Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Hi Guys!!!

I am writing in response to commenter Joe, with whom I engaged in a debate on commercial pop music when I sat in on his arts criticism university class, which my dad teaches.

Joe and I argued about the relative merits of pop music and music created (supposedly) without concern for popularity.

Of course, you all know where I stand on that.

Anyway, Joe: I felt kind of bad afterwards for jumping down your throat about the Archies. The thing is, you have a spark in your eye and passion in your throat about music, and that's really the main important thing at this point, as far as I'm concerned. (I hope that doesn't sound patronizing, either.) You don't have to agree with me, and I don't have to agree with you. However, since you wrote such an EXCESSIVELY LONG comment here I'm going to respond in kind here. :)

First of all, your facts are hinky.

1. The White Stripes do not only cover Delta blues songs; perhaps their most famous cover is "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," written by Burt Bacharach, who was one of the many contract hitmakers at the Brill Building (also home to Jeff Barry of "Sugar Sugar" fame, Carole King et al.).

I would like to direct you to read a little of the history of the Brill Building. As you'll see in the songwriters' bios, these were all compulsive songwriters to their marrow, the kind of people who start writing songs at five years old and give up school and security in order to follow their much riskier bliss.

Songwriting is the riskiest and most painful of paths. I have never heard of a successful, wealthy songwriter who did not get there through the most humiliating kind of muse-wrastling, sweat-and-blood-letting and frightful financial cliff-jumping. Even Diane Warren, possibly the cheesiest pop songwriter of all time, has that kind of story.

The best music of the Brill Building reflects real soul, real heart, real sexuality and definitely real musicianship. These writers were an enormous influence on the Beatles and, of course, made the music of Brian Wilson possible.

2. The Beatles were a commercial endeavor from the get-go, really the big bang of pop-group marketing/merchandizing/mass media exploitation. This was all possible because their music was calculated to be excessively popular. That does not diminish its quality a bit. (Shakespeare's plays are full of crowd-pleasing gimmickry. Populism is not inherently bad.)

My friend Liam Lynch took songwriting from Paul McCartney in Liverpool several years ago, and Paul told him that he and John were so competitive and so mercenary in their songwriting, they'd actually say to each other before sitting down to write: "I'm going to write a yacht today," or "I'm going to write a Bentley." They weren't really joking, either. I don't see any problem in this, because their populism never cheapened their music or kept them from taking risks.

Likewise, if you think Chuck Berry wasn't shooting for mass-market popularity, you're a little naive.

3. You said in class that bubblegum music is like a Big Mac, "programmed" to be popular. It may be produced to sound like a seamless, perfect product, but believe me, there is no computer program that can write a good hook, invent a lyrical catchphrase that's going to really stick. People write all these songs.

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