Sometimes, I Just Can’t Hear
By Patrick F. Cannon
When Prince died, I wasn’t in the least surprised at the outpouring of grief and shock that followed. He was, after all, one of the major popular music figures of his time. And he died relatively young, which somehow compounded the reaction. Yet, as his music was played over and over in the news reports, I realized that I simply didn’t recognize even the song that he was most identified with, Purple Rain.
I looked up the lyrics and found them banal, but in a way that’s beside the point. It was really the sound that was foreign to my ear. I’m simply not attuned to most of today’s music. I’ve often wondered about this, and now believe it has to do with two factors: the dominance of rhythm over melody, and the general lack of lyrical lyrics.
Can you really imagine strolling down the street whistling the melody from Purple Rain or I Ain’t Got No Satisfaction? And do the words to these songs – I hesitate to use the word “lyrics” – compare in any way with something like this?
It seems we sat and talked like this before
We looked at each other in the same way then
But I can’t remember where or when
The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then
But I can’t remember where or when
Not only do these lyrics scan, but they are supported by a melody that, once heard, is impossible to forget. The music for Where or When is by Richard Rogers and the lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Written for a Broadway musical in 1937, the song became a hit then, and has been recorded many times since, most notably by Frank Sinatra. Would it even get radio play if it came out today?
This is not to say that good songs are not being written. Musicals are still being produced on Broadway, but how many original cast albums are bought today? The possible exception is Hamilton, whose songs are based on hip hop and rap forms. I’ll be interested to see if I can understand the lyrics. Hip hop, to me, is barely music at all, and rap is decidedly not music. It’s usually just slam poetry with dirty words.
And it’s not just popular music that can’t travel pleasantly through my ears and into my brain and emotions. With some exceptions, much of today’s so-called serious music, whether classical of jazz, seems composed for other composers, just as so much poetry is written primarily for academics and like-minded poets. Neither composers nor poets now depend on their art to make a living, as Mozart and Gershwin did. When critics decry the decline of interest in poetry and serious music, one wonders if they ever ask the obvious question: why would anyone be interested in something so clearly intended for so narrow an audience? Something that no longer sings?
Well, anyway, Prince managed to appeal to many more ears than John Cage. I don’t begrudge him his fame. He worked hard at both writing and performing. Whether in 200 years, he’ll be considered our era’s Bach or Beethoven, as one of his lawyers was recently quoted as saying, is open to question. I hope not, as I continue to think that we can do better. Perhaps I’m living in vain hope, but my ears await the return of melody and wit to our popular music.
Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon
2 thoughts on “Sometimes, I Just Can’t Hear It”
I would be awed (as in “Awesome!”) if we heard the likes of Rogers and Hart in our modern music. Popular tunes and lyrics have been reduced to a commercialized mating call, some of it pretty explicit. If it’s not pounding out what entomologists refer to as a “nuptial dance,” it’s pushing some obnoxious and facile social message to make us all better people.
What amazes me is the number of categories (they call them genres!) popular music is divided into. One online music service features music for different situations: Throwback Thursday (??), Working Out, Workaday Variety, Running, and Working Around the House. Mall music has its own category, depending on the clientele. Walk into a Kohl’s around here and you get screechy cat-in-heat chick music. What will they think of next? Special music for riding in elevators?
The music school put on a production of Oklahoma! a few weeks ago. The story is basic enough, and there is as always a romantic theme. But the music and lyrics, so simple, so perfect. And brimming with that quality you seldom hear today: Style.
Steve, as you may know, the Lyric Opera is doing a Rogers and Hammerstein musical annually. They are to be congratulated, as they really have to heavily advertise for an audience. Some of their opera subscribers think it’s beneath them, and younger people don’t have a clue.