The Melody Lingers on; before Great Singers, There Were Great Songwriters

By Jones, Malcolm, Jr. | Newsweek, November 20, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Melody Lingers on; before Great Singers, There Were Great Songwriters


Jones, Malcolm, Jr., Newsweek


Last autumn, when Randy Newman's musical "Faust" was in a workshop rehearsal in New York, Stephen Sondheim asked to sit in on the sessions and hoped it wouldn't make Newman nervous. Newman said, "No, it won't make me nervous, but I hope it doesn't offend you if I rhyme 'girl' and `world'." Sondheim, who is famous for some of the most sophisticated lyrics ever written, said that in fact it did bother him. "I don't come from that tradition and neither do you," he told Newman, who quickly replied, "Oh, yes, I do."

You won't find two better exponents of the split in modern American popular song-writing. Sondheim descended from the school of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kern, Porter, and Berlin; Newman is a creature of Hollywood and modern pop. The eclipse of the great American songwriter -- a royal line that began with Gershwin and runs through Sondheim himself -- has obsessed pundits and songwriters for almost half a century. Their chief culprit is usually rock and roll. But when they argue that rock ruined songs by coarsening them, by catering to the baser instincts, they sound like TV preachers. And they ignore the fact that modern pop has produced some of the century's greatest songs.

Rock conflated two jobs -- the songwriter's and the singer's -- into one. Frank Sinatra needed an Irving Berlin, a Cole Porter and a Hoagy Carmichael. Today's performers -- from Ice-T to Michael Stipe to Alanis Morissette -- create their own material, and too often you wind up with singers who can't write or writers who can't sing. (Country music remains the one field where songwriters still write for performers.)

And with everyone tuned to a different radio station, nobody knows the same songs anymore. Tony Bennett recalls starting out at New York's Paramount Theater, where he played seven shows a day: "In the morning you worked for the teenagers, in the night for the lovers and husbands and wives. And management would say, make sure you sing songs everybody likes."

As loud as the world has gotten in the last few years, it's gotten curiously quieter, too. it is as though, deprived of tunes that anyone can hum, we have forgotten how to sing. …

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