Special Report

About Songs

Looking over the VH-1 top 100, one wonders if people can think or hear anymore.

By 6.23.03

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Back in the early years of the twentieth century, George Gershwin, then scarcely more than an adolescent, got one of his first jobs as a demonstrator of sheet music. Such jobs used to be common. A demonstrator sat in a prominent place at a piano in a music store. Customers would bring him sheet music of popular songs of the day, and the demonstrator would play them -- a kind of live version of a listening booth.

Phonograph records had not made much of an impression yet. People made their own music from printed scores or by ear, on instruments often bought from mail order catalogs: Pianos, guitars, autoharps, zithers, dulcimers, violins, and various horns, including the new ones recently invented by that Adolphe Sax fellow in Paris about a quarter century before. And lots of people made music. The country rang to the sounds of concert bands, musical societies, glee clubs, and parlor sings.

Gershwin sold sheet music by the ream. He could not read outstandingly well, but he had a great ear and he could improvise, and everything he played sounded fabulous. One wonders what the customers thought when they tried the tunes on their own at home.

Three-quarters of a century later, on a six-night-a-week gig at a hotel club in Alaska, I found myself playing a song called "Super Freak," by Rick James. "Super Freak," written in a common modern style I call ostinato ad nauseam, required the bass player (me) to play the same two measures over and over and over, again and again and again. If you did not do this, indeed, if you and your bandmates did not duplicate, as nearly as possible, every note of Rick James's recording of "Super Freak," you would not -- as far as the modern audience is concerned -- have been playing "Super Freak" at all.

The music television network VH-1 has just issued its list of the top 100 songs of the last 25 years. "Super Freak" ranks twenty-fifth.

This list, and others like it, issued and re-issued ostinato ad nauseam for the last 50 years or so, marks a sea change in the way we perceive music. From "Rock Around the Clock" through "Feel Like a Woman," today's popular songs come to us whole, fully assembled in every part, often performed, even by the original artists, with the full participation of a computer program that rigidly reinforces the theme riff in the original key and tempo (as in "Who Are You," by the Who, number eighty-seven). They always sound exactly the same. If they don't, woe to the performer. I once adapted Elton John's "Your Song" to guitar, changed the key, and sang it in a way that fit my voice. My listeners at an entertainment restaurant in Los Angeles laughed at me.

By contrast, songs like Gershwin's own "Love Is Here to Stay" or Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" can be played at a variety of tempos and in virtually any key. They can be sung by soloists or groups or rendered as instrumentals. "Love for Sale" can come off torchy and tormented or up-tempo and boppish. The songs of what veteran Boston deejay Ron della Chiesa calls "The Great American Songbook" are platonic essences, pieces of spirit ideal, given flesh in every new performance in a new way.

People used to think that way. People used to hear that way. Looking over the VH-1 list, one wonders if people think or hear at all anymore -- if they even can.

Now don't go calling me a square and writing letters about Guns and Roses. I've kicked off "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and stung five hundred people into dance. I've had hair down to my butt and I've weighed 127 pounds and worn a white sport coat and pegged pants. I've employed every bit of the rock and roll vocabulary except the tattoo. That's not what I'm saying at all.

Just this: That once, songs were one thing, and now they have become something else. Once, songs drifted gently across the country and gave us an archetype for elaboration. Now they slam into everyone at once, rigidly prescribed and religiously memorialized, over and over ("Golden Oldies! Ninety-eight point five!"). Once, a very large segment of the population participated in music. Now, scarcely anyone does. And that constitutes as large a shift in our culture as anything.

Imagine a teenage George Gershwin trying to demonstrate "Super Freak." Imagine "Super Freak" in sheet music at all.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.