Knowing my fondness for good music in general and the songwriter's craft in specific, a friend sent me a link to a recent article in one of Canada's most widely read newspapers, the National Post (COREX) In it, writing from Saskatoon, a fellow by the name of Wayne Eyre bemoans the depths to which songwriting has sunk, mostly by invoking the Canadian pop group Nickelback and comparing their work with that of the late Johnny Mercer.
Before I carry on, let me acknowledge that some of you already know where I'm going. You've guessed that Mr. Eyre's piece was just a cheap shot at an easy target: an intellectually vapid pander-piece in which the worst of one genre is compared with the best of another and, guess what, gee whiz, found to be lacking—not unlike the tiresome "Be-Bop-A-Lula" routine that the otherwise estimable Steve Allen used to trot out whenever his more cerebral jokes weren't working. You've also guessed that I'm about to blow a thousand or so words drop-kicking Wayne Eyre's article, proving him wrong beyond a shadow while crafting a few amusing insults and sneaking some of my own narcissistic opinions into the mix.
All of which is true—so let's get cracking.
The National Post article is sufficiently flawed that one needn't discuss the songs themselves before dismissing it altogether. In the space of his first four sentences, Wayne Eyre places Mercer on a curb outside a New York bar in 1956, "experiencing a growing despair at the vanishing of craft and romance from the best popular songs, as the whole sorry train of high-volume post-Beatles rockers were three-chording and drum-slamming their way into the brains of a new generation." I suppose other Mercer quatrains predict the massing of Saracen troops along the Ottoman border, or perhaps Harry Whittington's head wound.
Then, at the end of only his third paragraph, the critic who wishes that Mercer's tinkly era of highball-fueled moon/June/spoon-isms could have gone on forever supplies the answer to his own question, albeit without noticing: "Fifty-odd years of the same act spells monotony." You'll get no argument from me, Mr. Eyre.
I don't know much about Saskatooneans, but I can't imagine they would consider it good sport to swat at a target like Nickelback. The band is, after all, nothing more or less than a commodity—a product—and the hour I spent touring various Nickelback websites didn't turn up any evidence that the band themselves or their record company believe otherwise. Their lyrics are the usual banal combination of shallow sentimentality and pugilism, as if produced by some cross between Hallmark and a Hormel meat-packing plant, and their musical reach is sufficiently limited that it prompted one wag to re-record their first hit ("Someday") on top of their second ("How You Remind Me") in a successful attempt to create a hybrid ("How You Remind Me of Someday") that proves to the satisfaction of anyone with ears to hear that Nickelback's songs really are all the same (footnote 1).
But hey: Every young generation deserves a group of performers they can enjoy not because the music is good, but because the music is theirs. For some, it was the Limelighters. For others, it was Journey. For still others, it's Nickelback.
The score so far: Of course Nickelback sucks—but not unduly so.
The man himself
Then there's Johnny Mercer himself, a former big-band crooner who wrote something like 1000 songs during his career of almost 50 years. Here's one of his best, titled "I Remember You"—as quoted by no less an authority than Wayne Eyre:
I remember you
You're the one
Who made my dreams come true
A few kisses ago
I remember you
You're the one who said,
"I love you, too—I do!
Didn't you know?"
I remember, too
A distant bell
And stars that fell
Like rain out of the blue
And when my life is through
And the angels ask me to recall
The thrill of them all
I shall tell them
I remember you
Lovely stuff: evocative and spare, like all good lyrics. And the words sound right, which is something a writer needs to understand on a more or less instinctual level: It can't be taught. Best of all, "I Remember You" isn't trite or dated—as contrasted with the next clunker:
Where'd ya get those peepers?
Where'd ya get those eyes?
Gosh, oh, git up
How'd they get so lit up?
Gosh, oh, gee, oh
How'd they get that size?
Pure Byron, eh? You'd never guess it was written by...Johnny Mercer! Yes, the same man who wrote "Moon River," "Too Marvelous for Words," "Autumn Leaves," and "Summer Wind" can also be held responsible for "Jeepers Creepers," "Goody Goody," and "Hooray for Hollywood." Johnny Mercer also wrote all of the lyrics for the Broadway hit Li'l Abner, an incomprehensible and painfully dated pile of crap that is remembered only by teenagers whose high schools can't afford the performance rights for a good show.
But maybe the debate has nothing to do with the individual and everything to do with the era: Fair enough. As Wayne Eyre suggests, we've fallen hard and fast since those golden years before rock'n'roll, when singers were singers and songs were songs and every top A&R man knew a good one from a bad one. Consider the great Manie Sachs, who guided Frank Sinatra's musical career at Columbia Records, and whose job it was to put The Voice together with the best arrangers and the best songs—like this timeless hit from 1952:
Take a mip-map-mop
And a brim-bram-broom
And clim-clam-clean up
'Cause your bim-bam-baby
Is comin' home tonight
Hold on a minute: That's garbage! What were our parents drinking? How could anyone think that a disposable, dated dirt clod like Sammy Mysels' awful "Bim Bam Baby"—the three-chord music is on a par with the lyric, in case you're wondering—is worth hearing more than once?
Forget it, then. Let's train our peepers on a real classic, from none other than the immortal Cole Porter:
When they begin the beguine
It brings back the sound of music so tender
It brings back a night of tropical splendor
It brings back zzzz zzzzzz zzzzzzzzzz . . .
Sorry. Dozed off there for a second. Let's try this Cole Porter gem instead:
Of all the types of men I've met in this democracy
I hate the most the athlete with his manner bold and brassy
He may have hair upon his chest but, sister, so has Lassie!
Footnote 1: An MP3 file of this experiment is available on a number of sites, including www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyld=4258547.