Song of the Week makes its triumphant return after a not-brief hiatus. In the past, I’ve used SOTW to describe, often with “musical jargon” and “songwriting mumbo jumbo,” what makes a given song work. I’ll still do that. I’ll also occasionally post links. Sometimes, I’ll talk about why I personally love a song–what memories and associations it conjures up, and why those matter. Sometimes I’ll just post a link and let you deal with it. It all depends on the song.
But this week’s song is an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive.
Song of the Week: Tom Petty, “A Higher Place“
Subtitle: “In Defense of Derivation” or “A Good Idea’s Worth Repeating” or “Chris’s Nine-Thousandth Love Letter to Tom Petty, and First One to Taylor Swift”
A quick anecdote:
Last spring, I sat in the office of a Nashville exec who is a great fan of music, a truly gifted A&R scout, and all-around capital fellow. He said, “play me some country songs.” I had four on a CD. He hit play. Track 1 got to the chorus, and he hit next. Track 2 got to the chorus, and he hit next. Track 3 got to the chorus, he skipped again. Only Track 4 played in full. When the disc finished, he said, “You know what was wrong with the first three songs?”
“Nope,” I replied.
“Nothing. They were good, down-the-pipe, pop country songs. They were so good, in fact, they’ve already been hits. You know what was right about the last one?”
“Nope,” I replied.
“It’s the same kind of song, but I’d never heard that hook before. That’s what I want: the hook that I haven’t heard before.”
I can see those who dislike contemporary country bristling: many hate it because they think it all sounds the same, or is too derivative. But there’s a difference between musical derivation (yes, G-C-D can–and does–rule the world) and lyrical derivation. Nashville knows that a great melody’s a great melody, and country fans expect a certain type of song structure (narrative verses, soaring choruses) and production (big studio polish, traditional country arrangements, etc.). But SOMETHING has to be different. In other words, don’t write “Achy Breaky Soul.” Nobody’s buying it.
In one way, Nashville’s songwriting community operates like Hollywood: there’s a perceived model for “what works,” and it’s a model that the business types and the creative types both recognize and work around. For example, a hit country song needs X, Y, and Z. A hit movie needs A, B, and C. The blueprint’s constantly evolving, of course, but it’s always there. The industry largely expects a paint-by-numbers approach for projects with pop intentions.
NOW, here’s where Nashville differs from LA: execs will turn off a song if it’s “been done before.” While Hollywood lives off prequels, sequels, remakes, and films “based on a true story,” Nashville wants new ideas. Or, it wants new versions of old ideas.
This is what they say in their office, and this is what many execs genuinely believe, and I think their industry’s healthier for it. BUT…
The reality is that derivation produces more hits than it denies. While Nashville’s telling published songwriters “bring me something new,” its breakout star is Taylor Swift, whose songs are not only lyrical facsimiles of each other, but derive from the most cliche modern narrative possible: the teenage fairytale.
Let me be clear: I like Taylor Swift. I think she’s a talented songwriter. I admire her ability to take something old and repackage it cleverly and winningly. But the fact is this: the right song will hit regardless of whatever rules the execs are playing by, because songs aren’t movies.
People respond to music because of the great, incommunicable aspect of its aesthetics; it uses a language we don’t speak and can’t touch, but know intrinsically. Somehow, it sonically connects. And while none of us know exactly how this happens or why, the vehicle for that connection is the melody.
In other words: it’s the melody, stupid.
A great melody always wins. Often, songs with great melodies play by all the other pop songwriting rules (4-minutes or less, verse-chorus structure, etc.). Many times they don’t. Which is why the same song that might get Taylor Swift’s demo skipped in an office has made her a megastar outside that office.
Which brings me, at last, to Tom Petty, King of the Three-Chord Song. Tom Petty is:
1) One of the most explicitly derivative songwriters in rock history.
2) A writer of simple, largely formulaic pop songs.
3) An relentless fan/disciple of the Byrds and Beatles.
4) One of the most universally loved and respected American artists (in other words, name me someone who DOESN’T like Tom Petty).
5) One of the most commercially successful solo artists of all-time.
“A Higher Place” might be Tom Petty’s most Byrds/Beatles-derivative song, remarkable considering his cover of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and his work with George Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys. This song is a gorgeous homage to the songwriting devices of the Byrds and Rubber Soul-era Beatles, all jangly guitars, simple structures, optimistic lyrics, and harmony-drenched arrangements. Anyone listening to it who’s ever heard 1) The Beatles, 2) The Byrds, or 3) pop music since 1963 would recognize its as being openly derivative.
Does that make it a bad song? Of course not–just listen to it. It’s gorgeous, and impossible to dislike, in the way that so many Tom Petty songs are. In fact, I’d argue that its derivation makes it a better song.
Because he’s working within a mid-60’s pop-rock idiom, Petty can manipulate those sonic expectations: “this is a happy song,” he seems to say, “bouncy, jangly, and predictable. Groove on it, brother.” But when the “find somebody” stutter-step of each verse interrupts the song, the move isn’t Beatles or Byrds–it’s uniquely Petty. This interruption belies the song’s upbeat foundation; there’s a problem here, and Petty’s lyrics let us know he needs help. The happy-song-with-angsty-lyrics is a classic pop juxtaposition, and Petty’s one of its pioneers. While using his predecessors to establish one expectation (and make something beautiful), he uses his own artistic instincts to create something new.
And that’s really the whole point: just as few things are wholly original, few things are wholly derivative. Even the most faithful cover artist will accidentally put his own stamp on the original, and even if that stamp is worse, it’s still his. Derivation is to be embraced, because American pop music is the music of derivation: folk melodies, ancient ballads and narratives, a melting pot of disparate musical instruments and traditions. Pop melodies work because they’re tried and true–some part of us unconsciously recognizes them, anticipates them, and celebrates them. Great artists take what’s already there–the rough blueprint–and instinctively aid its evolution.
Like Tom Petty, the Beatles, or (sure) even Taylor Swift.
Music’s always changing, even when it’s not, and the song doesn’t remain the same, even when it tries to.