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. Rock’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.