Can songwriting set popular music free? Well, it depends upon what it is being set free from and who is calling for its liberation.
If it is people from the outside who are making these demands, then the answer to popular music’s problems should not be found in their complaints about songwriting. As I explored in the previous entry, some ‘high’ cultural theorists are overly focused on the compositional process. They look at pop songs and see standardization everywhere. They argue that hit records create ‘response-mechanisms wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society’. What these theorists tend to miss is that popular music is about more than its tunes. It doesn’t need to ape the ‘total’ compositional methods of classical music to have revolutionary potential. The best response to these theorists is not to answer their complaints about songwriting with songwriting, but to look instead at the areas in which popular music excels. It is the life force of popular music that can be radical and redemptive. It is here, in the human performance that gets captured in the grooves, that you can find the ‘magic that can set you free’. You can find anarchy and attitude, solace and soul. This is the democratic process that the best pop records enact. If the music were to prioritize composition in the way that cultural snobs demand, then popular music’s own particular magic would dissolve. In the order of things, it would forever play second fiddle to classical music, the composed form par excellence.
But lets forget about outsiders for a minute. What does a focus on songwriting look like from within popular music? What difference can it make to people who are actually making and consuming this form? Here, there is a potential for composition to be democratizing. Conversely, there is a potential for the ‘life force’ of popular music to be tyrannical. Far from being a magic that can set you free, the prioritizing of ‘feel’, ‘soul’ and ‘attitude’ can distort our perceptions of the music. It gives kudos to musicians who have a supposed ‘authenticity’. It places a focus on the lives of the artists rather than quality of the work. It also favours men. Keeping it real or being true to the streets are by and large masculine pursuits. They should not be the standards by which all popular music is judged.
A turn to songwriting can open things up. When someone like Noel Gallagher centres his greatness on his songwriting ability, it is invitation to be measured against Bjorn and Benny, rather than Brown and Squire. If fans are told to focus on the ‘song’, they can forget about authenticity for a while. They no longer have to suffer the ‘perfect pop’ of Big Star or Teenage Fanclub and can listen to genuinely perfect pop instead, including records that actually made the charts. Putting songwriting first helps to give female artists a greater chance. If we ignore the poets, seers and sages who have become the Romantic pin-ups of popular music’s history and instead concentrate upon composition, the gender biases of popular music and artistic genius can start to dissolve. In this order of things, Carole King has as much validity as Jim Morrison. It is no coincidence that female musicians are having increased success now that popular music has a greater focus on songwriting. After years of boys showing off about their noise, the music is regaining a sense of composure.
This is not to say that girls can’t make a great noise too, but because the phallic grind of popular music has become encoded as male, the noise of girls has to be thought out in a different manner. In order to create the gushing thrust of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, Led Zeppelin didn’t have to write much. They merely had to take Muddy Waters’ ‘You Need Love’ by way of the Small Faces ‘You Need Loving’ and play and produce the riff with a power it had not previously known. In order to create their female rock music, the Slits had to think about the semiotics of each chord and each beat. The group’s guitarist, Viv Albertine has stated, ‘The four of us constantly questioned everything. Each note had to be as exciting as the one before it and no clichés’. With her ‘mosquito’ tone, she aimed to replace ‘the old, oppressive patriarchal way that guitars sound’. Warpaint, a contemporary female four-piece, have also expressed a determination to write in a textural rather than climactic fashion. They want to avoid the punchlines that are common in both the music and comedy of men.
And so where does this leave us in our search for popular music and liberty? Will we find emancipation in the grain of the voice or in the structure of the music? I’m going to equivocate. The thing is, I like both Led Zeppelin and the Slits, and I have found moments of freedom in records by each of these bands. Popular music can be a standardizing and reactionary force; it can also be challenging and cathartic. And these polarized tendencies can be found in both the structure and the grain. The songwriting process can reinforce the edicts of capitalism in both its musical and economic aims; it can also force us to think twice about societal norms. The concepts of soul and groove can become clichéd and can reinforce racial stereotypes; they can also bring out untapped emotions and encourage listeners to search across cultural divides. Authenticity can be a bind and a distraction, but some role-model artists can encourage people to think twice about how they live their lives.
A record can be transformative because it does exactly what the artist intends it too. Alternatively, a record can be revolutionary because audience members reinterpret it in a radical way. That reinterpretation doesn’t have to be ironic either; it can be more earnest than the author’s original intentions. Moreover, the divide between the artistic and the re-interpreted doesn’t have to be made along rock and pop lines, with the 'untouchable' works of art falling in the former category and the reworked works of art falling in the latter. In fact, records from any genre can be used in different ways: audiences can find what they want in them – or what they hate in them – by accepting or rejecting the composers’ intentions. Ultimately, the reductive and redemptive aspects of popular music work in accordance with everything else about this popular form: we takes our choice.