Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Tragic Dilution of Songwriting

I consider myself pretty open to listening and figuring out all genres of popular music. I’ve been known to read up on the life stories of one-hit wonders, as well as biographies of the great rock legends. I used to collect music consistently and each acquisition was an opportunity to somehow ‘advance’ my knowledge more than it was about simple enjoyment. One genre of music I have always kept in touch with, though far from being a dedicate fan of has been soul music, or more precisely, pop music made by American blacks. My youngest brother has really taken a liking to old Motown of sixties as well as the rich seventies catalogue consisting of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Commodores, and Barry White. Taking the school bus in the 1980’s exposed me to the soul music of that time, with a few classic ballads and some catchy funk tunes. Hip hop had just arrived and beyond its initially funny rap lyrics, it was evident that musically it was minimal based on samples other people’s music.

By the time the 90’s approached, it was clear that hip-hop overtook soul, and became the dominant mainstream pop genre. For those who had tons of old music from a variety of decades and even classical pieces crammed in their heads, it was quickly evident that most hip-hop tracks were busy borrowing old melodies, rhythm tracks, and vocal samples. In fact, pop music historians credit the establishment of hip-hop music to the German group Kraftwerk, in which disk jokeys like Afrika Bambaata sampled the Teutonic beats of “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers” with improvised rap lyrics to create the first non-disco or funk-based hip-hop single, “Planet Rock”. Many young listeners were ignorant of the original material, so it sounds fresh and inspired. Older types like me can only shake their heads in disappointment, witnessing the butchering of the original material from its original context.

Upon checking up on the latest gossip via Roger Friedman, I came across his report challenging Beyonce Knowles’ claim of authorship to her songs. What becomes apparent is that lately the notion of authorship has become quite vague in the genre of hip hop as well as in r&b. Aside from the obviously self-penned lyrics of rap, pop songs are often written by songwriters, and music is arranged by producers, who seem to rely less and less on studio musicians and more on old samples and pre-recorded beats. What Beyonce seems guilty of doing is claiming complete credit for her hit singles while all she technically may have done was to add a couple of lines or words in the nearly finished song. Why did she need to do this? Royalties are paid to those who are credited in writing the song, and if she had merely performed them she would have cut herself off from these lucrative payments. Friedman discusses at length the issue of Beyonce’s best known hit, “Crazy in Love” in which the song relies on a horn riff originally composed by Eugene Record, a member of the the late 60’s and early 70’s group the Chi-Lites. It seemed that Beyonce was intent in withholding credit to Mr. Record so that she could get a larger share of the royalty pie. The reason I wanted to blog about this is that I’ve endeared myself to the small but gem-like Chi-Lites oeuvre, in which their hits and other less known songs expose a playfulness and musicality that seems to be utterly lacking in much of popular music today.

Personally, I think Beyonce has great singing voice, but her songs feature too heavily sampled rhythm tracks designed to lead the vocals rather complement them. What Friedman’s article more interestingly revealed was the disregard held by certain hip-hop starts towards their sources, without which their success would be impossible. And sadly, many of the old artists who are sampled do not know that they can benefit in royalties if they could be aggressive enough about authorship. It seems that part of the way to succeed in the music business today is to understand very well the legal implications of song authorship. It is evident that songwriters are under assault more and more now that a genre of popular music comprised almost completely of other people's work is dominant. I lament a bit for the actual victims of this kind of theft, but also feel sorry for the mass of young listeners who have lost an appreciation for original songcraft in favor of borrowed hooks.

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