It is the summer of 2005.
It has been eleven years since the death of Kurt Cobain and the effective end of the massively popular and
influential ‘grunge’ movement that came out of Seattle, Washington and gave birth to the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden,
and Pearl Jam, to name but a few of the more widely accepted bands to emerge from what now seems like quite the radical movement.
It has been twenty-one years since the ascent of Prince’s Purple Rain to the top of the
Billboard album charts, where it stayed for an amazing twenty-four consecutive weeks, eventually selling over ten million
copies in the U.S. alone and giving birth to a brilliantly prolific and idiosyncratic journey that has since spawned over
twenty studio albums of every possible musical genre and taste.
It has been thirty-one years since the release of Joni Mitchell’s Court And Spark, Steely
Dan’s Pretzel Logic, and Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, three
records that exemplify the highest possible standard of songwriting, performance, arrangement, production and the very ‘art’
of recording; three records that prove that music of truly great quality can enjoy a lengthy stay in the top ten and sales
in the millions.
And finally, although it seems quite unbelievable, it has been forty-one years since the coming of The Beatles
to America and the virtual revolutionizing of an entire culture by the pure sunshine-harnessing power of truly great hair
and more importantly, truly great songs.
And this is the point. In the summer of 2005, there is a frightening and frankly depressing paucity of just
that: GREAT SONGS. Sure, there are plenty of records being made, with plenty of fleshy videos to sell them, but where are
the songs? Yes, people are singing, and in most cases, over-singing, but there is hardly a melody of lasting worth to be found
on their elastic voices. And where the real melodies are (because there will always be melody as long as there are people)
is not in the mainstream, but hidden in the records of cult artists, talents who make quality music, but enjoy only varying
degrees of lower tier success and record sales. If someone like Fiona Apple had come along in 1970, it’s a good bet
she would have enjoyed the kind of top ten success that Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne had. Instead, she remains a cult
artist, with no real shot at the top forty and, because of her artistic ambitions, no support from her record company.
The same can be said of perhaps the finest artist in popular music today: the gifted singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, who
has created four of the most musical records ever made (his self-titled debut, Poses and the fantastic Want
One and Want Two) and has not one top ten entry to show for it. 1974 would have been good to Rufus.
Or 1924. And for my money, Bjork possesses the single most powerful, unique and affecting singing voice in the entire world,
but we won’t be hearing her anytime soon on top forty radio.
In today’s vacuous musical landscape, if you don’t show a great deal of near-virgin, nubile skin,
or rap angrily and/or arrogantly about bitches and guns, you don’t have much of a shot at the kind of popularity that
Billy Joel, Elton John or Stevie Wonder enjoyed in their heydays. If you’re looking for constant airplay and millions
of units sold, unless you happen to be Norah Jones, you’re out of luck as a vocalist if you don’t aggressively
sing a dozen or more different notes in every phrase you spout forward. And Norah, while charming, is coming to the end of
her mass appeal run, given the stiflingly short attention spans of most record-buyers born and raised on MTV and internet
file-sharing. Album artists don’t get ten years anymore. They barely get three if they’re lucky.
The most lamentable thing I can hear, or not hear rather, is that nobody seems to know how to write a real
song anymore. Song-craft of the quality of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell,
Stevie Wonder, Don Henley and Glenn Frey or Billy Joel has disappeared from top-forty radio. There is no clever turn of phrase,
no universal message, no melody that sticks to the brain forever upon hearing it the second time. There is no sunshine captured
in song. These things have been usurped by the absurd, monotonic ranting of hip-hop emcees and the vapid, formulaic exercises
in futility of writers like Diane Warren. While most of them achieve a transient popularity in their moment, every song she
writes is basically the same, and unless you’re Steven Tyler, Toni Braxton or Clay Aiken, terribly un-singable as well.
This was never more clear to me then the evening I watched ‘Diane Warren’ night on the insipid American Idol TV
show, where hapless contestant after contestant tried in vain to get through this woman’s songs. The melodies were impossible
to sing and impossibly un-catchy to the ear, the lyrics cliché-ridden and patronizing. There was not one that stuck with me.
Not one. Now, ‘Elton John’ night was a whole other story. As was ‘Robin Gibb/Bee Gees’ night, where
most of the performers seemed better, albeit not much better, singing songs of true quality and craft. No matter what anyone
tells you, the Brothers Gibb wrote a treasure trove of great songs. And then there’s ‘Motown’ night, always
a lesson in how it’s done, where classic after classic survives the ridiculous interpretations wrenched upon them by
the karaoke no-talents that Randy, Paula and Simon hand-pick to entertain and nauseate a nation. “My Girl,” “Signed,
Sealed, Delivered,” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” can seemingly withstand just about any singer,
no matter how pathetic and out of tune they might be. This is a mark of a truly great song. When someone sings a Diane Warren
song, they had better have a strong and ‘likeable’ voice because they’re not getting any help from the material.
