It got me to thinking about song writing and what makes a great song. With a whole new generation of young singer-songwriters in the alt rock and Americana genre emerging over the past few years I think what's coming out bears some examination.
I readily admit to not following the scene as closely as I should. My exposure is pretty much limited to the popular writers like Jack Johnson and John Meyer and few others. There are no doubt hundreds or thousands of less known writers who deserve exposure but the recording industry being what it is - you need some sort of pigeon hole to be put into or you will not get a contract - it requires some serious effort to find them. However, at my weekend coffee shop gig the owner often has the Sirius radio "coffee house" channel playing and I've been listening to what makes the play list. Some stuff is good, some not so much. First the negative.
I've known quite a few songwriters over the years and while they don't agree on much, one thing that they all agree on is that it's much easier to write a slow or moderate tempo song in a minor key with sad lyrics! Writing happy, up-tempo songs is much, much more difficult. Why is this? Perhaps because it's easier to express sad feelings musically? Or sounding happy leads to being taken less seriously? I suspect those are the reasons.
Cases in point. Tracy Chapman spent time busking on the street in Cambridge, plus she is a young black woman so she's no doubt seen some bad and tragic stuff. Which she often writes and sings about. Dar Williams, although she is not black - same thing, with a huge chip on her shoulder besides. My question is, how much of these slow, minor key sad and/or angry songs can a person listen to without feeling that way themselves?! I know the world is often a sad place but geesh! One of the reasons I listen to music is to get a boost, to feel better or inspired or amazed or relaxed or ???? So for me anyway, those types of singer/songwriters get turned off pretty quickly.
Then there's the other side of the coin. Jason Mraz's most famous song, I'm Yours, is a lightweight little pseudo reggae tune that certainly is not a pinnacle of the songwriting craft but so what? It's catchy and expresses a very basic, positive message that most people can relate to. Is that such a bad thing? And how about Jack Johnson singing about staying in bed on a Sunday morning, sipping a cup of coffee and letting the day slip away? No, it is not deep but I don't think Jack cares all that much. It is an honest expression of something we can all relate to.
And there's the key: honesty. In the end I don't really care if a song is happy or sad, as long as I sense that it was composed with no hidden agenda. This is why I just can't get behind John Meyer. I respect his playing but when I hear him singing that song about fathers, be nice to your daughters, it almost makes me want to puke. Mr. Mayer knows darn well that a huge part of his audience is young women, who will certainly relate to a message of "I'm on your side! I know your dad isn't nice to you sometimes! So go out and buy this song and play it over and over because I FEEL YOUR PAIN!" Gag me.
One thing that has always attracted me to certain writers is how they can convey many layers of meaning with very few words. Joni Mitchell is a master at this, and yes, many of her songs are sad but they invite introspection rather than a knee-jerk reaction. Listen to "River" or "Case of You." Absolute masterpieces. Paul Simon is another one. I have the same reaction to every Paul Simon album that comes out. On first listen I go - oops, looks like ol' Paul is slipping. But then I listen a few more times and I "get it." Make the effort to get into Leonard Cohen's writing - and it does take some effort because it can be a bit obtuse - the rewards are there.
Notice something here? I am revealing my Old Fart status! All the writers I just mentioned have been honing their craft for a long, long time. Maybe that's the bottom line. You can't write something beyond the very basic without myriad life experiences to draw upon - both good AND bad.
So if there is an obscure young singer-songwriter out there I should be listening to on a regular basis, please let me know. Because I haven't found him or her yet.
Peace and good music,