January 31, 2018

HE’S NOT WRONG: Quincy Jones shoots down Taylor Swift: ‘We need f***ing songs, not hooks.’

It’s one of the tragedies of pop music that as pop music recording technology was perfected, songwriting seemed to move equally, almost in lockstep, backwards. Russ Titelman, who produced and arranged Steve Winwood’s mega-hit “Higher Love,” and albums by Eric Clapton, James Taylor, and Eric Clapton, was asked by interviewer Howard Massey in his 2009 anthology of interviews, Behind the Glass, Volume II: Top Producers Tell How They Craft the Hits, “What are the common mistakes people are making in the demos they are making in home studios?”

I don’t know if people are doing anything wrong. What hasn’t changed is when you hear a great song. Songwriting styles have changed, though; to me, standards of writing have been diminished in a way. People don’t use the language as cleverly as they used to. And that tradition of lyric writing, using complicated chord progressions and things like that, were part of what got the message across; the technique itself. It’s like the music of poetry in that the way it sounds is part of the message. If you have very clever Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin lyrics, there’s something that tickles your brain about how cleverly their rhyme schemes go and what they’re saying. So there was that tradition, and then you have our generation that came in the late fifties, early sixties-the ‘Fin Pan Alley group of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and Bacharach and David, all the greats who wrote in that tradition, but they simplified it. They took the people’s music-doo-wop and music off the streets-and made sophisticated versions of what was going on. Plus they were interested in symphonic arrangements to accompany these little tracks. I guess The Beatles were the pinnacle of that tradition.

The production quality of pop music – recording, mixing and mastering – has never been better. All of these elements used to be very hit or miss; they’re now each a science. Unfortunately, at some point along the way, the art of writing a song has “progressed” dramatically backwards. As late as the early 1970s, a decade prior to the MTV era, artists such as Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, and Aretha Franklin, each of whom would likely fail the MTV aesthetics test, could have successful careers because they were amazing vocalists. Today, performers such as Taylor Swift succeed because of their video-friendly looks, and slick production and auto-tuning programs do the rest.

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