Published on August 7th, 20130
Once There Were Songs
I was at the famous Whiskey a Go-Go club in West Hollywood the other night. The occasion: the nomination ceremony and press event for the Los Angeles Music Awards Show, to be held later in the year. At the event I had the pleasure of sitting on a judging panel with actress Kat Kramer, Hollywood publicist Liz Rodriguez and editor of Music Connection magazine Eric Bettelli.
The event was a blast, and I got to hear some good music from acts spanning several different musical genres. But, with the exception of a couple of pieces by up and coming Lake County, California based rock group Cheating Daylight, what I didn’t hear at the show was what I don’t hear much in popular music at all nowadays: melodies that stand out and are memorable.
Seems like there used to be a time when melodies, the heart of any song, were what defined any song and songwriter as being durable and valuable over the long run. Today, the emphasis on melodies has been replaced by a focus on beats, and music as a whole has become much more simplistic as a result.
Who are the great singer/songwriters of today, those artists who, song after song, put out not just songs but melodies that stick with you, that don’t fade as soon as the next song comes up in the shuffle or on the radio?
I put that question privately to Eric Bettelli and we did come up with a few: Bruno Mars, to be certain; also John Legend and Adele. I might add to that short list R&B artist Ne-Yo who’s got a penchant for melody. No doubt, these are great artists. But five years from now you could probably add up all of their memorable songs and there wouldn’t be as many of them as the Beatles alone produced.
Going back in time, whether to the Motown era of the ‘70s; to the ‘60s singer/songwriter era, which boasted classics by artists like Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Judy Collins; or to the crooner days of the 1950s, notable for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and Nat King Cole; success in music was built upon producing and/or performing songs distinguished by memorable, lasting melodies.
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Everything during those decades was not about the “hook” or the “beat.” Words like these were hardly even used in those days. But the music was very often more than just catchy; it was memorable.
I’m probably biased, of course. My father, noted Jazz pianist John Wood, Sr., has achieved some notoriety in recent years by authoring the “Drum Machines Have No Soul” bumper sticker. He’s come up with another one, not quite as well circulated but popular in some places, that reads “Once There Were Songs.”
Today, though, the music message is almost the same. There’s something disposable about music in our current time. That’s not to say that I don’t hear anything I like on the radio. I do. Nor is it to say that there are not talented artists who remain among us. But there is a fast-food quality to what is popular in this century that was not evident before.
Whereas once there were songs in American popular music that became standards—covered so many times by so many different artists that listeners rarely remembered who’d launched the original version—today, very few of us will remember a year from now Justin Beiber’s latest 2013 smash. Are people really going to be humming “Beauty and a Beat” thirty years from now? I guess time will tell.
Even today though, the world can be brought together by a good song, by melodies that don’t just entertain you for a moment but take residence in your subconscious and become rooted in your memory. Whether it is sung by Adele or Frank Sinatra, this still remains true.
Our world moves so fast today that maybe things are just a little less conducive to the soulful sentiments expressed in these old fashioned love songs, those melodic masterpieces that still come along every once in a while. The adrenaline rush of a good beat keeps time with the rush hour speed of life in the modern, westernized world, and we drink it down like Red Bull for the ears.
Nothing wrong with that, I guess. Or maybe there is.
All I know is that there is still something very special about a song that doesn’t just help you drown out the white noise of modern living, but instead, actually compels you to stop, listen, and reflect. That’s the way I feel when I hear a song like Bruno Mar’s “When I Was Your Man,” just like I feel listening to Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” John Denver’s “Country Roads,” or Aerosmith’s “Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” A few more songs like that might make this an easier world in which to feel that way.
About the Author: John Randolph Wood, Jr. is the grandson of record industry pioneer Randy Wood (founder of the iconic 1950’s record label “Dot” records) is a musician and vocalist living in Los Angeles, California. An L.A. native, John Wood also contributes as a writer and commentator to Black Is Online: Dedicated to the Black Experience, a Los Angeles based, African American cultural site.