Thursday, January 21, 2010

What is Good?

I haven’t seen the movie Avatar yet. I hear it’s good. The reviews have been nearly unanimous in their raves. Friends and relatives liked it. The Facebook chatter was positive. I want to see it, and I will someday.

Likewise, I have not heard the current hit song “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha. (Yes, that’s how she spells it.) That is, I haven’t heard most of it. I heard a snippet of it on an NPR story the other day. Hearing it won’t be difficult. I’ve got it up on my computer right now in another window. But I don’t want to listen to it just yet.

But, there was a line in the NPR story that got me thinking, touched a nerve, maybe. The story, by Neda Ulaby and Zoe Chace, linked the movie Avatar and the song “Tik Tok” in an interesting way: They’re both derivative. That is, the story claims, there’s nothing new or original in either of them. Avatar contains elements of many other stories and movies – The Wizard of Oz, Dances with Wolves, Lawrence of Arabia, etc. One of the reporters called it a “mash up” (a compilation of lots of other things.) “Tik Tok” is just as mashed up (I think I just misused contemporary jargon, like an old guy). It borrows from every other pop song out there, and the words don’t even make any sense, the reporters contend.

They also talk about how each of these smash hits is over produced. The images, the sounds – all layered on very thick.

As I said, I haven’t been exposed to either of them, so I’m not making a value judgment here. But the line in the story that got me was this: “Bottom line: This is not a good song. But it sounds enough like a good pop song that it's hard to tell the difference.”


OK. So, we can have the discussion about creativity and originality. We can bandy around catch phrases and buzz words. We can wax philosophic. We can quote Ecclesiastes – that there is nothing new under the sun. And, I’m sure we will. Someday. Sooner or later.

But just reread that line and think about it for a minute.

“This is not a good song. But it sounds enough like a good pop song that it's hard to tell the difference.”

There are so many directions to take this, so many lines of thought – and I’m a notoriously tangential thinker.

First, the reporter does make a value judgment: it’s not a good song. But, what is a good song. We will never agree on a definition. A couple of months ago, someone sent around an email about “the worst songs of all time,” or something to that effect. I think it contained a link to a blog or website with videos of the songs and commentary. Some of the videos were dated and funny to watch, but that didn’t make the songs “bad.” My brother David, a Pop Culture and music expert and writer on the subject, sent a reply to everyone explaining that there really is no such thing as a “bad song.”

One of the songs in that email was “MacArthur Park” by Jimmy Webb. Most of us have probably heard the song. You know, “Someone left a cake out in the rain…” David went on to explain how Jimmy Webb is a prolific and extremely successful songwriter, and how that song was an important, groundbreaking song for its time. One may or may not like Richard Harris’s performance of it, but that doesn’t make it a “bad” song.

Also, David points out, most of the songs in the article were radio hits at one point, so somebody must have liked them.

OK. So we can’t really define or agree on “good” or “bad” in terms of art (in its broadest sense.) “But it sounds enough like a good pop song that it's hard to tell the difference.” What the heck does that mean?

I gotta say, at first I agreed with that statement. And I still do in some respects, and we’ll get to that later. But, I think we need to very careful about where we tread here.

It might be a little easier (well, it might not be easier. It might just be another analogy.) if we applied that statement to comedy. Most of us can tell when a joke falls flat, either because it’s told incorrectly and/or it’s poorly delivered. We may not recognize that those are the reasons it falls flat, we just know that it does. And it’s probably harder still for most of us to understand how to write jokes or comedy material. But we do know that we laugh when we hear something that we perceive as funny. Which brings me to the term “clapter.”

“Clapter” is a compound word derived from clapping (as in applause) and laughter. You’ve heard it if you’ve ever watched late night TV, Leno or Letterman. A comic will get up to do his three minutes and start into his routine. He’s got the rhythm of a comic delivery. He’ll give you the set up, and deliver the punch line. The audience recognizes this cadence and takes the cues. The jokes really aren’t all that clever or funny, but the comedian is polished and makes the material sound enough like good jokes that it’s hard to tell the difference. So, the audience doesn’t laugh much, but as they recognize the end-of-the-joke cue – the punch line or button - they applaud. Listen for it next time. It sounds more like a political speech to a partisan crowd that a stand up act, judging by the lack of actual laughter and the presence of hearty applause at each button (as in “hit the button” or the appropriate place in the cadence - the trigger – to get a reaction).

You, watching at home, probably won’t laugh at all. You might think, “yeah, well, that was kind of funny.” (You are not part of the live audience which has a whole different dynamic.) And you hear a positive reaction. So you recognize this comic as “legitimate.” He’s made it to one of the late night shows, he’s got the delivery, he sounds like he knows what he’s doing, the audience is reacting. But, does it make him good?

There’s no real way to answer that, of course.

So, is Ke$ha a good artist or not? Actually, that’s not really the question. The question is, is the song a good song? Look, I’ll have my own opinion once I listen to it. But, the fact is, enough people like the song to have made it a smash hit. A lot of people must think it’s “good.” So, if it sounds like a hit song, and acts like a hit song, then…?

Yes, we can argue that it’s a case of “the emperor’s new clothes.” But, often, all that really is is “I wish I’d thought of that first.”

