When we are very young it feels as though songs have always been there. In fact, some of our earliest song memories retain this sense. It seems odd to us that there is a person out there who sat down to write ‘Wheels on the Bus’ or ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’, just as it seems outrageous that ‘Happy Birthday’ could be in copyright.
Once we can talk we can make songs of our own. Kids soon start to come up with tunes. This is true folk music, borrowing lyrics and melodies from previous works and melding them with something original.
At some point we also start to like contemporary music. We begin to see films and videos of pop stars. They don’t seem to be doing much. Making music is easy.
There is a time, however, when we begin to realise that there is a craft to songwriting.
When does this occur?
In my case, it was power ballads that did it. My 1970’s youth was saturated with the brilliant racket of glam rock. Nevertheless, the era also had love songs such as ‘Without You’ by Nillson, ‘My Love’ by Wings’ and ‘The Air That I Breathe’ by the Hollies. To me, these songs felt composed. Their wide-ranging melodies and controlled emotional heft could not be conjured out of thin air. I knew that I couldn’t make music like this myself, and with that realization I understood that there must be someone who could: there are songwriters. It was only later, after struggling more seriously to make my own music, that I realised it’s as hard to create ‘Come On Feel the Noize’ as it is to create something quieter.
The great American songwriter Jimmy Webb recently provided a fascinating answer to the question. For him, it was record company policy that revealed the songwriter’s art:
I was languishing by the radio listening to songs, and I made a connection. Brenda Lee would have a big hit with ‘I’m Sorry’, and they’d come up with another record that sounded a little like ‘I’m Sorry’. Not too much like I’m Sorry, because that would ruin it. There was an epiphany; I became aware of the process that was going on behind the scenes. I divined this process on my own.
This flies in the face of mass cultural theory. If Adorno is to be believed, the standardization and pseudo-individualization of popular music will turn people into passive dupes. Yet here they are inspiring them. It was this industrial process that made Jimmy Webb want to become a writer himself:
Then, later, I would find out that in the industry it was called a ‘follow-up’. There was a name for it. So I was writing songs. I remember writing a song called ‘It’s Someone Else’, and I thought, ‘That would be a great follow-up for The Everly Brothers’ ‘Let It Be Me’’. And 25 years later I told Artie Garfunkel the story, because he loved the Everly Brothers, and he ended up cutting it. I was 13 years old when I wrote my first follow-up.
Moreover, Jimmy Webb was the most idiosyncratic of the professional songwriters who emerged in the 1960s. This is the man who wrote ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘MacArthur Park’. You can love the mechanics and you can know the mechanics, but this does not make you mechanical.