Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Singer Not the Song (Or Why Performance is as Important as Form)

The single most important thing that ever happened in the history of popular culture was the arrival of Elvis Presley. His rise at once signified the end of an era. Behind Elvis was post-war austerity, uptight (white) social mores and the young being seen and not heard. In his wake came a let-it-all-hang-out looseness, an embrace of black musical figures previously unheard of (hitherto only permitted in the highly intellectualised circles of jazz) and the young as an angry, impetuous and highly marketable entity. While 60's musicians are perpetually rediscovered and cherished, Elvis seems cut off in another era, as if he managed to fall on the wrong side of the dividing line that he created. While the simplistic feel of 50's rock 'n roll is partly to blame, the fact that Elvis continued to record, and continued to have sizable hits, right up until his death suggests that another factor is at play. The biggest difference between Elvis and The Beatles (or Dylan or The Rolling Stones) is that Presley was not a songwriter. He remained an interpreter up to his final days. In this regard he comes across as a relic, somehow more connected to Sinatra or Bing Crosby than to his true cultural heirs of the 60s (of course his residencies at Vegas didn't help). Presley is showbiz, Dylan is art. This is unfair, however, because people don't actually rate "songwriting" as highly as they think they do. This essay is not an attempt to rescue Elvis from his kitsch, sequined place in cultural history (though it should, with any luck, prod you into giving him a fresh listen); rather it's an exploration of what modern songwriting has actually become. When songwriting became a byword for artistry, its place of privilege meant the demotion of what, in truth, are essential elements of modern music. Why it happened will be dealt with in due course. For now, though, let's asses the state of affairs as they stand. What exactly is a song? Let's find out.

Diversion # 1
I'm attending a concert by Neko Case. During said concert she sings a song called "In California" that I fall in love with instantly. Upon purchasing her mini-album "Canadian Amp"  which includes the aforementioned song I discover that it was, in fact, written by someone named Lisa Marr. I duly purchase the Lisa Marr Experiment album with "In California" on it named '4 AM'. With high expectations I give it a listen. Nothing. After several spins I remain unimpressed. After a few weeks  I go back and focus on "In California" , but even it seems flat and uninspired compared with Neko's version. A feeling of puzzlement washes over me and I'm struck with a thought: "How did Neko Case know that there was a good song to be had from this? What did she hear that I can't? Was it a good song badly recorded, or a mediocre song elevated by Neko's superior delivery?" Without Neko, had I ever been exposed to this song in it's original incarnation, I would have dismissed it.

List-making is an integral part of internet culture. Top tens abound, with one of the most popular being "Top Ten Favourite Songs". Check out one of these lists and you'll immediately notice something interesting. Let's say curiosity gets the better of you and you click on some old classmate's top ten to see what kind of music they enjoy. At number one sits "Jeremy" by Pearl Jam. First off, my advice is to defriend them. You may be a more forgiving soul, though, and continue to check out their list. As your eyes move downward you've already missed the interesting part. When people list their favourite songs, they always include the artist who recorded it as part of that list. Why is that interesting? Because a song, and a recording of a song, are two different things, or at least they used to be. What people are actually listing are their favourite recordings. What's even more interesting is that almost everybody manages to simultaneously believe that a song and a recording are two different entities and that the original version is always the best. Why is that interesting? Well, take a look at any list of the greatest songs of all time. There's a good chance that it will contain "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction". Great song. Have you heard the Britney Spears version? Pretty terrible. Now, imagine that the Britney version was the only one that existed. Would it make any Best Of lists? Not a chance. So is it still one of the greatest songs ever written? Granted, Otis Redding and Devo made great versions but, when the song makes those lists, they're talking about the Stones version. In fact, if anything is written about the song, you can bet they'll talk about the snarl of Jagger's vocals, the rough hewn simplicity of the distorted riff that Keith blasts out, the propulsion of the drumming, etc. In other words, they're not talking about the song. They're talking about the recording.

