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They Don't Write 'Em Like They Used To
By Gloria Diaz
Check out Gloria's Blog — Edge of Gloria!
Fort Wayne Reader
Since I teach writing part-time, I pay more attention to words than most people would. Misspelled signs, typos in brochures, and directions poorly translated from Mandarin Chinese to English always grab my attention.
So when I went to karaoke with some friends, I was a bit shocked to find that the art of songwriting has been reduced to nonsense words and repetition. Some purists might say that the art of songwriting died when the Beatles split up, and they may have a point. I remember a version of “Hooked on a Feeling” that started out with “ooga shaka, ooga ooga ooga shaka” repeated while the lead singer warbled the main lyrics. So maybe it’s been going downhill the last 30 years or so. But I guess I never realized it before now, because I don’t listen to the radio. If I hear new music, it’s because it showed up on a commercial, or it’s on a movie soundtrack.
Okay, I confess: I do listen to the radio, but for only short snippets, too short for Arbitron to worry about my opinion. During a year-end countdown, I heard “Single Ladies” on the radio and the song seemed to be made up of “if you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it” repeated over and over again. After a while, I wanted to throw Robert’s car stereo out the window, but instead started talking, the sound of my droney, nasally voice more preferable to my ears than bad songwriting. Repetition can work, but you have to be careful with it. The “na, na na na na na na, na na na na,” of Hey Jude” takes on an anthem-like quality, particularly if an auditorium of people are singing along. “If you liked it …” sounds like a school yard chant: shrill and mocking. If I want repetition, I’ll check out “Nom Nom Nom Nom Nom Nom Nom” or “Fuzzy Fuzzy Cute Cute” on YouTube. Not much effort went into the songwriting, but at least the videos are cute! Cute!
Then, there’s Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” The opening sounds like someone who was forced to sing after her tongue was injected full of Novocain: “rah rah ah ah ah, ro ma ro mah mah, Gaga oh la la.” Songwriting my ass! This is a poem written by a platinum-haired drunk!
Anyway, at karaoke, this particular place had a widescreen television set that beamed out the lyrics to the patrons so they could sing along (to drown out the singer?) I was struck by the heavy metal absurdity of “Pour Some Sugar On Me”: “Listen! Red light, yellow light, green a-light go, Crazy little woman in a one man show/Mirror queen, mannequin, rhythm of love, sweet dream, saccharine, loosen up…” This reminds me of those refrigerator magnet sets that consist of random words. Some of the magnet sets now have a theme but the original seemed a hodge-podge of nouns, prepositions and words. The group at karaoke who sung this wasn’t Def Leppard, but I wonder what William Shatner could do with these lyrics. Recited deadpan, they’d be way more enjoyable than the original version with wailing guitars, or butchered by drunks at a bar.
And rap lyrics: always a treat. I have the lyrics to “We Be Steady Mobbin’ (Remix)” in front of me, and the racial and gender slurs make it impossible to share this gem with you. So much for harmony and unity through music.
To each his own, but I’ve been fortunate in the past 15-20 years to have encountered some really talented singer/songwriters who have produced some amazing stuff. One local musician produced a debut CD that appealed to me so much, I swore he tapped into my brain, noted my preferences, and created a disc that seemed tailor-made for me. As picky as I am, that feat alone counts as a miracle in my book. He still makes music, but as for “making it big” he probably won’t. He’s not alone of course; there are thousands if not millions of creative people out there who aren’t making a living off their art. They toil away at jobs and create in their spare time. If they are lucky, they get their work out and develop a following.
Of course, YouTube has created a few stars. Probably the most famous one is Susan Boyle. Even if YouTube didn’t exist, we would have found out about her eventually. But the Internet may save us from the mediocrity that seems to persist in the music industry. I loved “Pants on the Ground” sung by an “American Idol “ hopeful. He didn’t get on (he was 62, waaaaay past the AI age limit) but the song was delightfully silly, mocking a fashion trend I’ve yet to understand. Thank you, Larry Platt, for singing what needed to be said.
And true, there may be Internet musicians who sing as if their tongues were injected with Novocain, but thankfully, we aren’t forced to pay $18.99 for their CD. Instead, we can sing along to “Cat Flushing the Toilet” absolutely free on YouTube. It ain’t Lennon and McCartney, but this is 2010. We’ll take what we can get—especially if we don’t have to pay for it.