Songs & The Test of Time

Does anyone still write songs like they used to?

“They just don’t write songs like they used to.”

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How many times have you heard that one? When I was a kid, people from my parents’ generation would often say this, referring to the great songs of Tin Pan Alley they grew up with as rendered by great vocalists like Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and comparing them to what they saw as the musical junk food we kids were then consuming, your Beatles, Stones, Monkees, etc.

To them, the possibility that some of these long-haired scruffy young men like Lennon & McCartney were writing great songs, didn’t exist. The visuals then, perhaps as they do now, distracted from the music. And though all of us were intent never to turn into our parents, I hear my friends and peers frequently making the same kind of judgment: “Nobody writes great songs anymore.”

Of course, what constitutes a great song is a subjective determination. Certainly if a song becomes a hit, then the marketplace has spoken. Although, as we all know, people make great records all the time of not-so-great songs – what makes a record great isn’t what makes a song great, and so commercial success isn’t always an accurate estimation of the song’s power. A much surer and purer test is the test of time: any song that people want to hear years after its emergence is a successful song. This is, after all, the requirements of a “standard” – any song that outlives its own time.

Leonard Cohen.

“There are always meaningful songs for somebody. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night…
Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.”
-Leonard Cohen

And so while there were some doubts that no songs would become standards written outside of the age of Tin Pan Alley (the age that led to the writing of the mythic “Great American Songbook”),  those doubts were unfounded. The numbers are in: among the top ten most recorded songs of all time are standards written by Gershwin (“Summertime,” with lyrics by Dubose Heyward) and Arlen (“Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg) as well as songs written by John Lennon (“Imagine”) and Paul McCartney (the aforementioned “Yesterday.”)

“Yesterday” is, in fact, the world’s most recorded song. It’s a remarkable yet real example of the power of a single song; there are a staggering seven million recorded cover versions of this one song by a necessarily vast range of singers. These include Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Liberace, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Plácido Domingo and Daffy Duck. Muzak’s elevator and shopping mall music has included 500 different covers of “Yesterday.” Evidently McCartney did something right, even in terms Irving Berlin would respect.

Frank Sinatra was known for hating rock & roll. It’s not that he didn’t like it, as many who knew him explained. He hated it. He felt it cheapened the art of popular music which he’d championed himself for decades. 

Livingston & Evans, the late legendary songwriters of “Silver Bells,” “Que Sera” and other standards,” shared Sinatra’s antipathy towards rock and roll. Even comparing the two seemed ludicrous, as Ray Evans said, “To us it’s like comparing Picasso to a comic book.” 

(Sinatra did relent somewhat when he recorded George Harrison’s “Something,” calling it his  “favorite Lennon & McCartney song.” ) 

Now it is prevalent that Sinatra’s response is mirrored by the songwriters who came up in the wake of rock & roll.  To them, the music that came from their era  is the music that is forever golden. Most of what has come since, with few exceptions, to them is simply not worthy.

Often the judgment is not that the  popular songs are weak or deficient songs, but that they don’t even qualify as songs. To them, the true test of a song is if it can stand on its own with just melody and chords, as in one voice with piano, or with guitar. If a song is dependent on a record and production to fly, yet has little discernible melody, or lyrics that reach them, the thinking goes, it might be a good record, but not a good song. And, perhaps, not a song at all.

Sure, I’ve been there myself, quick to reject that which doesn’t seem worthy, or even in the same arena. There are times I’ve turned on pop radio in the car, and hear a lot of digital confection without any seeming structure or melodic appeal, devoid of any warmth, soul or grace. It can feel like wandering into a ghost town, having expected Times Square. Where did everybody go? 

[At the same time, I do delight – and feel hopeful – when I hear new songs that to me are the real deal. Songs that I want to hear over and over, and which had a real place in my life. There’s been many in recent years, such as “Feel It Now” by Portugal.The Man, Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain” [written by Joseph Angel] or Sia’s “Chandelier.” ] 

Many songwriters from the rock era regard their love of old-school songwriting as something which is charming, and perhaps nostalgic, but irrelevant to modern times. Nick Lowe told he he felt well-crafted, serious songwriting is a lovely talent, but to most people, about as important as “a talent for making thatched roofs.”  

It brings to mind what Leonard Cohen told me when we discussed this issue. Given that he was one of the most overt examples of songwriters writing substantial, meaningful songs – as in “Yeah, that was nice. It was no Leonard Cohen song, but good.” His songs stood then – and they do still-  as an ideal towards which songwriters could aspire.  

So I turned to Leonard Cohen to ask how he felt about this. Not only was he a remarkably bountiful source of genuine wisdom, he also was beautifully eloquent in his use of language always, even when speaking, often composing what on the page resound like parables. Asked if he felt meaningful songs were still being written, this was his answer:    

“There are always meaningful songs for somebody,” he said. “People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day with songs that we may find insignificant.

“But,” he continued, “their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.”

This is an understanding that has opened my mind, and is beneficial for any songwriter to embrace. That although Dylan insisted, in my 1991 interview with him, that “the world don’t need any more songs,” in fact new songs are always necessary, songs to match the singular dynamic of the times in which we’re living. Dylan did add a qualifier to his previous statement: “Unless someone comes along with a pure heart and something to say.” So even cognizant as he is – perhaps more than most – of the sheer and staggering glut of songs that already exist in our world – he recognizes that a song from a pure heart, well, that’s welcome any time. Especially now.

After all, the music industry obviously isn’t what it used to be, as any attempt to find a record store in your average American city will attest. But though the industry is in mid-cataclysmic freefall, music itself continues to thrive, and people stay almost constantly connected to some source of music, be it an iPod, a car radio, or a TV show.

And regardless of one’s opinion of shows like “The Voice,” “Songland” or “American Idol,” there’s no disregarding the fact that they are all about songs. And not only are great songs still being written, but they are being appreciated maybe more than ever. A great example is Leonard Cohen’s miraculous “Hallelujah,” which was never a hit for Mr. Cohen, and is a song that has been elevated to the level of a standard simply because it’s great. And like the great songs of the past, it’s a song many singers want to sing and record, and have.

It shows the world will always need new songs. The message to songwriters being: don’t despair! Our work is not done. 


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