Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Thinking Literally

There is a reason “Do you like music?” is often considered the lamest pick-up line on the planet. Of course people like music. Imagine how bitter and twisted one would have to be in order to honestly answer that question “No.” And the reason for this, of course, is because of how diverse and varied music is. The amount of genres, sounds, artists, etc. is so infinite, that two people can be total opposites with completely different personal tastes and opinions, and it won’t matter. The appeal is collective. It’s like oxygen and cable TV – everyone is a fan.

The distinctions between artists and musical styles are what lend to different followings among different crowds. Music has become one of the initial and most basic ways in which we define and classify people. Whether someone prefers Lil Wayne, Mastadon, Beyonce, The Byrds, My Morning Jacket, or Bullet for My Valentine (or some combination of all of those), it gives a quick glance into their personality. I’m not saying a person’s musical affinities will tell you everything you need to know about them, but it certainly tells you something. It is for all of these reasons why I am never surprised by anyone that comes to fame through music, be it Rebecca Black, Justin Beiber, or LMFAO. There is something for everyone. It’s why I’m also not surprised that Bruno Mars has become so prominent in recent months.

It’s obvious when listening to Bruno Mars that he has talent for both singing and song structure, even if you aren’t a big fan of his music overall (which I’m really not). But what I find interesting about Mars is how he has become famous by writing and performing songs that are completely straightforward, obvious, simple and literal. His words are shrouded in absolutely zero mystery. Initially, this might strike you as a bad thing, a knock against his credibility as an artist. I admittedly felt that way too.

Mars, along with the other members of his R&B writing/production trio (The Smeezingtons) have assisted artists in the music-making process since 2008. Mars gained personal notoriety over the next couple years for writing some major pop singles, and even appearing on a few notable songs. This led to his first (and currently lone) full-length album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, dropping in October of 2010. It
has featured three top-5 singles to this point (two at #1), all of which can be accurately summed up by their title: “Just the Way You Are” is about a girl being perfect just the way she is; “Grenade” is about a guy who would literally do anything for this girl, including literally catching a literal grenade for her; “The Lazy Song” is about a guy being lazy, and all the mundane day-to-day things he doesn’t want to do. Even the hits that Mars has simply been featured on (B.o.B’s “Nothin’ on You”, Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”, Bad Meets Evil’s “Lighters”) are all pretty simplistic and basic from a narrative songwriting point of view.

So what does this mean? Does it truly matter how proficient a songwriter Mars is? Should we look at him differently because his music is straightforward and one-dimensional? Should it all count against him?

Songwriting is given quite a bit of respect in the field of music. A guy like Connor Oberst will forever and always receive more critical and artistic respect than someone like Jack Johnson, if only because Oberst is perceived as the superior songwriter. When you mention people like Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, or Neil Young, their penning prowess is generally the first merit mentioned about them. Naturally, people like Bruno Mars, whose songwriting is basic and somewhat elementary, will often be given less critical or artist respect for the same reasons. But how important is this? I most certainly agree that those who excel in that area should be given due admiration and deference, but should others be penalized for the contrary?

It seems to be the case that one will be chided for songwriting only if it is suspect, as opposed to being absent or abetted. Elton John doesn’t really take heat for the fact that he collaborates with Bernie Taupin when writing songs. Same goes for Eric Clapton, who hasn’t written a sizeable portion of his songbook. Instead, these guys are lauded (and rightfully so) for their other musical talents. The same would undoubtedly be the case for Mars (albeit on a lesser scale) if he didn’t write his music. But he does, which in some ways has to change how he is received…right?

Bruno Mars has reached a level of fame and stardom that most in the music industry can only dream of. He presumably has enough money to last him multiple lifetimes, and is publicly adored for his talents in the entertainment industry. Do you think he really cares how his songwriting is perceived? Do his listeners and fans care? Country is arguably the healthiest genre of music right now, in terms of how the artists do in relation to radio stations/play, album sales, and concert revenue. Country fans are loyal, passionate, and willing to pay money for the music and musicians they like, which can’t be said of all areas of the art. Nevertheless, country singers/bands are often tagged with the same obvious-simple-literal songwriting tag placed on Bruno Mars, and yet it hasn’t managed to diminish their status either. Sure, maybe it has in a critical sense.  But is hipster respect that much more important than popular success? Honestly? Wouldn’t The Joy Formidable much rather move the amount of albums Tim McGraw does?

I in no way intend to diminish or degrade lyrical songwriting and the regard with which it is held in musical society. I just wonder if we (myself included) place too much importance on it – or perhaps more accurately – look down too harshly on those who may be below average. In an ideal world, inspired songwriting would be praised among those who exceed, not bemoaned among those who falter. I feel the same way about how women view men with big muscles.

Bob Dylan wrote songs that could mean many different things to many different people. The Doors wrote songs that were tough to understand (cognitively). Pearl Jam sang songs that no one could understand (phonetically). The Beatles, early in their career, wrote very simple and basic songs (at least from a lyrical standpoint), before moving on to a collection of other things. And in the end, each of these artists has achieved impressive levels of respect and popularity. Someday, Bruno Mars will fall in line somewhere behind all of them (ok, waaayyy behind all of them), singing his way to stardom in a clear and literal manner nonetheless. Maybe it will ultimately impact his respect and legacy, but it doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting his popularity.

And if that proves to be the case, I’m sure there must be a deeper, more profound reasoning behind the whole “songwriting debate,” and where its importance should truly rank. I just wish the answer was a little more obvious.


Thanks for reading

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