Have All the Great Songs Been Written?

Detail of notes on perishing

Sometimes it can feel as though all the great songs exist and the best ideas have been used but there are always great songs waiting to be written. If it helps, think of them as hovering in the ether. It is true that the musical forms of a particular period cannot again have the same impact as when they were first heard. But locate yourself at any year in pop history, look at the next year’s charts, and think about the songs no one had yet written. There were probably songwriters in the Brill Building in New York in 1962 chewing on their pencils, staring at the piano keys and blank manuscript paper, thinking that there were no more good tunes. Yet within a couple of years Lennon & McCartney, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Bacharach & David and Asher & Wilson would be producing classics by the bagful. Furthermore, how come it took rock music 40 years to produce ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, a decade after it was widely believed that guitar rock was dead? How was it that The La’s ‘There She Goes’ was written in 1989 instead of 1968? How come no one wrote Travis’ ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me’ before 1999?

Travis – Why Does It Always Rain On Me

The Challenge of Today

Many feel that the period from 1960 to 1980 was a “golden era” for popular music, when more memorable songs were released, especially as singles, than in later periods. Is this true? Or is it merely rose-tinted memories of the music heard when young? Will those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s feel the same way about their era?

Actually, there are objective factors that point to a decline in the quality of commercial songwriting – that is, the music that fills the airwaves and the Top 40 and Top 100. Lyrically, popular song has grown insular and afraid to address the world, while at the same time it is more pretentious, confusing obscurity with profundity. When it comes to banality, what difference is there between the next record that tells you to “shake your body” and ‘Sugar Sugar’ except that the former will hide its vacuousness beneath a tough, metallic production?

If there is a decline in popular music, the cause is not hard to find. It is the misuse of technology. Note I do not say technology itself. Human beings are easy to tempt, and technology is a seductive thing. When cost-cutting, a ticking clock, and laziness link up, it is not surprising if technology is made to serve these purposes in ways that are detrimental to music.

In the hands of the unmusical, digital technology all too often dehumanizes music. The charts are full of “virtual music” created entirely on computer-music that has never moved a molecule of air. Anything programmed has no expression at the point of execution, even if it has expression of design. Our minds are much more sophisticated in hearing music than many believe; we register the difference. The triumph of the silicon chip over the human spirit is nowhere better heard than in the chopped-up sampling of a singer’s voice, done so a single vocal phrase can be manipulated on a keyboard. Sampling replaces the old crime of plagiarism with a new, more thorough-going one: the stealing not only of an idea but the performance and real-time expression of that idea. Musicians’ actual performances are thus coerced into new musical contexts without their express permission. Instead of taking the time to find a great drum sound, why not sample a 1970s rock album? Suddenly, 50 other people go for the same sample. The ability to play an instrument is itself devalued.

Craftsmanship is replaced by a cut-and-paste ethic: the montage is everything. Why bother to paint when you can combine bits of other artists’ pictures? Recordings no longer capture the sound of a group of musicians, perhaps highly talented, playing together at a moment in time. The arrangement no longer benefits from the excitement that such recording generates and is swathed in sterile perfection. Click tracks and drum machines impose a rhythmic tyranny in which an unrelenting beat is perfectly in time. The groove is lost, and techniques such as the crudest sudden division of the beat into smaller units to create pneumatic-drill snare-rolls and a twist of e.q. replace the continual invention of a good drummer. Rhythm is exalted over melody, harmony, time, tempo and key changes.

The Police – Every Breath You Take

More than anything else, today’s popular music is sick with repetition. In the past, bad pop records overstayed their welcome by repeating a hook or a chorus for what seemed countless times. Now it’s worse, because each repetition is not a re-performing (with tiny human variables) but the exact recycling of two bars of music. Why sing a chorus more than once when you can copy your performance onto the second and the third? It’s cheaper and quicker, but another opportunity for expression is lost. Why record a I VI IV V or a I V II progression when you can sample a couple of bars from ‘Every Breath You Take’ or ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, copy them identically, sing something different over the top, and pass it off as a “song”? Why create a mood when, with an act of musical vampirism, you can suck one from a record that already exists in collective memory? Have all writers and performers grown so cynical? Is this all they think a popular song can be? Do they really believe in this soul-less vision? Or do they go home after every TV promotion and listen to Aretha or Al Green with a sense of relief?

There are great songs waiting to be written.

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Contemporary Musician
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