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Friday Night Videos

March 7th, 2014 - 10:02 pm

Last week’s selection of Elton John’s “Bennie And The Jets” generated a lot of smart comments, especially one about John and his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin. And that got me to wonder — what happened to songwriting?

Because it’s grown to mostly suck.

That’s not to say popular music was once always great. I’ll refer you to Exhibit A, 1952′s “(How Much Is) That Doggy In The Window?” as evidence that bad songs have always been with us. And there are still some fine popular songs being recorded today, I’m sure. Although I can’t think of one which has actually made the charts.

Time was though, that American popular music defined the grown-up listening experience, but then Rock’n'Roll came along and changed all that. Rock is essentially adolescent — and I say that as a compliment and not a complaint. It’s permanent (although not exclusive) adolescence is its essential charm. The problem is that popular music followed it down that same path, leaving precious little for the grownups to listen to when we want something a little more grown up.

So what does this have to do with the death of — or at least dearth of — great songwriting?

The American Songbook was filled with popular music written by professional songwriters, who sold their wares to professional vocalists, who performed with professional bands, with arrangements by professional arrangers. That’s a classic Smithian division of labor, and the results were frequently stunning and timeless. It’s also a tough field to break into.

Rock is much more democratic, too. You didn’t need those big orchestras and all those professional writers and arrangers and such. You just needed four or five guys, some inexpensive instruments, and a place to practice. So that’s where the new music started coming from as the old talent aged and the young Baby Boomers wanted something new.

The singer-songwriters were the next nail in the coffin, however — and I say this as a huge fan of the genre.

Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Janis Ian — I could go on, just plucking singer-songwriter names out of my iTunes library at random. They have written and performed great songs. By and large however, the singer-songwriter writes a different style of song than your average Rogers & Hart or Cole Porter. The professional songwriters of old wrote music to sell to vocalists. So they tried their best to write timeless and adaptable songs. The singer-songwriter writes much more personal material, almost exclusively for themselves to perform. You can cover Dylan, but people will always compare you to the original Dylan. But anyone from Sinatra to Brian Setzer can sing a selection from the Great American Songbook and make it completely their own.

Later came the music video, and the rise of the studio producer and the singer-dancer-who-can’t-much-sing. And that was the final nail. Ah, well — it was good while it lasted.

For what it’s worth, I loved all those late ’70s/early ’80s videos, too. The songs might not have been timeless or adaptable, but they were sure a whole lot of fun. So I’m not being a Grumpy Old Man about all these changes. You can’t roll back the clock, or even achieve stasis in popular music, any more than you can in any other form of commerce.

Which brings us to John & Taupin. These two men are so talented and in so many different kinds of music, that I believe they would have thrived artistically and commercially during any musical era. Tonight’s pick, “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” could easily have turned out maudlin or saccharine. Instead they wrote a timeless ballad to a situation relatable to any grownup, anywhere.

That’s some fine songwriting right there, so I’m sorry if I alarmed you with exaggerated reports of its death.

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All Comments   (12)
All Comments   (12)
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Another thought - Our "participation trophy" culture did music in.

My kid will ask me what I thought of an orchestra performance, one where the composer was some doofus music professor. I read the program guide. I wasn't in rehearsal when the doofus said "ok this is the butterflies in the field part" and "This is the angst over the butterfly being stomped part". To me it sounded like two cats fighting on a sampling keyboard.

So I say it sucked. And I get the eye-rolls and shunning.

Apparently, you can't tell and artist of any kind that they suck.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
There's a lot of reasons, but I can think of three big ones.

First, Mr. Lion is right - all of the pop music today is "product". Engineered to a certain audience. I once read an article about how they do that with beer - design the taste to resonate for the largest amount of monied dimwits possible. But that's not new. Back in that very same era came the likes of Madonna and Boy George. Remember any of their songs?

He's also right on talent. One of my kids is a music major, so I spend a lot of time going to Orchestra and Wind symphony performances. I know when I see the composer is younger than say - 60 - the piece will sound like your kitchen cabinets exploding. Also, if there's a huge writeup on what the song is about, chances are it sucks. If you have to explain it...

Lastly, it's our crappy education system. Specifically language arts, like English. The younger performers utterly lack the ability to express themselves in anything other than first person explicit terms. Maybe they lack the skills, life experience, or basic intelligence to describe things.

Think of Marvin Gaye - "Heard it through the grapevine" (A guy hears that his woman plans to ditch him from his friends) or George Benson -
"On Broadway" - (I'm going to make it big because I have talent)

Most composers can't take a simple concept and stretch it into a song conveying all the emotion. They lack the word skills.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Stephen, you know I stumbled across you around your tenth or fifteenth blog post.

I was searching for a vodka punch recipe on Altavista, and I found your site instead. Thank God they weren’t as efficient as google!

Anyway, I just wanted to say that in all that time, this is one of your best posts!
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Recall that this song was very effectively used in "Slapshot", whcih was really a comedy. Gives youa sense of how versatile they are as songwriters.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
What happened? Talent. Back in the day you needed some to get any venue or recording label to look at you crosswise. Somewhere along the lines the labels figured it was just easier to engineer pop glop with teams of writers and then find a meat popsicle that could sort of bleat it out in an appealing manner at the chosen sales demographic.

Elton John or Johnny Cash starting out in this day and age? Never happen.

Same thing that happened to Hollywood.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
“(How Much Is) That Doggy In The Window?”

Not the deepest song, but it is the only one I remember from that time ;) Which raises the question, what other songs from 1952 do you remember or know of?

And "Wipeout" has withstood the test of time with hardly any lyrics at all.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Which songs from 1952 do I remember? A bunch!

A lot of Hank Williams hits came that year. Jambalya, Honky Tonk Blues, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Still being played.

Kitty Wells, Honky Tonk Angels. Still being played.

That's also when the most blatantly sexual double entendre songs made it big Muddy Waters All Night Long, My Ding A Ling, and this one, which you can still hear today on classic rock stations....https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rws_7mLTqj8&feature=kp


40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
This is a great, evocative song. Steve, I don't know if you are a fan of The Who, or Pete Townshend as a song writer/performer, but one of the things I love about him is that he writes intelligently. And, his music has matured as he has. The same man who wrote "My Generation" when he was young wrote a beautiful song called "Tea and Theatre" on the Who's last album "Endless Wire." You could say the latter is about an older man mourning the results of his former friends and bandmates who died before they got old. Townshend can write!
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
One of my hidden hobbies is songwriting. (And other writings as well, my unfinished novella still in the works)

Elton and Bernie wrote songs "backwards" from most others. Bernie would write the lyrics first. Most others write the music first and then try to match lyrics into each measure.

I write the Elton/Bernie way. It's cathartic in a way.

Always thought their songs pinged the emotional strings a bit more forcefully because the music response to the message rather than the other way. Maybe that's just me, though.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Drum machines. And hey, Blondie is a guilty pleasure of mine so I'm not trying to be a snob. But when you can electronically manipulate music why learn the old, hard way when you can have a sound engineer work his magic? It's not that there isn't talent, but there's no demand for hard work, failure and picking yourself up off the mat.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
This was also the last song Ray Charles recorded before his death, with Elton John, on Charles' "Genius Loves Company" compilation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3y29dWcuqQY

A very haunting performance, due to the circumstance, but showcasing both of their vocal abilities in a beautifully understated way.

40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
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