We've all read stories of artists spending hours, days, weeks on a song, all to ensure that it sounds just right. Surely, though, a classic song should not be laboured on for such a time. Great songs should emerge regardless, shouldn't they? That depends. In the early part of the 20th century, two artistic approaches can be discerned in the history of songwriting. On the one hand, we have the likes of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, songwriters whose interests lay not in recording any kind of definitive version of their songs but in writing standards for others to perform. On the other hand, we have  Robert Johnson, Skip James, and a host of other blues singers whose appeal lay more in their idiosyncratic approach, unfathomable time signatures, and heightened emotion. Few, if any, of the blues singers could read music so the line between what they performed and how they performed became blurred. Robert Johnson used many themes and lyrics that were familiar to other blues players but his particular style elevated them to a highly personalised and very modern Art (not Modern Art). It is important to draw a distinction between these two approaches. The former is now all but extinct, but it is from this method that our idea of "the song" comes from. Distinct from folk music of any kind, songwriters like Gershwin et al wrote songs and immediately had their works published. This meant that the songwriters would benefit from sales of the sheet music. Recording was still in its infancy so the songwriters got their royalties mainly from the aforementioned sheet music sales. From this came the idea of the song having some kind of idealised Platonic form that floated free from any particular version that existed. What, in fact, was a business measure gave the songwriter and the song a privileged position over the performers. Things moved fast in the 20th century though. While the visual arts existed for centuries before the challenge of Impressionism, no sooner had the songwriter triumphed than the performer struck back. The difference was the performer now wrote the songs, and recorded them too.

Diversion # 2
I'm attending a gig at First Avenue in Minneapolis. It's a double bill of Love featuring Arthur Lee and The Zombies. On the surface it looks like any other 60's has-been reunion tour, but I hold Arthur Lee in such high esteem that I feel like his presence will elevate it beyond the realms of dewy-eyed nostalgia and actually create a memorable gig. When Love come on stage I hear the whisperings of the crowd; "That's Johnny Echols on guitar".  Dumbfounded, I stare at the stage and, sure enough, there stands original Love guitarist Johnny Echols. The gig is mind-blowing, with Arthur Lee in fine form. His voice has retained all its menacing power, the backing band capture the energy of the songs perfectly and, to top it all off, THAT'S JOHNNY FUCKING ECHOLS PLAYING LEAD GUITAR!!! OK, so they could have gotten some other guy to play those lead guitar lines, but this is the guy who played guitar on the original recordings. Why does that mean something? I'm not sure why, but it does. If we see songs performed by the original line-up of the band, it somehow makes it more special. We feel that it comes closer to the spirit of the music, to its idealised form. That form has nothing to do with an exact replication of the chords and melody (the song), but with how the songs were recorded and who played on them, and I can't figure out why that's important.

From the blues came rock 'n roll, and from rock 'n roll came rock and pop. When rock 'n roll exploded, it popularised emotion and expression over craft. Capturing an incendiary performance became key. In the tradition of singers like Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf who could elevate mediocre material into the realms of Art with their performances, rock 'n roll singers used the song as a springboard to emphasise their unique approach, their uncompromising attitudes, their very beings. Just as rock 'n roll was about to disappear, though, something amazing happened. A new generation of bands emerged that fused the emotion of rock 'n roll with genuine craft and musical ingenuity. The problem was that, like the blues players before them, almost none of this new generation knew how to write music. For business reasons the songs still had to be published and authorship certified, but their real existence was not on paper but in the recording. Dylan stated that he wanted his albums to be viewed the same way as a Picasso painting. He wanted his music viewed as Art. While many of his early acoustic numbers were accepted as standards, Dylan's adoption of a nasally, unlovely singing style suggested he valued performance as much as song. His leap into electric music fulfilled his dream of being comparable to Picasso, with Highway 61 Revisited capturing a highly individualised talent who wanted just the right feel for his songs. In popular music terms The Beatles soon moved ahead of Dylan and, indeed, everyone. Songs like "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were astounding as well as being utterly modern in the sense that one could not separate the song from the recording. The song was the recording. I challenge you to find me anyone who prefers other versions of these or other Lennon songs from '65 onwards (McCartney leaned more toward the old school approach. His songs were more cover version-friendly and so melodically rich that they were a gift to other singers). It does not lessen a songs greatness to imply that only the original recording is truly great. It merely speaks of a misunderstanding of what a modern song is. To say that "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a bad song because some kind of idealised acoustic version does not exist and that it would fail without the samples and the processed drums is to miss the point. The samples and the processed drums are the song. The songs took shape in the recording studio and their very existence is inseparable from the recorded versions that continue to inspire.

