Great American Songwriters
March 28, 2004 5:28 PM   Subscribe

The Song Is You: and, as if that weren't enough, the melody lingers on! The Songwriters' Hall of Fame is a magnificent resource (look for the almost-complete song lists) and a reminder of how one single country (The U.S.A.) produced a hugely disproportionate quantity of the great popular songwriters. It could arguably be said: almost all of them. How many of the "Rock Era" composers, though, have written standards that will still be as widely sung worldwide, in every conceivable dive or circumstance, in 50 years' time as the songs of Arlen, Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, Kern, Rodgers, Carmichael, Youmans, Warren, Ellington, Loesser, Loewe, Coleman and so many others still are today?
posted by MiguelCardoso (16 comments total)
It is quite an impressive resource, and I'm looking forward to spending some time browsing it. However, I'm a bit concerned about its accuracy. For reasons we won't discuss, the first songwriter I looked up was Barry Manilow. His entry contains a rather commonplace error: attributing the composition of "I Write the Songs" to Manilow, when the actual songwriter responsible is Bruce Johnson. In a general pop music guide it would be understandable, but much less so in this context.
posted by mkhall at 6:08 PM on March 28, 2004

USA #1!!
posted by delmoi at 6:47 PM on March 28, 2004

For reasons we won't discuss, the first songwriter I looked up was Barry Manilow.

C'mon! That begs for discussion!

I would suggest that there are many working songwriters who have the chops of those mentioned above, however, I think the pool is much too large to expect a great songwriter to really make his mark. For example, one of my all time favourites is Paul Westerberg, yet I suspect that years from now, it will still be geeks like me who wait for his next album and discuss his merits on usenet. Sadly, him, and many like him, aren't invited to write songs for Clay Aiken, and hence most of the world is not familiar with his work. I mean, not that Paul would go near that gig even if it were offered, being as cool as he is, but...

Plus, I believe that many of the hit writers of today are silently writing their hits. Many the singer-songwriter doesn't write what they claim to write. I know that sounds cynical, but it is sadly true...So, the people who are writing massive hits, are silent, but paid well. We don't know who they are, for the most part.

Anyway...I guess my point, if I may belabour it some more, is that there are boatloads of amazing song writers out there who are knee deep in hooks, but sadly, the world at large is largely indifferent.

(I really wanted to say "the world at large is largely worldly" but that, sadly, makes little sense.)
posted by Richat at 7:09 PM on March 28, 2004

I would also put forth that many of those people (Gershwin, Arlen, etc. ) come from a different age - they come from a time when mass communication was via the radio and the world itself was going through some vast changes (World War 1 and 2, for example). Today we communicate with so many different tools, the internet itself offering so many different ways of authoring.
posted by ashbury at 7:25 PM on March 28, 2004

How many of the "Rock Era" composers, though, have written standards that will still be as widely sung 50 years' time...

I'd always hoped Stephin Merritt would fill that role for our generation, but it's doubtful any popular vocalists (Xtina, Beyonce, Justin, et al) will been accepting his songs into their repertoire as certifiable "standards" anytime soon--I guess maybe that's a mixed blessing?

Thanks for the link Miguel.
posted by dhoyt at 9:29 PM on March 28, 2004

Stephin Merritt

[happy sigh]
though I hear the Magnetic Fields' new album ain't so hot. bah.
posted by Asparagirl at 11:11 PM on March 28, 2004

“Strange how potent cheap music is.”

By the maestro, no mean hand at the pop song himself.

U.S. music was closer to the technology and was part of a dominant culture, therefore became most popular. Not decrying the music, of course.

Will these songs be remembered? Only by a few musiclovers.
posted by emf at 2:00 AM on March 29, 2004

The Rock Era inductees are bullshit. I thought that the choices were pretty typical selections for middle-aged white people, then I saw Sting's name and it was worse than I thought. My dad isn't lame enough to have chosen those names.

Seriously, I can think of 30 people more deserving than Sting. He's just Michael Bolton for aging liberals.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:10 AM on March 29, 2004

though I hear the Magnetic Fields' new album ain't so hot. bah.

