostly taken from Clarence Ashley’s early-to-mid twentieth century version, as recorded by Alan Lomax in 1961.
The Disarmingly Enabling Inscience of Rap and Hip-Hop
Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. — Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)
I accept the argument that even describing rap and hip-hop as popular song may somewhat miss the mark, insofar as there’s a strong propensity in the form to virtually bury any music in a flood of language and booming beat. There are major rap stars, surely, who couldn’t knowledgeably play even Note One on an actual musical instrument, or creditably sing Note One without going through auto-tune.
But again, at this point we’re still addressing the lyrics side of songwriting. (We’ll get to musical composition later on, promise.) And this is a genre in which words—and what is being said, certainly—is the whole ballgame, or 90% of it. However, unfortunately—and given the inherent emphasis on the lyrics here—possibly even more clearly than in other forms, most of what’s being said is utterly worthless. In its worst manifestations it’s censurably repulsive, posturing garbage; wrapped in annoyingly ludicrous swagger.
What is incontestably noteworthy and positive however, is how within rap—and we’ll use the term inclusive of its sundry offshoots and sub-genres—the lexical constructions and rhymes can veer so far, far away from the expected standard. Rap has arguably accelerated the acceptance of unusual constructions and imperfect rhyme in popular songwriting. (But its employment still remains most widely acclaimed, probably, in the poems of nineteenth century poet and homebody Emily Dickinson—tell that to the neighborhood wannabe gangsta.)
At one time rhyme in a song had an important technical function along with the desire for pleasing sonority—to aide simple understanding of the words being sung. Before phonographic reproduction, before electronic amplification, mere comprehension of generally unfamiliar material was a significant hurdle, and rhyme was a fundamental tool in overcoming it. But there’s only so many perfect rhymes available for any word, obviously leading to overuse and eventual cliché.
The freedom that not being tied to conventional constructions and actual or even near rhyme allows is invigorating to popular songwriting. We’re all tired of “kissing/missing”, “love/above”, “chance/dance/romance” and other obvious combinations—though this isn’t to say even the most banal rhyme can’t work within a fitting context (read: worthwhile surrounding information) and with helpful vocal delivery (such as, again, the singer arriving on the obvious rhyme well before the note upon which it would naturally fall). And in rap, almost as a rule, it’s the Wild West of Whatever Works—traditional expectations in rhyme, meter and overall structure generally be damned.
Effective writing in rap—and here I’m gonna jump right on the bandwagon the reader surely anticipates—is currently perhaps best evinced in the stage musical, Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and in his preceding effort, In the Heights.
When information is coming in rapidly, relentlessly—substantively—occasional lapses in craft can be forgiven, are essentially obviated, because the very next idea comes right on its heels without allowing the listener the opportunity to analyze or reflect: the general notion is enough. Contrast this with the first song we looked at here, “American Pie”—where the failures aren’t obscured by adjacent brilliance or even adjacent substantive information. In contradistinction, Miranda’s work generally provides a lot to consider throughout; most of it presented with respect for our intelligence, unafraid and able to reach us using a rich vocabulary. (There’s also very little purposely obfuscating dialect or patois, either inherent in the lyrics or affected in the delivery, something that often debilitates rap.)
Yet writing adagio to perform prestissimo, if I can put it that way, is a simple enough endeavor. Right, ya just speed everything up beyond what might reasonably be expected, given the difficulty of the words and of the information conveyed, when in performance. The easiest of parlor tricks. However, without there being consistent actual worthwhile substance in that torrent of words—because some of it, and it’ll be a different part for each individual auditor, will be fully comprehended—the song is exposed as but verbosity for verbosity’s sake. Miranda regularly delivers, but the vast overwhelming majority of rap and rap-influenced songs don’t even come close.
Whatever the generally low quality of the writing in rap and hip-hop—and it’s certainly that—the freedom the form brings to popular songwriting itself is refreshing and liberating. We are all tired of “kissing/missing”, “love/above”, “chance/dance/romance”—and “moon/June/spoon”—no?
41As for the delivery—the actual rapping—there’s always been popular songs that weren’t truly “sung”. A talking blues (first appearing in a song entitled just that, “Talking Blues”, by Chris Bouchillon, in 1926) and a patter song (Gilbert & Sullivan did them brilliantly in the late nineteenth century) are just two examples; (as is the vocal technique called “sprechstimme” in an operatic context). But that aspect of rap is largely irrelevant to this essay.
42Way off topic here, but both shows do suffer on stage, from the directoral freneticism so common in contemporary musical theater—choreography largely sans raison d’etre or achieved evocation; marshaled throughout in the counter-productive and desperate panic to KEEP-EVERYTHING-MOVING-MOVING-MOVING-DAMMIT-DAMMIT-DAMMIT-PEOPLE-WILL-GET-BORED-AND-FALL-ASLEEP-IF-WE-DON’T!!—but that’s still one more topic for another essay someday.
(MUCH MORE COMING SOON)