Diversion #3
Imagine, if you will, that you are a session musician. When it comes time to record a song, oftentimes you will be given very specific instructions. Other times, though, you're given free reign to do what you feel and, if the songwriter approves, it stays in. On one such occasion, you arrive at the session and the songwriter has nothing specified. They tell you to play whatever you feel. After a couple of practice runs you come up with a funky little guitar riff right before the chorus that enhances the song perfectly. The songwriter is impressed and it's allowed to stay in. You love the song in question and know that it would still sound great without your riff, but you're  proud to have contributed to the sessions and also pleased the songwriter. The session is done, you receive your standard payment, and you go to the next job. Fifteen years later you're listening to the radio and you hear something that astounds you. Your guitar riff, and only your guitar riff, has been sampled and looped and forms the backbone of a very successful hip-hop song. Just to satisfy your curiosity, you buy the album that the song is from and rush quickly to the songwriting credits. Your jaw falls open. The members of the hip-hop group are all credited, along with the songwriter whose song you worked on that day. That damned songwriter's publishing company is even named in the credits too. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

As if hip-hop and dance music didn't do enough damage by breaking rock music's stronghold on the charts, they confused things even further by muddying the waters in regards to songwriting. When a song is sampled, somebody has to make money, and somebody needs to get credited. In both circumstances, the biggest benefactor is the songwriter. But what is being sampled? Is it a song or a recording? Clearly what is being sampled is a recording. One of the most famous examples of a recording being sampled is not actually a hip-hop song but a rock song-- "Bittersweet Symphony" by The Verve. The song samples an orchestral rendering of "The Last Time" by The Rolling Stones. To repeat, the song did not sample the Stones recording but an orchestral version. The Verve were sued and, as a result, the song is now credited to Jagger / Richards with Richard Ashcroft receiving zero money. Now, how much money did the orchestra players make? Can you guess? Did either Jagger or Richards arrange the orchestra or instruct the players in any way? Can you guess? So, despite not being at the recording in question, or arranging it in any way, and despite the fact that the the orchestra in question embellished the song in order to make it more orchestra-friendly, and despite the fact that Richard Ashcroft wrote the lyrics, the only people who make money from the song are Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Oh, and you know that Jagger and Richards were "inspired" to write "The Last Time" after hearing The Staple Singers "This May Be The Last Time" don't you?  Another casualty of sampling is the idea of the song as having a Platonic existence separate from recorded versions. For instance, is it possible to cover "Pump Up The Volume" by MlAlRlRlS? Clearly not. The song is the recording. That's not to say that dance music doesn't have its own version of the cover. It's called the remix. You need a copy of the original recording (for an official remix), but it amounts to the same thing as a cover. You get a remix credit, you get paid a remix fee, you move on. Even if your remix becomes better known, in fact even if it becomes the definitive version, you still don't get a songwriting credit. Surprise, surprise, you can't always get what you want.

