Monday, August 03, 2009

Leo Robin's Comments On Rock/Pop

The book "They're Playing Our Song" by Max Wilk is an interesting combination of popular-music history and nostalgic bitterness. During the early '70s nostalgia craze, which began with the surprise success of a revival of No, No, Nanette and culminated in the success of the movie That's Entertainment, Wilk interviewed many songwriters from the golden age of Broadway and Hollywood songs (plus a couple of new guys like Stephen Sondheim, and chapters with veterans' observations on dead greats like Gershwin and Kern), many of whom, like Harry Warren, had rarely been interviewed anywhere. The book is extremely valuable for that.

But the perspective of the book, and the interviews, was a little bitter, because almost all the interviewees were basically out of work by then, displaced by the change in popular taste. Johnny Mercer, for example, was just at the point where movie studios didn't want him to write songs for them any more (for the first time in his entire career). And Wilk was interested in figuring out whether the new nostalgia kick meant that traditional pop music was going to make a comeback. Because of that, almost all the interviews have a certain amount of anger in them, to be expected from brilliant people whose services were no longer required.

Most of the interviewees were also contemptuous of then-current pop music, and I have to admit I share some of their concerns. For example, Yip Harburg was appalled at reading how quickly rock lyricists worked; he'd been raised in a tradition that held that every word, every sound in a lyric had to be carefully worked out. (And I have to say I still feel -- personally -- that a false rhyme or bad scansion is a sign of poor craftsmanship.)

But one of the few interviewees who had something unusual and deeper to say about the subject was the most interview-shy of the bunch (though maybe it's simply that few people tried to interview him), prolific lyricist Leo Robin ("Thanks For the Memory," "Louise," "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," many more). I've written about Robin before.

Robin's comments on the development of pop music, and his reservations about it, are insightful and basically accurate. He notes the fragmentation of popular culture, where songs are now (early '70s) written to appeal to one segment of the market rather than written to have the broadest appeal possible (which was the way pop music operated in his day). He points out that there's nothing wrong, or even new, in writing songs about drugs.

And most surprisingly, he sees the personal, idiosyncratic songwriting of the Bob Dylan generation as a welcome contrast to the generic phoniness of bad mass-market pop songs. Surprising because he's just about the only person interviewed in the book who shows any generosity toward modern pop or admits that there were legitimate reasons why the non-personal aesthetic of his time -- where every song had to sound like anyone could express its sentiments -- died out. It's one of several bits that makes his interview one of the best in the book.

Here's the excerpt:


"The language is the sort of language that only the young can understand. I don't think the kids are writing for anyone except themselves. They don't really want to reach anyone else. It's as if they're saying: 'This is a music for us. This is our music.' I don't know whether they even reason it out that way. They just -- well, these young writers express themselves and react only to what's going on.

"But listen, that is not a criticism of rock-and-roll songs. I don't want to pan these kids who are writing today. The things they're writing are at least honest expressions of how they feel, in relation to the conditions of their world, and how they react to their own lives and futures.

"I'm sure you cannot fault these kids for their attitudes. Not the way you could fault some hack Tin Pan Alley songwriter back in 1925 who was writing second-rate mechanical songs about how sweet it would be to be back in dear old Dixie with his dear old mammy or his lovely little tootsie-wootsie baby. Maybe he was doing a professional job, but he was peddling a totally false picture. Today these kids are, at the very least, honest.

"We've had songs about marijuana and dope, remember? They were Harlem songs — ' The Reefer Man,' 'Kicking the Gong Around.' These subjects aren't new. Maybe it's just that the conditions are more prevalent today.

"And the big difference in the songs, as I see it -- and I can be wrong -- is that the song of yesterday appealed to the general public. Almost everybody could identify with it. The song of today appeals mostly to just one section of the public. It's aimed at the young, it expresses feelings of the young, and the young can identify. But the over-thirty people can't. There's the big difference."


Griff said...

Thanks for posting this, Jaime. I remember Wilk's book well, and while I expected and even understood the certain insular attitude from many -- all right, most -- of the songwriters he interviewed toward pop music of the day, I still recall my surprise I felt reading Leo Robin's remarks. You're right -- his interview is probably the most incisive in the book. This man was probably still young and alive to the end of his life.

[The Harburg interview is also quite good; all of his technical remarks are very smart, and his thoughts on craft remain fascinating.]

mike doran said...

You didn't give the exact date that the book was published - early "70s? That means that "the kids" who were writing the current songs should now be at or near the ages of the songwriters interviewed in the book.

What do you suppose they think of the "youngsters" who have supplanted them on the charts?

We - all of us - can never seem to understand when we're young that sometime soon we are going to be the "old ones". I'm coming up on 59, and I'm finding that the older something is, the more likely I am to appreciate it. I wonder if a '70s teenager, now in his 40s, feels the same way.

The word verification - SUCKE - is really too close for comfort this time.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

You didn't give the exact date that the book was published - early "70s?

Sorry: 1973.

Anonymous said...

There will always be a small percentage of any given generation that seeks out what came before, in part to understand where they might fit in and in part to avoid direct repetition.