The Not-So-Great American Songbook

One terrible thing that's happened as The Music Business slowly became The Music Industry is the creation of song "blueprints:" sure-fire but utterly boring roadmaps for writing a song with hit potential.

You know what I'm talking about because it's all you hear on radio. For example, here's The Modern Country blueprint: Four chords (the I, IV and V plus an outlier like a minor or diminished) and a set of lyrics referencing your girl in tight cut-off jeans, your truck, Saturday night, and things you should buy to make it all alright, delivered over a loping shuffle by a guy with a recently-acquired Tennessee twang. These songs don't get written by artists: they get written by professional hacks in Nashville conference rooms. Or the R&B Slow Jam blueprint: bell-like digital Rhodes piano supported by soft strings, while a male or female vocalist freestyles melismas on lyrics that express a deep, aching need to get laid. I am not being sarcastic when I tell you that these records are completely finished by producers before the "artist" ever shows up, with his or her notebook of words, and lead vocals are written and recorded almost in the time it takes to listen to them.

My personal nemesis blueprint is the Modern Top 40 Pop song: an AAAB-AAAB rhyme scheme, a melody that repeats every bar, a I-vi-ii-V chord progression (or slight variation), and sung in a wispy voice with lyrics borrowed from a high school girl's diary. For whatever reason, this droning approach to "songwriting" sets my teeth on edge like drinking a barium contrast.

Compare any Katy Perry song to anything from the Great American Songbook: let's say it's "Someone To Watch Over Me." In the Gershwin tune, the lyric is a finely crafted story told in just a few lines, and the melody creeps and soars and slowly recedes, always in service to the meaning of the lyric. The Perry song? Wallpaper paste. White, sticky, and hard to scrape off.

It's the difference between hard work and sloughing off, between craftsmanship and paint-by-numbers, between dedication and laziness. If pop music is the soundtrack of the movie of our lives, shouldn't we work harder to write music for a more interesting movie?

That's what I think.