Musical Cliches and Pseudo-Songwriters: Two Rogue Songwriters' Views on Song Craft

By Kenny Luck and Phil Yurkon
Staff Writers

“I have expressed my deepest feelings through songs. Don’t be afraid… you have to be fearless.” This is how John Oates, one-half of the pop duo “Hall and Oates”, who rose to the top of the pop charts in the 1970/80’s, described songwriting.  It’s a common mantra uttered from songwriters. As I sat in attendance at the Landsdale Center for the Performing Arts at an hour-long songwriting seminar conducted by Oates last month, I could not help but be overcome by one probing question: Why are songwriters so pretentious as to think that the world cares about their innermost thoughts and feelings?

Back in 2002, before I became a student at Marywood, I attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston for a year. I studied jazz guitar and had classes in arranging, theory, and musical performance. Although my career at Berklee would be short-lived, I hung around long enough to absorb some of the attitudes and beliefs of the musical elite. I did not realize it then, but I was surrounded by one dominate ideology about music. This ideology was self-centered, proud, and in most instances, intolerant to dissent. It was premised on the false assumption that “meaning” in the lyrical content is what makes a song great – everything else is secondary. While Phil (my long-time musical partner and friend) and I sat listening to Oates talk passionately about crafting a good song, I noticed a lot his beliefs on the topic echoed those I heard at Berklee six years before – a songwriter must probe deep and exhibit a philosophical seriousness about his/her work. Keep in mind that this was coming from a guy who is known for singing songs such as “Kiss On My List” and “You Make My Dreams Come True”, which are not known for their deep insight but rather for their commercial and pop appeal.

I would argue that there are at least three reasons why pop songs are not an ideal form of high-brow artistic expression: brevity, hermeneutics, and commodification. First, with regard to length, popular songs tend to be between three and five minutes in duration. Although it is true that something profound could be said in a phrase or short aphorism (one only needs to read Nietzsche), it doesn’t allow much room for elaboration. This, in turn, can lead to problems of interpretation and meaning, which then leads to the second problem – hermeneutics.

In the 1960’s, the French literary critic Roland Barthes announced the “death of the author”. What Barthes meant was that meaning can be found above and below a text. According to Barthes, texts (literary, artistic, or social phenomenon) can possess multiple interpretations and can contrive their meaning separate from what the author intended. Barthes’ argument is heavily relativistic and gives you and I as much say in what Shakespeare means as Shakespeare. Although I do not wholly subscribe to Barthes idea of the author, it is insightful when applied to song lyrics. Pop music history provides numerous examples. The Police’s 1983 hit “Every Breath You Take” is widely misinterpreted. On the lighter side, the lyrics are about a hung-up ex-boyfriend. Dig deeper, however, and you will discover that they are really about a stalker. The irony is that for several years, this song was played heavily at weddings. Sting, the author of the song, has acknowledged this with much cynicism for the success of those marriages.

Another illustrative example comes from Oates himself. While in the course of answering a question posed by Phil at the seminar, Oates acknowledged that several well-known “Hall & Oates” songs have been radically misinterpreted. “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)”, a #1 hit, crossed-over from mainstream pop charts to R&B charts in the early 1980’s. It is not clear if this song started out with the music first, however, lyrically, the song originated with its title, which was used in the studio as a catch-phrase whenever someone in the band did not like an idea or didn’t want to perform something. The lyrics of the song are hardly about that, so by definition, not coming from, to quote Oates, a “fearless heart.” I’m not saying this was his intention, but it begs several questions: why put so much value on lyrics when they can be ignored, be misinterpreted, or not interpreted, or even worst yet – not even written by you but credit befalls on you (as in the case of “Sara Smile”, another “Hall & Oates hit written by Daryl Hall’s then girlfriend Sara Allen)? Whether or not their lyrics were self-revealing, all of that “meaning” is lost when the message is inaudible to the listener. It is all very Barthesque.

Third, pop songs are to a large extent meant to entertain. They are designed and marketed for a mass audience.  Somewhere between the songwriter and the listener a song becomes a commodity. This has always been true but it had been even truer in the past decade. Over the years, the music industry has become more centralized, employing a tight filter on what gets heard and what doesn’t. Like the entertainment business as a whole, it takes a team of producers, promoters and managers to make a music or movie star. And in that chaos perhaps the artist may cling to the idea that what they are doing is insightful and meaningful, and maybe at times it can be, but this is not usually the state of things.

As for Oates, both my comrade and I were disappointed, and expected more from someone who has been a veteran for the music business for more than 30 years. Moreover, it would be refreshing to hear more than just the predictable clichés so often espoused by songwriters and creative people. For a guy who is in the twilight of his career, at age 60, it is no surprise that Oates isn’t worried about commerciality in his recent work. Yet this seems somewhat inconsistent to have a long career based on radio driven pop-tunes and then denounce the very style and ethos which made him famous, which is what Oates did. Sorry Oates, I can’t go for that.

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