By Hans Ebert
It’s all become so formulaic, but how does one politely tell someone who believes they have written something original that it’s derivative?
My singer friend Jennifer remarked the other day that she didn’t know whether it was just her, or was “Pop” music all sounding the same- meaning almost a nursery rhyme lyrics and melody line repeated over a backing of synth bass, drums and percussion.
Of course, it is because success or a hit creates the sausage factory syndrome of manufacturing recordings “like” this and “like” that. And right now, there’s an awful amount- and most is truly awful- of recordings that simply regurgitate what Justin Bieber recently recorded. Bieber’s recordings are wonderful pop music. But they belong to Justin Bieber. We don’t need more of the same. But that’s what happens when followers become sheep and lemmings.
Selena Gomez, Rihanna, Drake and so many others fall into this category. Into this mosh pit of sameness. But these recordings get a pass because the celebrity of these artists is bigger than the songs and what fans are buying is the total package where the song is a small add-on to their Spotify playlist.
There are different schools of this “paean to derivativeness”. The Rock school try to emulate their heroes, but, unknowingly, are writing copycat material. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but not when it’s an obvious copy or a subconscious influence. Sure, Led Zeppelin “borrowed” from Muddy Waters, the Beatles and the Stones “borrowed” from Chuck Berry, but these were during the early days of pop and rock and young musicians were getting their feet wet and fine-tuning what eventually became a craft- the craft of songwriting.
Even here, there are the “real” songwriters- Leon Russell, Jimmy Webb, Bacharach and David, Harry Nilsson, Paul Williams, add post Pet Sounds period Brian Wilson to that list- and what you have are the modern versions of the great writers from Tin Pan Alley- Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, and the great Hoagy Carmichael. Is there a more beautiful song than Moon River? Maybe Skylark and Stardust. Maybe.
Writers like Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell evolved from the folk scene into meticulous songwriters who quickly understood their way around a studio and would never settle for anything less than perfection and an unswerving need to challenge themselves.
The same can be said of Steely Dan and with each of these artists introducing us to Aja, and The Nightfly, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Hejira and Hearts And Bones. The evolution of Joni Mitchell, who sang about “Trina with her wampum beads”, to the progression she made with the very personal “Blue”, and then moving into uncharted waters by recording and performing with players like the brilliant and doomed Jaco Pastorius and releasing the deep tribute to Charlie Mingus showed an artist needing to be part of the game by staying ahead of the game by not following the pack.
The Brill Building songwriters were guns for hire- Carole King, below, and then-husband Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka and others, who wrote specifically for artists like the Monkees who needed sure fire hits. Compare Carole King’s demo for Pleasant Valley Sunday and the recording by the Monkees…
The Brill Building team of writers were as much a pop hit making factory as what Phil Spector and his Wall Of Sound, below, gave the world before almost everyone else, and years before what Motown became with the relentlessly hook-driven songs of Dozier-Holland-Dozier, The Corporation, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson.
There was then Lennon, McCartney and producer George Martin who went into the Abbey Road studios and painted their masterpieces that didn’t need music videos to spell out the stories behind the words. The pictures were whatever we wanted them to look like.
That was part of the magic- using our own imaginations to “put a face” and a storyline to songs without being force-fed someone else’s ideas of what it was all supposed to mean. We were feeding our heads, man.
The songs of the Beatles, Dylan, Bob Marley, the Stones, Mr Berry, Bowie, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, Prince, Leon Russell, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Nick Drake, James Taylor, below, Harry Nilsson and many others didn’t need music videos. The words were the pictures playing in our Cinema Paradiso minds.
Today, there’s Ed Sheeran, Rihanna and Taylor Swift and the manufactured pop that’s crafted by the genius that is producer Max Martin and his army of hit makers. There’s also always Pharrell, the new will i am, though none of his own work has ever connected with me like the music he produced with N.E.R.D did. But having him on a record adds huge clout.
It’s how the Hip Hop community broke new artists. They brought their established hood to the party. It bought immediate credibility.
For fledgling songwriters today, it all comes down to homework and practice and research and really understanding the difference between crafting a song, something an artist like James Bay is so good at, or the brilliant experimental Bedroom Sessions of Tash Sultana, and a lazy quick fix. The latter is like saying, “Don’t worry, it will all be okay in the mix.” It never is if the original product is, unwittingly, or knowingly, a knock off or is not a complete whole.
Derivative music is just that. It’s not adventurous enough to “Stop Making Sense” and “Burn The House Down”. It’s doomed from the start to go -anywhere, because those who know where music has come from, know good from “still a ways to go.” It’s about making that commitment to trust those with experience, of course, trust your own instincts, and understand that there are performers and there are songwriters. Nothing wrong with that. Even the Beatles stopped touring to be masters of the recording studio, and with a hard task master like producer George Martin created their greatest work.
In this day and age of technology, however, to be a multi media artist and be the best in everything should always be the goal. It’s why even hugely successful artists and bands keep pushing the creative envelope.
Some don’t like their music, but I have nothing but admiration for Chris Martin and Coldplay. They keep evolving. Same with Damon Albarn and Gorillaz. Meanwhile, where else is there for Adele to go from here despite all the swearing onstage. Hello?
No one said making music is easy. But that’s the challenge- to make one’s music so different, not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of making relevant, accessible music and a “stand alone product” that might be able to be enhanced through some muted bells and whistles. But it must must must always start with the heart of the song.