The thing that sets the great ones apart from the rest of the pack, and grants an artist the only true longevity,
is the quality of their songs. Not how they look, not how many times they change their image, not how many scandals they become
embroiled in. The main reason that Nirvana, for instance, broke as big as they did, where every other punk rock band failed
before them, was the amazing quality of Kurt Cobain’s songwriting. Yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was just
a Pixies rip-off combined with the riff to Boston’s “More Than A Feeling,” but The Pixies never ever wrote
a song that good and Boston’s Tom Scholz never wrote a song that good again after his first album dipped off the charts.
I was scared of Nirvana when they were first played on MTV. I didn’t know what to make of them. But the ‘hello,
hello, hello, hello’ melody was so catchy, that I went around humming it to myself, laughing at how strange it was.
Then I heard “Lithium” on the radio. It's weird now to think that a song that strange ever got such massive airplay.
Nirvana is the band that will be remembered the longest of all the Seattle bands and the main reason is their songs. There
is no better punk rock song than “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and there is no better ‘grunge’ song than
“All Apologies.” It has everything: A tremendous riff melody that serves as a looping counterpoint to the tuneful
and deceptively simple melody line. It’s funny and also sad. It challenges your mind and social mores with couplets
like, “I wish I was like you/Easily amused” and “What else can I say/Everyone is gay.” It has perfect
form, a brilliant sing-along chorus (which most of his songs boast quite loudly) and something that hardly any other song
from its time has: an entirely new coda that rides the song to conclusion. Like The Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride”
or Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen,” “All Apologies” trails off with an added little
gift of perfect melody, repeated forever until it stops. “All in all is all we all are.” Sung over and over again,
the phrase, which uses the word ‘all’ no less than four times, ceases to have literal meaning and becomes a chant
of sublime spiritual power, bordering on the ridiculous, cleansing the remains of a tired, broken soul and shining a tiny
brace of sunlight through an immense amount of darkness. We’ll never see the likes of him again, although it would be
nice if we did. One listen to “You Know You’re Right,” recorded eleven years ago incidentally, nails that
argument shut, and casts a shadow two decades long on just about everything else on the radio today.
As to the issue of longevity, or ‘Songevity,’ as I like to call it, it can be proven out many
times over when looking at the careers of the artists who have lasted the longest. The Beatles are the Alpha Omega of the
argument, as the success of the Number One CD and never-ending radio play in many different markets can attest.
As long as there are human beings, there will be Beatles songs heard, played and sung. They are both the Shakespeare and Mozart
of 20th century popular music. Nearly the same can be said of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Pete Townshend. Each has
a catalog of songs that will live forever. Stevie Wonder is another. Timeless, perfect music of unequalled melody. A sense
of great love and compassion for all humanity. And all in something as frivolous and disposable as a pop song!
Surveying the scene today, is there anyone making music at the moment who has a legitimate shot at selling
out arenas twenty years from now? Or ten for that matter? And yet people continue to pay hundreds of dollars to see Paul McCartney
perform live, even though the man has not issued an album of vital material since 1982’s Tug Of War. Billy
Joel and Elton John continue to sell out arenas and stadiums although Joel hasn’t released a new album since 1993 and
Elton has relegated his prodigious talent to banal Disney and Broadway productions. Why? It’s the same reason people
still flock to see The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Why people still pay through the nose to see The Rolling Stones, all now
past sixty. Why people still fill arenas to witness Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend call themselves The Who. How could U2’s
All That You Can’t Leave Behind become such a huge success so relatively late in their career, in a musical
climate over-run by empty teeny-bop dance music and male-chauvinist rap? Why would it take on so much added emotional depth
and power and grant such solace to thousands in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11? Why do people still care about
what Bruce Springsteen has to say? Or even more amazingly, Bob Dylan? Why was the number one tour of 2004 Prince, twenty-one
years after his commercial peak? Simple. It’s the songs. Great songs are hard to beat.
