What makes a song work? Is it a few components or many pieces working together to build towards a greater whole?
Some people will say something like, “The reason I like this song is that I like the chorus” implying that the chorus and only that is what drives their appreciation of the tune. (My brother, years ago, prompted some thought on my part when he said he didn’t like songs, he liked “parts of songs.”)
Other people will imply that they like the whole song. I find myself really observing that what makes me like a song is many different elements. As the song progresses I might first note a tasty lyrical turn of phrase, then note the catchy part of the chorus, then note the pleasant additional of a mandolin on the second verse, then note the intriguing opening lick of the guitar solo, then note how the final chorus is delayed by a bar creating a disorienting sense of anticipation. It’s the culmination of all these things that pushes the tune into greatness.
Anyhoo, Gopnik does some interesting wresting with how to appreciate a musician’s artistic legacy while still staying aware of the brutality they engaged in.
Shouldn’t this push aside the malicious gossip? Why does the other crap matter at all? It matters because if art and the lower reaches of journalism and biography converge on a single point of common purpose, it is in being truthful about human beings as they really are and not as we would have them be. History is what we have to struggle to remember even when legend is more pleasing. It would be nice if Sinatra had been a good guy with a few regrettable friendships rooted in Jersey simpatico—it was a lot worse than that. It would be nice if J.F.K. were a family man with a sometimes-wandering eye—the truth there, too, is more ravenous and complicated. None of this need diminish our admiration or even our love for them. Humanism is made from a faith in humans, as they actually are, flawed and real, screaming devilish threats at casino managers and then singing “Angel Eyes.”
And then, one of the things you learn ever more certainly as you grow older is that all art is made in the image of the artist. It can often be articulated as an opposite, with all the low spots in life thrust forward in art, as with Sinatra. But it is some sort of picture. It isn’t supposed to be so; high-minded people are supposed to pull life and art apart, trust the tale not the teller, and all that. But if an abstract artist makes pictures only of white, there is a white moment, or knight, somewhere there in her past, bugging her still. Sinatra’s painfully bipolar nature is exactly the pattern of his best music, with “swinging” records continually succeeded by sad ones, again and again, and though this is obviously partly a response to the oscillating commercial demands for dance music on the one hand and make-out music on the other, it isn’t just or mainly that. No one else even attempted it quite this relentlessly. We have “Songs for Swinging Lovers” and “Only the Lonely” because Sinatra was a desperately driven man with a melancholic depth. This doesn’t make up for other people’s fractures and stitches, not remotely. But there the albums are, and there he is, a whole man, made up of broken parts, like everyone else.
I pause to think of my own reaction to these sorts of conundrums. I can still certainly enjoy Sinatra’s singing (especially when backed with Nelson Riddle’s fantastic arrangements) but the nature of who Sinatra was is never far from from mind. And these days, when I hear the music of the Beatles, it’s never far from my mind that John Lennon beat a guy almost to death (for implying that the Beatle was a homosexual.) When I hear the music of the Foo Fighters it’s never far from my mind that the entire band distributed AIDS denialism. When I hear Eric Clapton it’s never far from my mind that he once went on a racist tirade onstage.
That said, I still enjoy their music, at least when it’s enjoyable. (Some of the Foo Fighters stuff is pretty mediocre.) I think what bothers me more is not the various crimes these artists committed but the fact that they were allowed to get away with it. Had they not had the power of celebrity and iconic status they would have been imprisoned or at least reviled. But most people don’t seem to be even aware of these crimes (it’s only recently I heard of Lennon’s behavior.) It’s the double standard tolerated by society that bugs me.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the narrative form, which could be thought of as the structure that stories follow. These stories could be novels, comic books, movies, even music. I think there’s one basic form that all stories adhere to and we’re all familiar with this form even if we don’t think about it. And we know it when it’s wrong. For example, consider this story:
Bob wakes up and goes to work. He has a project due but since he did a lot of work on it early he has no problem making his deadline. Suddenly a ninja with a sword appears and chops of Bob’s penis. Bob spends several months in the hospital. He begins to question what he wants to do with his life. He meets an older nurse and they begin a platonic relationship. Bob moves in with the nurse. A fews years later he takes up windsurfing. Both he and the nurse find their relationship fading. Bob eventually moves to Arizona and takes ownership of several cats.
That’s an example of not following the narrative form. That story was weird and boring.
Good narrative form should have contrasting sections of drama and calm. (The story above has one dramatic bit and a lot of weird calm) with the dramatic parts becoming more prominent, rising to a crescendo which resolves all or most of the problems.
