Monday, February 12, 2007

The Beatles Ruined Music

[posted by Callimachus]

Check this out

[Thanks to Irish Elk for finding it and passing it along]

It's entertaining as hell to watch James Cagney and Ruby Keeler sing a song together on screen, however campy -- and I still have that tune in my head.

But if they had to sing and perform to a song they wrote, well, that would be a dreadful failure. Which makes perfect sense. Writing pop music is one talent, performing it is another. I once helped set up a poetry reading that featured a well-known Metropolitan Opera star. He was a great guy, and when he read the poem I suggested for him, it could have melted a drill sergeant. But he had no idea how to write a poem, and didn't ever want to. When he got off stage, he loved to go bowling.

So we have a whole catalogue of pop stars nowadays. But where are the songwriters? They exist. Tom Waits and Shane MacGowan write breathtaking melodies (which are deformed in performance by their voices -- toothless, whiskey-slashed snarls are, I think, the kind of disguise you need if you're going to be a man and sing a beautiful lyric these days without looking like a pansy in the world's eyes).

Writing competent lyrics and sweet melodies that flowed effortlessly together was something Lennon and McCartney did so well -- together and individually, but with decreasing returns the further they got from each other. They made it look so easy, and they were so successful at it, that the pop music audience and aspiring rock stars got the idea that they had to be both singers and songwriters.

As far as I can tell, of the five nominees for "Song of the Year," five for "Best R&B Song," five for "Best Rock Song" at this year's Grammies all but one lists the performers as writers.

The exception was Carrie Underwood, which is unsurprising, since country music still tends to cherish its songwriters -- and to allow them to thrive without having to get up on stage and be performers. The performers respect a good Nashville songwriter and don't have the ego to think everything they sing on stage has to be their own creation. In fact, of the five songs nominated for "Best Country Song" this year, only one lists the performer among the songwriters.

Elvis rarely turns up as a writing credit on his own hits. Let a rock singer write his own material, however, and you get flaccid platitudes masked as deep thoughts, like The Moody Blues ("Justin Hayward ... got the idea for it after someone gave him a set of white satin sheets").

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