Here’s a condensed version of my typical rant: The Beatles ruined it for everyone.
I don’t even care if I’m right, but here’s how I understand things. Before The Beatles it typically went like so: there were musicians, who could play their instruments and/or sing. There were also songwriters who were good at writing songs. Record producers would match a great song with a great musician, and boom: magic. Willie Nelson wrote “Crazy”, which got sung by Patsy Cline. Kris Kristofferson wrote “Me & Bobby McGee,” done by Janis Joplin. Leon Russell wrote “Superstar” for The Carpenters. (Okay, some post-Beatles examples, but you get it)
Then along come the Beatles, those magical shitheads, who could sing, play and write their own songs. Slowly, a handful of songwriters start coming out of the woodwork who could sing too. Before long, everyone but everyone was expected to write their own songs and sing them as well. Over time, it got to the point where playing a song that wasn’t your own began to be looked down upon — brushed off with a dismissive sniff as a “cover version”. Common knowledge now has it fixed that it’s all-around better, more respectable, for everyone to play their own song. Never mind if it’s good, more important is that it’s yours.
Great. Now we live in a world where (to adapt the old Frank Zappa adage) people who can’t write songs are attempting to sing them, in voices they don’t have, on instruments they can’t play, to people who don’t know any better.
And honestly, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I like Syd Barrett as much as anyone else.
But it does seem in this brave new world that we’ve forgotten what actually makes a great song, and an important distinction has been lost between people who write songs and those who are regarded as great songwriters. Here, in a nutshell, is that distinction: great songs transcend the voice of their writers, the public persona of their writers, their particular recorded context, their genre, often even their historical moment. In fact they are often performed better by others, with different production styles and in other genres. They are not about their writer in any pivotal way, and this gets at the heart of what I believe is a common confusion.
In determining what makes a great song or a great songwriter, people increasingly seem to value “authenticity” above craftsmanship: What’s the biography of the singer? Does the song reveal some deep secret about their personal life? Do they sing/perform in some strange way? Do they seem to be “pouring their heart out?” All of these things can indeed be moving, and again, there’s nothing wrong with that. I like Cat Power as much as anyone else. Really.
But remove the song from the performer and it often falls apart like a body with no bones. Sure, you can effectively cover a song from an influential performer, but more often than not the effect comes from knowledge of the writer, or the performance of the cover-er.
So why do I care? Why should anyone? Because I want to be the Allan Bloom of popular music? Hell no. I love all sorts of fucked up, freaky music. I love rock n’ roll and artifice. I love the fucking Thong Song (esp. the modulation at 2:46).
On the other hand, I also believe there’s a historical tradition of song which has important aesthetic values that should be retained. Maybe that makes me an asshole, and I’m just short of comfortable with that. But imagine if sometime in the future, French and English history got lumped together. I mean, all the same shit happened, it just happened over in that nebulous region that we don’t care to distinguish. France, England, England, France: why get so uptight about it?
I get a very similar bee in my bonnet about what gets called folk music. Folk music is a relatively definable body of generations-old music and song, rarely attributed to any author, that holds an important place in a cultural/national identity. Bob Dylan songs are not folk songs. The Indigo Girls do not sing folk music. The presence of an acoustic instrument does not make a song more “folksy”.
Do I hate these people, or wanna harsh on their vibe? No way. Seriously, The Indigo Girls?: respek. Shirley Collins they ain’t, tho. And that’s not in any way a value judgment, it’s a simple distinction and one that I feel should be understood.