I like Regina Spektor's music. But when I heard "On The Radio" the other day—being sung along to by a couple of girls—I was struck by the line "everyone must breathe, until their dying breath". Well, yes, I suppose they must. But where does this pseudoprofundity come from? (or rather who decided this was an ok line to go ahead and record? Cole Porter wouldn't have gone near it, Jimmy Webb might have but regretted it the next morning). But there seems to be a lot more of this kind of nonsense in music these days.
The popular singer-songwriter is a modern creature, dating only from the availability of sheet music and recorded music. Earlier singer-songwriters were troubadours, who adjusted their ballads to suit the audience, or related recent events—and what they performed generally wasn't written down.
Folk songs, which everyone knew, weren't written down either, and were probably written collaboratively over generations by Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
There were also people who wrote down songs that aspired to universal themes, about life, death, and God. Those songs are called hymns. "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away".... more affecting than something about breathing until you stop breathing.
Once we got into the twentieth century though, people wrote (and recorded) songs typically on the themes of:
1. I'm in love!
2. The person I love doesn't love me, and it's a bummer.
3. My whole life's a bummer. Dead dog, no job.
4. Everyone's life's a bummer. Try to look on the bright side. (a popular theme in the Great Depression).
5. Commentary on blue-collar life and/or prison.
6. The apparent suicide of Billie Joe McAllister.
But songs that include the singer's (banal) pronouncements on the meaning of life started increasing since the 1960s (with the arrival of a new theme: 7. Stick it to the Man), and seem to have really proliferated today. It's one thing to get musings on life from people who've really clocked up some city miles, like Tammy Wynette, or Johnny Cash, or Neil Young, or Edith Piaf. But learning that "If the light is off, then it isn't on" (Hilary Duff), brings to mind the all-time-stupid of Des'ree's preference for toast over ghosts.
A song relating personal feelings, performed in the first person, can be one of the most moving art forms we have. "Love Me Tender" and "Cry Me a River" are aimed at specific, second-person recipients. But any listeners can imagine themselves either as the singer or the recipient. These songs paradoxically achieve universality by being personal. Many of us have acquired our emotional vocabulary through such songs.
However, when songwriters strive for universal observations on the human condition, they wind up sounding like fortune cookies. We don't experience life in general, but in specifics.
If you think I'm being harsh towards Spektor (and before anyone tells me that English isn't her first language, I'm pretty sure that "dying breath" stuff doesn't sound any better in Russian), she is clearly innovative musically, and this kind of lousy lyric lets her down.
That same song has the far more evocative passage:
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else's heart
pumping someone else's blood
This reminds me of another form of songwriting, the factory-like
production of pop and dance songs by Ester Dean to be performed by the
likes of Rihanna. The astonishingly talented Dean's feelings, her words, are put into someone
else's heart, filling someone else's album. In fact, she is able to step into another performer's persona, in creating a song to suit their image.
Of course, it remains to be seen which of today's singles become part of tomorrow's songbook. As Van Halen said, "Only time will tell if we stand the test of time."