It's great!

posted by soundofsuburbia at 3:34 AM on March 29, 2004

In its own time, great pop songwriting always sounds like hack work. Back in the 50s, bebop fans scorned the work of the people on Migs' list as commercial product for "middle-aged white people". In the 1970s, everyone thought that the songs of Smokey Robinson, Lennon/McCartney, and Goffin/King were for children. 30 years from now people will be talking about the enduring genius of Linda Perry.
posted by fuzz at 5:52 AM on March 29, 2004

This site is a dream, Miguel. Especially valuable is the "Early American Composers" section. But rock respresents a decisive break from everything that came before, and Lieber and Stoller (for instance), as much as they hoped to be considered mainstream composers, cannot be mentioned in the same breath as Kern, Gershwin or Wilder (their one non-rock standards, "Is That All There Is" and their cabaret songs notwithstanding). As much as we all love rock, it does not grow out of the great America-European popular/theatrical song tradition, and when it first came along, you can see why Frank Sinatra and everyone else in the musical mainstream thought it was the end of the world. Judged by the standards of the first half of the 20th Century, rock is an unmitigated stream of horrors, that has culminated in rap -- the ultimate musical nightmare (after dissonant modern "classical" music). But rock didn't kill American popular song. It was dying anyway, with the aging and dying of its first generation of composers, and the simple natural end of things that happens in life and art. By the time "How Much is That Doggy in the Window" made the charts, it was clear to everyone that the great age of the American popular song was over, and that something else would take its place. Interestingly, when you look back at the era immediately pre-rock and early rock, you can see that most of the professionals were betting on Latin music as the next big thing (which, even to our own time, is something that always happens when the currently dominant strain of American popular music appears to be exhausted).
And speaking of exhausted... What is with Stephen Merritt? All the guy does is occasionally slip something that vaguely resembles a hook or a melody into like, one out of every three songs, and the hipster masses fall on him in slobbering gratitude. Doesn't anyone notice that fully two-thirds of "69 Love Songs" is a joyless, dreary, tuneless racket? With Magnetic Fields, he spreads the same amount of hooks and melodies over a larger number of songs, resulting in the predictable thin, sort-of-okay product. If you people like hooks and melodies, fer crying ot loud, listen to the new Shania Twain album -- or delve into the world of contemporary indie pop, where songwriters are knocking themselves out to please you, and coming up with hundreds of songs that have everything that Stephen Merritt's songs have -- without the electronic diddling, dreary rhythms, and artsy padding.
posted by Faze at 6:57 AM on March 29, 2004

What a terrific site. Thanks, Miguel! I can't wait to explore it more fully.

The rock era section has some definite hits (yay Jim Croce!) and a few minor misses, but in my opinion the site will never be fully complete until Elvis Costello is listed among its ranks.
posted by boomchicka at 7:09 AM on March 29, 2004

Hey, yeah, wow, the *vast* majority of popular American songwriters are Americans! We truly r0ck!! *8)
posted by davidchess at 8:20 AM on March 29, 2004

Seriously, I can think of 30 people more deserving than Sting. He's just Michael Bolton for aging liberals.

*racks own brain to remember Bolton's equivalent of "Roxanne", or of "Walking On The Moon"'s bass line. Fails*

I agree that year-2004 Sting is a sad celebrity who jumped the shark 20 years ago. but still, he's the Police guy. and the first Blue Turtles albim didn't completely suck.
that said, I can also think of a multitude of people more deserving than Sting. and the list is lame.
posted by matteo at 10:18 AM on March 29, 2004

but still, he's the Police guy.

Yeah, the one that heard "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" and built a career around a cautionary tale.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:53 PM on March 29, 2004

So, uh, where's Kurt Veill? Or Bertol Brecht? Or Gilbert & Sullivan? Neil Young? Leonard Cohen?

Or for some actual Americans they missed, Willie Dixon, Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash or Lou Reed?
posted by arto at 2:26 AM on March 30, 2004

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