OK. I’m going to listen to the song now…

Yeah. It’s a hit song. It’s got all of the elements. I derived some pleasure from it. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. (And the lyrics aren’t totally inane – I’ve heard worse.) It’ll make the people involved (writers, producers, artists) a ton of money. And then it will go away. It likely won’t have any lasting impact on society or the industry. Not like, say, “Hey Jude” by the Beatles did, or even “MacArthur Park.”

I like all kinds of songs – folk, country, pop, rap, rock, standards, opera – but there are certain songs that stay with me. There are certain songs that have staying power within a culture throughout generations. Those are the songs that, I think, come from a deeper place. Those songs are not aimed at the bottom line (money). They may end up making money for someone, but they didn’t start there. One can be a professional songwriter – that is, expect to make money, a livelihood, from writing songs – and still write truthful songs.

I think there actually is something to the idea that something can sound (or look, or taste…) enough like the “real thing” to come close to being the “real thing” without actually being the “real thing.” In other words (and, god I hope there are other words), sometimes you can just sense that the product is lacking something. What is it? Heart? Soul? Ingenuousness?

Hostess Cupcakes are a lot like that amazing chocolate cake I had at that little place in Cleveland Heights. Your child can drip and spatter paint onto a canvas and it will look a lot like a Jackson Pollock. And I can string words together that rhyme and put some music to them and call it a song. Then, if I have the tools and technology available to me, I can produce and record that song. I can hire the best studio musicians (or in the case of “Tik Tok,” studio technicians), draw inspiration from current popular songs, find an artist who can deliver the goods, and layer it all on real thick. Boom. It sounds enough like a radio hit to be one.

I’m not saying that “real artists” are or should be tortured souls, always broke, only making art for art’s sake. I want us all to become as rich and famous as the market and our psyches will bear. I just don’t want us to lose our “realness.” Our Truth. I want us to keep writing from the kishkes. From that place deep inside of us. That place that won’t let you not write. Be genuine. Love your song. I don’t mean love your song like when you hear a song on the radio and you say, “Oh, I love that song!” I mean, treat your song lovingly. Caress it gently and hold as if it is fragile. Because, it is.

I can name some artists that are successful, famous, and probably rich, and that, I think, still write honest, emotional, heartfelt songs. I think John Mayer is a good example. Or look at (and listen to the songs of) that great Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. They cranked out hit after hit, and so many of them (the songs) just oozed with passion and honesty. They never really lost that. (Of course, it helped to have the Four Tops and Diana Ross singing them.) I think Elvis Costello fits into this group. He’s always had a real, raw honesty that really grabs me. As does the Texas songwriter Guy Clark. Just listen to his song “Desperados Waiting For a Train” if you want to hear what I’m talking about.

So, songwriters, here it is: Don’t settle for a song that sounds like a good song. Demand a song that is a good song, and then hand deliver it to each one of us as if we’re the only one who will have the privilege of hearing it. It is your gift to us, an heirloom handed down, and we, like good caretakers, will promise to cherish it and take good care of it for as long as we have memory.


Leon Adato said...

Great post (as usual!)

One of the things that eludes my understanding right now is how to separate a "moment" from the music.

"Louie Louie" has, if we are honest, a lot of flaws. Lyrics that are nearly impossible to understand (there's an old legend that the FBI analyzed it for subversive or obscene messages and concluded that it was "unintelligible at any speed"). I don't believe the chord structure is particularly tricky. etc etc.

AND YET it's popular, famous, etc. Was it the time in which is was written? The emotion of the performance?

The radio station KISS (FM 96.5 in Cleveland) has been a great acid test (maybe) for this. I listen to it with my daughters (15 and 18, God help us all). My response to nearly every song that is played is "oh, you have to hear this. This is a classic."

I'll try to explain why I believe the song to be important, meaningful, etc. Usually my kids tolerate about 20 seconds before demanding a station change. (typically to WGAR, otherwise known as "the Taylor Swift Therapy Channel for Moderately Angsty Girls").

But maybe I don't know good music when I hear it.

Noah said...

But that's just the thing. WHAT IS GOOD MUSIC? What does that mean?

Like any art form, it's completely subjective and open to interpretation. But, when you get a whole bunch of people who say they like it and want to hear it - often over and over again - when enough of those people are in agreement, then you have some validation.

But, The Industry also has much to do with something is a "hit" or not. There's all kinds of aggressive marketing that goes into having a hit song. You gotta get air play. And don't think that there isn't some form of Payola still being practiced.

Anyway, you can like and dislike whatever songs you want to. Nobody else can control that (at least, not completely). So I don't think you need to worry about whether you "know good music when you hear it." You do know good music when you hear it - it's the stuff you like.

And I'm just kind of coming at from an artsy, internal monologue point of view. And maybe it's even a little esoteric (though I'm trying to broaden the focus of this blog somewhat). But, I just want songwriters to give us...well, I was going to say "good songs," but...I guess, the best songs they can give us. I don't want anyone to settle for crap, or even something that they are not completely sure about. Don't let the song go until you have a pretty good idea that it's ready. There's always going to be crap that slips on through, but that's probably another discussion.

If you're a songwriter, or any kind of artist or writer for that matter, just take it seriously, and create from that place within you where you find you own Truth with a capital T.