One thing I find interesting is that this form applies to music even though music can never actually tell a story (unless it has accompanying lyrics or film or some other storytelling device.) Music has dramatic parts and calmer bits and good music contrasts them. Even pop songs often follow a model like: Verse (calm) / Chorus (dramatic) / Verse (calm) Chorus (dramatic) / Bridge (calm or dramatic)/ Chorus (dramatic)/ Another chorus (Even more dramatic!) (How can a chorus be made to be more dramatic? It might be louder or have more instrumentation or “busier” melodies or chords.)
So why is this? Why do humans prefer this narrative form? Why don’t we tell stories like my story about Bob above? Is it somehow ingrained into our genes in some way? Or just a fluke?
Another question: is this form consistent across all cultures? Maybe Easter Islanders did tell stories like my story of Bob above.
My suspicion however (backed by being familiar with stories and music across various cultures) is that there is a kind of universal narrative.
Lately I’ve been working on playing jazz on guitar. This means learning a lot of jazz tunes and really getting comfortable improvising over the classic jazz changes.
I’m starting to understand a key difference between jazz and pop. Pop music is, I believe, really focused on crafting the best, most immersive song experience. A chord progression will be tweaked to perfection, engineers will spend hours hunting for the right organ sound, and a solo will be played over and over until perfect. The idea is to create 3 minutes of bliss. A jazz song takes a more different approach. Jazz is dedicated to the concept of improvisation and is willing to let things suffer a bit to take risks. If you record a tune and the sax solo isn’t all that great, nobody will demand redoing it. (Often jazz is recorded live with various instruments bleeding into each other’s mics so redoing it isn’t even possible.) A certain amount of Imperfection is the price of doing business in jazz.
To put it another way, I think if you are listening to a pop song and your mind is wandering, in some sense the song has failed. It hasn’t totally captured you. With a jazz tune, particularly a long one, it’s ok for the mind to wander. Not every moment has to be great.
A while back I read some blog post by a guy describing a friend of his who still bought CDs. The guy did this because he believed that the act of curation was part of what made the music special for him. It wasn’t enough to have a vast collection of music at his fingertips (as anyone who has access to the web does), he wanted to have a relationship of sorts with the music. He wanted o purchase the CD, to eagerly read its jacket, to place the CD on and listen to the music, determining which were his favorites etc. I get the point though I think that kind of fetishization is a little fruity.
But there is something that I think has occurs when you have the massive digitization of music albums: each individual album becomes less valuable. Not just in a financial sense, but in a harder to define personal sense. I can remember as a kid that certain albums had a strong cache. “Sgt. Peppers” would be one, as would Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” These albums were almost legendary in certain circles. I’m sure fans of hip hop or heavy metal or various other music genres can point to similar examples of their own. And additionally, when I was a kid, I would find certain unknown albums that I came to love and they became personal favorites of mine. (A bizarre album by the group Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Machine was one.) This music had great personal value to me.
And I wonder of that sort of thing is disappearing. Because music can be pertained with so little effort is music losing not just financial but personal value? The guy buying CDs above is sort of forcing himself to maintain the previous value of music (personal and financial), even if the rest of the world has moved on.
This is counter to the consumer oriented forces of “more is better” who argue that the cheapening of things can only be good for people. And I suspect they’re basically right in terms of food and other basic needs. But not so much in regards to objects of personal fetishization. The valuation of such things has always been an ethereal process—exactly why a culture values one album of music over another is unclear (especially since music really has no purely utilitarian value the way food or shelter does.)
If you take a look at rock history you notice that a lot of rock stars were or are complete douchebags. I’ve noted before that John Lennon, icon of peace, was actually kind of a violent fucktard. Warren Zevon, whom I’m a great fan of, was a violent alcoholic. It’s only recently I learned of Eric Clapton’s famous racist speech from the 70s.
(You can hear his clueless defense decades later, here.)
The truth is, you seldom hear people talk about this. Fans and music journalists seem to be able to look past these behaviors and continue their adulation of these musicians.
I was recently reading a text that touched on the idea that humans are wired for a certain kind of spirituality, a certain sense of mysterious forces in the universe. We are, the idea goes, wired to believe in god. (There’s actually are very interesting, albeit flawed book called “The God Part of the Brain” which is all about this stuff.)
And I wonder if this is partly why we can be so forgiving of rock stars who go bad? Are we programmed to view them as Gods and therefore incapable of evil? (Ironically, graffiti that peppered London in the 60s did claim that “Clapton is God.”)
As I think most people know, I play a lot of music. Lately I’ve been working more on jazz and am learning jazz tunes, focusing on my improvisation etc. I’ve started to notice an interesting philosophical question related to this music.
Jazz is considered improvisational music. Players know the chords and the melody but make everything else up on the spot. (Frankly, even the chords and melody are often varied and altered on a whim.) This might sound hard but once you get it down it’s actually pretty easy as well as liberating.