People know great songs when they hear them. We’re just fed so much candy-coated junk, that we digest
it without thinking. It’s a disservice to our culture. Especially when Rufus Wainwright is making records. Or Fiona
Apple, or Beck, Ani DeFranco or Ben Folds, Radiohead or Bjork. Although the only thing that will allow these artists to sustain
careers is whether or not they can consistently produce great songs. The Indigo Girls have done it for fifteen years now and
yet their audience remains limited to mostly women and/or college students. There is no way that Thom Yorke and Radiohead
will be as popular as they are right now in five years time if they don’t start putting out great songs again. Their
stubborn, headlong foray into the avant-garde is certainly a valid and praise-worthy one, and some provocative records have
been made because of it, but that can only last you so long. You can sing along with most of The Bends, but
you cannot sing along to much of Kid A, or even Amnesiac or Hail To The Thief in
a large arena, and no one will within a decade. It baffles me when a talent as great as Thom Yorke opts to go in such a purposely
difficult direction, especially when it’s abundantly clear that he has the ability to do the most coveted and wonderful
thing in all of popular music: write great songs. Joni Mitchell, Todd Rundgren and Prince all spring to mind for the same
reason. The great artist’s need to defy their audience and/or the expectations of their fame is a subject for another
essay entirely, but it does tie in with this one, in that what we need the most from our great songwriters is just that: great
songs. In fact, if the daily news is any indication, we’re more in need now than ever. Where are the John Lennon’s,
the Bob Dylan’s, the Stevie Wonders, the Joni Mitchell’s? Where are those perfect little symphonies to God, tiny
capsules of infinite melodic invention like “Penny Lane“ or “Wouldn‘t It Be Nice?” Where are
the vessels of pure joy like “She Loves You“ or “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life?” Vehicles of simultaneous
care-free enjoyment and deep introspection like “Reeling In The Years“ or “Like A Rolling Stone?”
Fantastic motors to sing and ride around to like “Born To Run” or “Beautiful Day?” Postcards to remember
the good things and the good times, balms of great solace and healing like R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts“ or
U2‘s “One?” Where are the “Hey Jude’s,” the “Imagine’s” and the “Give
Me Love’s;” the “Everyday People’s,” “Sir Duke’s” and “What’s
Going On’s” of today? Is there anything in popular music right now that explodes with the transcendence and life-affirming
energy of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” or “Won’t Get Fooled Again?”
There’s a reason the unfairly much-maligned “Stairway To Heaven” is voted the greatest
song of all time every year on classic rock radio: Unparalleled ambition and vision, beautifully enigmatic poetry, an overwhelming
dynamic scope and power, tremendous musicality of voice and instruments, staggering telepathic interplay between musicians…
In 1971, it was merely the secret cornerstone weapon of Led Zeppelin’s nameless fourth album. Today, it would be an
utter revolution. Albeit one that would most probably go unnoticed, if it even got so far as to be signed and released by
a major record company! And speaking of which, is there any record as remotely revolutionary-sounding, mind-bending or genre-destroying
as Prince’s “When Doves Cry” on the top forty right now? Outkast’s “Hey Ya” is a fun and
exciting record, probably the closest anyone has come in twenty years, but it’s no “When Doves Cry” or “Let’s
Go Crazy” or 1986’s funkiest number one hit, the miraculously infectious “Kiss.” Why do you think
Andre 3000 has almost completely abandoned rap in favor of real singing and songwriting? It’s because he is smart enough
and talented enough to know that at their respective primes, nobody could touch Led Zeppelin or Prince in terms of originality,
nerve, a bold sense of purpose, or just plain, daring fun. Clearly, Dre wants to still be in the discussion twenty years from
now. Of anyone at the moment, he probably has the best shot. It should be interesting to see what he does next. I must yet
again refer to Rufus Wainwright, and a song from his terrific Want One album. Entitled “I Don’t
Know What It Is,” it is four minutes of pop perfection, rapturously swooning melody, thought-provoking poetry, and brilliantly
executed performance and production. It is the stuff dreams are made of. I highly recommend it to anyone who at all cares
about ‘pop’ music.
It is the summer of 2005.
I was watching a DVD of Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert In Central Park. Filmed in September
of 1981, it features Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel performing their most popular songs with a terrific backing band to a New
York crowd of many thousands of people. They begin with “Mrs. Robinson” and are greeted with ecstatic, uproarious
applause. The entire world seems to be singing along, conversing in a beautiful, universal language. Paul and Artie launch
into “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard,” “America,” “Homeward Bound,” “Late In
The Evening,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “American Tune,” “50 Ways To Leave
Your Lover,” “The Boxer…” Every song a universe of thought and feeling, a shared communal experience,
the soundtrack to the very fabric of our lives here on earth. Artie sings “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to New
York City and it is as if this wounded place is healed and re-born in the wake of John Lennon’s murder less than a year
before. The two friends duet on “The Sounds Of Silence” and there is nothing short of a shared, understood rapture
caught on film. The power of this music left me weeping, glad to be alive, grateful to have received it.
And now I want more. Nothing less will satisfy. It's up to you, Mr. A&R Man. Are you up to it?