Let me be clear, though, this essay isn't some Deconstructionist tract declaring the "death of the songwriter". On the contrary, the craft of the songwriter should never be underestimated and I hope it remains an integral part of music creation.The greatest moments in any art form should be a healthy marriage of craft and performance, content and style. The fact is, however, that a lot of the time the songwriter has no idea how he or she wants the recording to sound. It is surely their ambition to record the definitive version, the true version if you will, and this can only be achieved with the help of producers, engineers, other band members, string arrangers, etc. Original ideas can be changed around and, in the case of something like "Enjoy The Silence" by Depeche Mode, it can bear very little resemblance to how the songwriter envisioned it. One could argue that the work and pure inspiration put in by fellow Depeche Mode member Alan Wilder warranted him a songwriting credit. But alas, no. The song is still considered something apart from the recorded version, as far as music publishers are concerned anyway.Take also the example of "All Along The Watchtower" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The performance and musical textures of the song are so different that Hendrix deserves a credit on his version for its radical reinterpretation and sheer bravado. In modern composition terms it's a new song, in the same way that "Masters of War" is a different song from "Nottamun Town", despite sharing the same melody and chords (It was part of the folk tradition to take a well-known song and change the lyrics and/or melody to suit your own purpose. The advent of music publishing made this practice obsolete. The notion of intellectual property has made originality one of the modern virtues of Art. Until recently, however, it meant very little. Blame the suits again).  Every now and then you should listen to a cover version of a song you love. In fact, pick a version that you do not enjoy, then ask yourself if it remains a great song. Indeed, ask yourself if it's the same song.

Diversion # 4
In any list of the best Bob Dylan albums, 'Blonde On Blonde' usually rests in the top three. More often than not it makes number one, with many putting it forth as a candidate for greatest album of all time. By all accounts it should be one of the greatest albums ever made. The playing is brilliant, the sound is intoxicating, and it's Dylan in '66, supposedly at the top of his game. If you start to break the album down, though, and count the number of Dylan classics, all at once you realise that the going isn't good. Take away "Visions of Johanna", "I Want You", "Just Like A Woman" and "4th Time Around" and things begin to look grim. We can perhaps let in "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", but it remains overrated nonetheless. Worse than that, "Temporary Like Achilles" and "Obviously 5 Believers" are plain awful,  the two worst songs Dylan has written up to this point in his career. As for the rest, it's all passable, sometimes even somewhat enjoyable, but it's mediocre by Dylan's, or indeed anyone's, standards. So why is it rated so highly? It's the sound, the year, the idea of a sprawling double album by a wayward genius. It's all the things you want from a great album, except the songs. Seems like classic rock fans, those supposedly staunch defenders of the "content over style" school, are as susceptible as anyone else to the lure of the surface, to the charms of performance without substance.

 In the introduction to his gargantuan history of the novel, appropriately titled The Novel: An Alternative History, literary critic Steven Moore asks readers to think of  writing as a performance. He notes that Shakespeare took most of his plots and characters from older sources and that what makes Romeo and Juliet great is not the story, but the way it is told. After all, there were earlier versions of this very tale. Shakespeare's version just happens to be better written. The idiosyncrasy of Shakespeare's stylistic performance is what elevates it to genius. Shakespeare needed  the plot in order to work his magic, but the magic was in his own performance. The story of a novel in this way is analogous to the song in its relation to the recording. Without the song, the performance could not exist, but to privilege the songwriter in it's final creation is to misunderstand the entire process (The comparison doesn't work perfectly as the writing of lyrics could be thought of as a performance all it's own, but how many truly great lyricists are there in music? And how many times have you heard people say "I just ignore the lyrics and listen to the song" ? ). Would "Unknown Pleasures" have been a classic without Martin Hannett? Why have almost all of New Order's strongest creations been made in tandem with a strong producer/remixer (Arthur Baker, Shep Pettibone, Stephen Hague)? Why have so many classic albums involved the input of Brian Eno?  Did anyone else notice that The Band lost it as soon as Robbie Robertson began to dominate the musical arrangements and give the other members less free reign? Business practices have limited our appreciation of truly creative individuals. How a song sounds, and how it is played, can change our perception of that song for both better and worse. A great singing voice can often be dismissed simply because its power comes easily to the performer, whereas songwriting implies work and craft. Just as much work and craft goes into recording and playing, however, but it somehow still isn't held in quite the same esteem as the song or the songwriter. Which brings me back to Elvis. If you have a minute, take a listen to "That's All Right". So he didn't write it. Listen, though, to how his band performs it. Listen to the echo of Sun Studio. Above all, listen to Elvis' voice. It's a gift to humanity, full of hurt and defiance, tenderness and loneliness, showing strength in the face of insurmountable odds. It could transform a pedestrian piece of hackwork into a soulful expression of human frailty. If that's not genius, then I don't know what is.

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