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The best lawyers, similarly, know case law cold. They can recite the legal issues, the decisions and the dissenting opinions of all the marquee cases and qualify how those cases — Brown v. Board of Education; New York Times v. Sullivan; Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon — continue to shape civilization. Although law school was a long time ago, they nevertheless sit in courtrooms as observers and listen to different arguments and techniques, and they study the reaction of a jury the same way they study minutiae and the Uniform Commercial Code.
Brokers and barkeeps, marketers and makeup artists, journalists and janitors — a case can be made that every profession has an ancestry that needs to be recognized while the techniques of the future are tactfully implemented. After all, the last seven words of any failing business are: But we’ve always done it that way.
However, there seems to be one lone exception to this rule. When it comes to hit music, I’ll argue that the craft of songwriting has not only regressed over the last 40 years, but in the present day, it’s almost an afterthought. The Billboard Top 10 singles, at press time, had songs and artists that used “$” for “s,” “z” for “s” and the word little spelled with no T’s and no E. “The” became “da,” “this” became “dis” and the word “for” was replaced with the numeral.
Such concepts and practices are considered blasphemous by those of us who look to the 1970s as the golden age of songwriting. Music of the ’60s was an incendiary device to bring about revolution, ’80s music was “fun, ” and ’90s music was dark with the advent of grunge and the emergence of the Seattle sound. But the ’70s — say what you will about the melodies of those songs — as for the writing craft, now that was some storytelling.
Harry Chapin owns the father-son relationship with “Cat’s in the Cradle,” now a second-generation song for we sons of the 1970s who are fathers ourselves. As much as I love Shakespeare, and regardless of how many times I’ve read his various sonnets, I link the concept of unparalleled love to Jim Croce’s lyric, “I’ve looked around enough to know/you’re the one I want to go through time with.” And I recognize the genius behind Melville’s and Hemingway’s tales of the sea, but nary a maritime yarn of aquatic woe and strife comes close to Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
Such a bold statement leaves me open to the accusation of narrow-mindedness, to which I counter with a simple no. I can appreciate a catchy beat as much as the next guy, which is why I never turn the dial when Lil Wayne or Ke$ha comes on. Heck, I’ll go so far as to recognize that the lyrics are catchy indeed, even captivating. But true storytelling?
I’m delighted that my “they don’t write ’em like they used to” mentality was proved wrong by this month’s cover story. Although I was never a big Maroon 5 fan (much to the chagrin of many on staff ), I went back and read their lyrics. I’d be remiss not to acknowledge hints of Chapin, Croce and Lightfoot in their writing. With next month’s upcoming album release, I can say definitively that I am now a fan and that the lyrics are the reason. With any hope , if musicians continue to turn out such impactful stories, coupled with catchy tunes, songwriting will no longer be the dirty little secret of successful endeavors.