Now, I personally like to know the tunes I’m playing pretty well before I play them live. By this I mean I like to really know the melody, know the chords from memory (as opposed to using a chart) and have some soloing ideas worked out in advance. But I find some people object to this as being over prepared. How can anything spontaneous happen, they might argue, if you have it all planned out in advance? And it’s not a bad point and I presume as I get better I’ll prepare less. But the funny pooint here is that jazz is one of the few pursuits where being unprepared is a virtue.
I suspect this ties in with something I’ve thought about before. Jazz really broke on the scene in the early 1900s, right when a fellow named Freud and his ideas about the unconscious where taking hold. Jazz is essentially music produced “unconsciously.” By this I mean it is not supposed to be planned or written out (aside from some basics); it happens on the spot before the conscious mind has time to analyze anything. How could musicians even know that they could create anything worthwhile (choruses upon choruses of solos for example) without thinking it through? I think Freud and his then burgeoning theories were what convinced them they could.
One point I’ve made before about music piracy: everyone drones on and on about pirate sites like Pirate Bay and what not, but there’s not as much discussion about the number one web site for free music: Youtube (owned by Google.) I haven’t downloaded music from a pirate site in years, but any time I want to hear some particular piece of music I check Youtube and, mostly, it’s there.
Is all this music on Youtube pirated (meaning, is it posted there without the consent of the rights holders)? Not entirely – most modern tunes have singles of which the videos are posted by the rights holders. (Though I was frustrated in my attempts to the see video for Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” which I found once and then never again.) However, a lot of the music is uploaded by individuals who burn their CDs and make kludgy videos with the song. That basically is piracy though my understanding is that rights holders can bring these violations to Youtube’s attention and share in the ad revenue. (It should be understood that all these videos have ads in front of them.)
Youtube now seems to have a new trick up their sleeve: autogenerated videos. This was brought to my attention by a friend of mine who is a musician and has an in demand catalog going back decades. He discovered that Youtube had taken most of the songs from his catalog and created bare bones videos (basically just the album cover set to music.) He of course, was in no way notified and received no compensation. I looked around online and found someone with similar complaints:
I was surprised recently when I saw that several of my recordings had appeared as music videos on YouTube. All of the videos look the same: Each one, in addition to the audio of a song, includes an image of the album art and some text that provides the artist name and album title. The bare-bones descriptions that accompany the videos provide composer and copyright information and the statement “auto-generated by YouTube.”
I don’t really mind that these videos of my recordings exist, but not everyone will feel the way I do. Artists could have a number of legitimate objections to the videos. For example, if artists had created or intended to create videos of their own, these auto-generated videos would compete with the official videos. Artists might also object to the design aesthetic of the videos or the song selection.
But the biggest potential issues are copyright and compensation. Artists receive no royalties from these videos, and YouTube posts the videos without permission from the copyright owners. It’s strange that YouTube—which suspends users’ accounts and deletes videos if it detects copyright infringement or receives complaints from copyright holders—now trawls the internet for music and posts it without permission on an increasingly massive scale. Class-action suit, anyone?
I’m a little unclear how Youtube is getting access to the audio feed (e.g. the songs) to make the videos. It’s possible that if a musician places their music with a digital distributor (as I have) and that ditributor has some kind of deal in place with Youtube then Youtube has the legal cover they need.
Why would Youtube do this? I’m going to to take a guess that it’s for their recently announced Music Key service which is essentially a competitor for Spotify. The autogenerated videos are a tool to fill out the Youtube “jukebox”.
As may or may not be known, I make a certain portion of my income playing in an early jazz duo that performs at senior homes and the like. It’s quite enjoyable, but I’m constantly aware of one point: the senior audience is always fading away, e.g dying, so eventually the market for the kind of music we play will be gone. If someone is 90 today, then the “music of their generation” is music of the 1920s and 1930s. In ten years or so you should expect that the demand for that music to be in serious decline.
Except, it’s not quite that simple. There have been several revivals of early jazz through the years and I think later generations appreciate it. Additionally, a lot of the hits from the 40s and 50s were actually recycled tunes from previous eras—those songs earned a second life.
Additionally, a new study makes some interesting points.
Weirdly enough, though, subjects also displayed a similar attachment – including a feeling of nostalgia — to music that was popular in the early 1980s, long before they were born.
“According to previous research, this would be the time when [the subject’s] parents’ preferences were established,” the researchers write. Their theory is that because of this attachment, parents listened to this music during their “child rearing years” contributing to their children’s musical education.
So, you not only like the music of your youth, you like the music of your parent’s youth. I can relate to this. My parents didn’t listen to much of any contemporary music when I was a kid but my Dad was a big fan of Broadway musicals. As a result I’m well versed in the music from “My Fair Lady” and “The Pajama Game” and those songs have a certain emotional resonance that few others do.
Nonetheless, I think I’ll eventually need to be getting better versed in the music from the 40s and 50s, which is fine with me.