Dissonant Divide (2000)

For my daughter and me, songs are an unbridgeable divide. I favor songs for the ages; she, for the moment.

 DID `YOU WRITE the Book of Love 
And do you have faith in G-d above 
If the Bible tells you so? 

My sixth-grader is chanting an oldie classic. “Vicki,” I ask, “how do you know that song?”

“It’s the new Madonna song from the movie American Pie.”

So. Her Decadence has remade—“covered”—Don McLean’s 8-minute paean to a bygone music era. “American Pie” was a sweeping ballad that set a high bar for lyrical depth in 1971. I spent much of that summer pondering what its image-rich verses meant. Some 30 years later, scores of websites are still pondering.

I inform my 12-year-old musicologist that the song hails from the early Seventies—my decade. “Like most enduring pop standards,” I note.

“Whatever. I forget the rest. How does it go?”

So invited, I begin to croon. 

“A long, long time ago,
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile…”

I fall silent, unable to go on.

Why did you stop?” asks Vicki. “Don’t you remember any more?”

“I can’t explain,” I say, blinking back tears. “They don’t write them like that anymore.”

a cartoon of a schoolgirl standing back-to-back with her conservative-looking father, each dreaming of their preferred kind of music

a cartoon of a schoolgirl standing back-to-back with her conservative-looking father, each dreaming of their preferred kind of music

Generational debates over music are as old as song. But thoughtful debaters agree on the yardsticks:

  1. Is the song widely admired beyond its target audience? (Broadway, vintage Motown, yea; Elvis, Country, Rap, nay)
  2. Will the song continue to enchant its original admirers twenty years later?
  3. Will it attract new fans in decades to come?

By these standards, McLean’s nostalgia was misplaced: He was living in the Golden Age. The mid Sixties to mid Seventies yielded a cornucopia of original, timeless standards, written when melodies meant something and lyrics said something.

Their ranks included the likes of “What the World Needs Now” (1965), “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963), and “Aquarius” (1969). In an age divided by a faraway war, these sturdy creations got parents and children, black and white, singing as one. At one time, “My Girl” (1965) was the most widely known song on Earth. 

This was music, wrote Washington Post columnist Donna Britt (“Where Did the Magic in Music Go?”), “unashamed in its yearning, in its playful affirmation of life…music in which spirit and sensuality seemed fused.” Can anyone doubt that in 2020, couples will still be exchanging vows over “The Wedding Song (There Is Love)”?

The words and tunes of that singular decade transcended time and race. Not surprisingly, most oldies stations forgo earlier offerings, favoring Golden Age hits.

Indeed, wherever we listen—from Pop 40 radio to commercials—Golden Age standards are singing back to us. Tinseltown has turned to Golden Age hits to score—and star in—contemporary films. Lyndon Johnson was in office when Bacharach, David, and Esposito wrote “I Say a Little Prayer” (1966), the centerpiece song of the 1997 hit romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding.

Today’s television dramas rely on yesterday’s standards for subtext. Take the teen drama, Dawson’s Creek. One script revolved on “Daydream Believer” (1967); two more Golden Age standards were featured in the commercials.

Where are today’s “standards”? Conspicuously absent. Browse the shelves of a music store: Today’s genres outnumber yesterday’s titles. There’s a sameness to the songs, yet songs no longer unify. No two radios, it seems, are tuned to the same song. With taste so divided, no songwriter alive can get us humming the same tune. (See Question 1.)

That’s not quite true. Hundreds of local singer/songwriters craft rich lyrics and set them to memorable tunes. But their earnest offerings are too nuanced and ironic, their tunes too original and melodic, their arrangements too honest, for commercial radio. Some seek a thoughtful audience in coffee houses and bookstores, hoping their quiet voices will be heard above the cell phones and the chatter. Then they drive home to spare apartments, wondering if they will ever afford health insurance.

While the my-songs-beat-yours debate hasn’t changed. the terms of the debate have. Today’s teens don’t care how the hit-of-the-week measures up to the three classic yardsticks. In their untutored eyes, a great song must simply go platinum, outlive Brittney Spears’s latest bra size, or—this is critical—be delivered by a pouty-lipped “artist” (all singers are now artists) with the right moves on MTV.

Witness Making the Band, a reality documentary series about a newly minted boy band. Its five poster-ready crooners were anointed the next heartthrobs before recording a single track. As we learned in the lead-in voice-over, “They will be famous.” So they are.

Fame—swift, unearned—may explain why singers and songwriters have breached the divide between creator and performer. At one time, writers wrote the songs, singers sang them. Today, every singer is a songwriter (Rap), every songwriter a singer (Grunge Rock). Many are equally talented at both.

The result of this devolution plays out on my family’s car radio. A song begins, and within four bars I can state with authority when it was recorded, who of us will sing along, and who will want to puke. A synth, a sampled drum track, or a voice “enhanced” beyond recognition? Like, the girls. A thunka-thunka dance beat? My ABBA-gagga wife. Acoustic guitar? Solo piano? Ahhh—my Golden Age.

Two of its titans were the singer/songwriter duo, Simon and Garfunkel. In 1994, Paul Simon flew to Beijing to perform an open-air concert—something old, something new. It marked the first time in 47 years the Chinese public had been allowed to hear Western music. Would they get it?

As the evening waned, Simon introduced his 1969 timeless ode to friendship, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” And in four bars, 40,000 tongues joined in…in Mandarin.

♫ Something touched me deep inside  
The Day the music died. 

© 2000 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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