Wednesday, 5 August 2009

On Lazy Songwriting...

Another thing which consistently manages to grind my gears is lazy songwriting. As far as I can tell, this is divided onto two categories:
  1. Throwaway music deliberately written to sell records. Usually songs of this type re written my some kind of mogul like Pete Waterman, involve the same old chords rehashed into one of about three different orders, melodies repeated in descending sequences, and a cheerful and bubbly vocalist/group of vocalists whose image is probably better than their pre-autotuned voices.
  2. Rip-off music, made by people who don't have any original ideas or whose original ideas are musically worse than those songs of category 1. So they pilfer, copy, and/or blatantly steal ideas from previously recorded songs often with a well-worked formula for shifting records without giving any credit where it's due.
Now I suppose I don't have a problem with the concept of songs of category 1 per se. It's not like I buy most records of that ilk and if someone has the knack of writing hit records, I'm not one to begrudge them of making a shedload of money out of it.

Songs of category 2 are the ones I am really against. It just really is the laziest possible way to squeeze money out of the music business. The most annoying thing about it is that, so much of the time, these lazy songwriters get away with it because they have powerhouse legal teams.

Just to be absolutely clear about the sort of thing I really dislike, I'll take a moment to make clear what I think should be allowed:
  • Covers - which are required by law to give credit to their original songwriters so they aren't really an issue for me. Covers allow bands just starting out to get more well-known, especially if they release something which sticks very rigidly to the original whereby the band gets credit for their competent playing abilities, or if they release something which breathes fresh life into the song they are covering by approaching it in a totally different way which of course involves some degree of originality.
  • Sampling - Because it actually takes skill and originality to see the potential in just small clips of existing audio material and presenting it in a totally different context. Fatboy Slim and Timbaland have made an art form out of this, among others. Oh, and of course, where something is sampled, credit is once again legally due.
  • Classical Chord Sequences - Because some chord sequences are so entrenched in Western musicality that they will keep up coming up again and again whether people intend it to or not. (Also it would be impossible to police.) Examples include, the chord sequence of Pachelbel's Canon, (the use of which in popular music is lampooned excellently in this clip,) the classic cycle of fifths sequence used in hits such as I Will Survive, the twelve-bar blues sequence, and the chord sequence made popular by the Eagles' Hotel California.
I think that within these guidelines, songwriters have a responsibility of being aware when their songs are using exactly the same chord sequences or melodic ideas as another song and subsequently altering their material to avoid any conflict of interest. I'd have thought that any songwriters worth their salt wouldn;t want their material sounding the same as anybody else's anyway. I'm just a casual creator of music but I know if I'm composing and I think it sounds pretty similar to a piece of music I already know, I'll be so frustrated at myself that I have go back to change it into something that sounds deliberately less familiar. Actually, if it sounds like something else, that is OK. It's typically allowed to pay homage to something as long as no passages sound the same as that of which you are attempting to create a pastiche.

Some songwriters seem to have negated this responsibility. Whether or not they have broken the law is up to the courts to decide. I don't know who *cough* wrote Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind" but everything about it sounds awfully similar to UB40's "Kingston Town"...

And Cascada... how lazy are you for copying yourself ?!

I even think I spotted more lazy songwriting on the radio this week. Please compare Coldplay's "Viva la Vida" with French pop singer Alizée's single "Jen Ai Marre" from several years ago.

You heard that here first!

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