By Tom Quiner
I don’t listen to a whole lot of contemporary music these days.
The songs aren’t well-written. They frequently present values at odds with mine. And they’re over-produced, perhaps to mask the fact that they’re not well-written.
Gordon Goodwin weighed in on the subject on his Facebook page following the recent Grammy Awards. I don’t know much about Mr. Goodwin, other than he is himself an accomplished musician who has won Grammy and Emmy Awards.
Here is his take:
When discussing the problem of American pop music the base issue is not the performers. Many of them are talented and capable.
Let me pause. I do think the problem to some extent are the performers. Look at the photo of Beyoncé above from her performance at the Grammy’s. Even though pregnant, she felt compelled to show off a whole lot of skin. If she were unattractive and non-sexy, would her music hold up?
Carlos Santana couldn’t believe that Adele, who has serious vocal chops, didn’t win the Album of the Year honor. It went to Beyoncé. Santana characterize Beyoncé’s music as being “more like modeling” and that she’s not really a “singer, singer.”
Back to Gordon Goodwin:
But the industry has adapted a musical language that is striking in it’s banality. I believe that this is largely due to a shocking lack of chromaticism in the music. Not to get overly pedantic about it, but simply put, these composers and performers use only the white keys on the piano. Their melodies and the chords they choose are based solely on the diatonic scale of whatever key they have chosen. This is akin to the elimination of adjectives in the written language. It’s the difference between the sentence “I was mad.” and the sentence “I was shaking with violent and uncontrolled anger!” One wonders if they ever wonder what those black keys on the piano are even there for?
The early rock and roll songs were built on three chords.
By contrast, the melodies from the “Great American Songbook” are rich and diverse. Gershwin, Ellington, and Porter always kept you guessing, which made the music so vibrant and compelling.
Goodwin honed in on the Grammy’s:
I was at the Grammy Awards last night and kept track, and it wasn’t until Bruno Mars’ song(s) that you had any chromatic intervals in the music. For me, this is why so much of American pop music is uninteresting. Chromaticism adds nuance to music. It adds tension and ambiguity. The proper balance between diatonicism and chromaticism is the key to music with balance and appeal. If you take a song or a composition with those elements, and then add the emotion of the performers we heard last night, then you have something! But today’s pop musicians never really learned how to incorporate this language in their work. Singers are unable to navigate chromatic intervals with their voices.
I think that the music industry is increasing risk-adverse. It’s morphed from art to a business. If you throw in too many “black keys,” you might lose your audience.
Back to Goodwin:
This is not to say you cannot have effective music without chromaticism. But composing should be a series of deliberate choices. Choices informed by your training AND your intuition. Many of today’s performers rely on the latter and have neglected focusing on the former.
I am less qualified to comment on the lyrical content of some of the material we heard last night, but I doubt it’s a stretch to say that the lyrics to much of today’s pop music suffer from a similar lack of nuance and content.
This blog has noted not only the lack of content in today’s lyrics, but their perversity.
Lyrics tend to be written differently today. When the Gershwin brothers collaborated, George wrote the melody first and Ira added witty, singable lyrics that didn’t compromise the music. By contrast, a contemporary song writing team, Elton John and Bernie Taupin do it entirely different.
Bernie Taupin writes his lyrics first and Elton John writes the music around the words. Elton writes some great music that certainly uses the “black keys,” but sometimes the lyrics are clunky and heavy-handed in their songs, something that you never noticed with the Gershwins.
Gordon Goodwin concludes:
The line I am trying to walk here is a subtle one, because I believe that people should create the kind of music that sounds good to them. But underlying that statement is the assumption that artists take responsibility to learn as much as possible about their craft, and to keep learning, keep growing. American popular music has ignored the lessons of the past for decades now, and the coarseness and simple-mindedness of the music seems to be reflected in our culture as a whole. So, those of us that believe otherwise have a responsibility to fight for quality, To fight for excellence.
What do you think? Your comments are welcome and appreciated.