Monday, January 25, 2010

Pay No Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain!!

I love twitter. If you are reading this blog, it's probably because you read a twit I posted directing you here. I like to use it as like a mini live journal, a place to try out my awful jokes and a place to poll public opinion. Earlier in the week I asked this question:

How would you feel if you found out your favorite song by your favorite band wasn't actually written by them?

I received an array of responses. Here are a few that I thought were interesting:

"Depends. If the band claims its theirs then I'd be mad. If they are up front about being performers that use writers, I'd be ok."

"A good song is a good song. I'd definitely want to hear the writer(s) perform it though."

"I would shit bricks."

"I don't think it would change my opinion all that much, I think it's the performance of it that counts.

"No big deal."

"That would suck a lot. The reason why I like listening to bands is because they write their own songs."

"It would no longer be my favorite song, and I'm not sure they'd be my favorite band anymore."

"Then its a cover."

"That happened to me the other day. I still love the song, but it made me question every other song they've created."

"If its a cover and I didn't know; as long as it was better than the origional I wouldn't care. Otherwise that's really lame."

"Like when I found out Miley (Cyrus) didn't write 'Party in the USA?' Absolutely crushed."

Even though that last quote made me chuckle a little, I was surprised that it was roughly 50/50 on caring versus not caring. Bottom line is a good song is a good song, right? Well....Yes and No.

Yes because immediately when you hear a song you like, it moves you. Something about that particular song, whether it's the melody, the beat, the lyric, something about the song makes you want to hear that song again. After the second time through the chorus if you find yourself singing along to key words and the melody, chances are it's a good song. Before the days of videos (yes, they existed and yes, I remember them) it seemed the song had to stand on it's own. Remember Christopher Cross? Not handsome. Music was marketed a different way in those days. More radio and press driven, seemingly. I was just a kid when MTV started, so my views on the music industry prior to it's existence are totally skewed. I'd love to sit down with people from that era and ask how it all "went down", but considering terms like "payola" were invented in the 1950's, I have to think one common thread that ties the timeline of the industry together is and always has been money.

Don't know what "payola" is? Look it up. Things have been fucked for a lot longer than people think.

So in my warped perception of pop music's past, as a kid I always thought that all artists wrote their own songs and then performed them. Period. The End.

But did Diana Ross write all the songs for The Supremes? Nope.

Did Micheal Jackson write the songs for the Jackson 5? Or even for his own records? No sir.

So why should it be so shocking to hear that Hannah Montana didn't write "Party In The USA"?

Real Talk. What's really the difference between MJ and Miley? I'm not talking about physical differences, records sold or length of career. I'm talking about the basic formula of what MJ and Miley are: pop stars. Both were children who displayed talent at a young age and whose parents pushed them to pursue it. Talented singers. Talented performers. Both built their fame on television and radio and both with a team of musical masterminds and career advisors around them selecting material "suitable" for them. The head of the team, who is often called "producer", "executive producer" or "A&R", knows that no shirts, tickets, pillow cases, lunch boxes, backpacks or records (Gasp! SELL records??) will ever be sold if the music on the pop star's record sucks. So how could they possibly leave the catalyst behind the entire plan in the hands of this mean artist?

Now wait a minute. I always thought that the "artist" was the person who created the art. I went and looked up the definition of the word "artist." There were 6 total definitions. I highlighted the "key words":

1. a person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily subject to aesthetic criteria.
2. a person who practices one of the fine arts, esp. a painter or sculptor.
3. a person whose trade or profession requires a knowledge of design, drawing, painting, etc.: a commercial artist.
4. a person who works in one of the performing arts, as an actor, musician, or singer; a public performer: a mime artist; an artist of the dance.
5. a person whose work exhibits exceptional skill.
6. a person who is expert at trickery or deceit.

Definition six sort of sticks out, huh?

Definition one makes total sense. That's what I've always thought the word meant. But definition six blew my mind. An expert in trickery! I never knew that was an option. The example sentence given for this meaning of the word was "He's an artist with cards." I guess by that account you could say some bands are "artists with other people's songs." However, definition four makes definitions one and six cancel each other out. If I accept DEFINITION NUMBER 4 as my default meaning of artist, then everyone involved in the writing, production and performing of a modern pop act, like Miley or Britney or Christina or even the late great Micheal Jackson, are all considered "artists".

I have to admit: for a guy like me who has spent my entire life studying and actually going as far as getting a degree in music, the last sentence pisses me right the fuck off. I'm certain that if you are a person in a band writing original material, you might be just as offended. A lot of these so called "artists" couldn't even tell you what key they're hit song is in. Some may not even know what a key is. POSERS!! They perform a song that isn't their creation and get all the accolades for it. I don't need someone to tell me that Miley Cyrus didn't write that song. WE KNOW. By now everyone has seen American Idol. None of those clowns coming into their audition for Simple Simon are singing their original songs. If they do, chances are they won't be making it "to Hollywood, dog."

Very few on the artists' team of consultants (who will be refered to as "they") will say that that having writers is wrong or weird. They believe that getting the best product possible is the most important thing. I can agree with them on that. I've always said the difference between a good band and a great band is the record they make. But, now it has become standard for people to co-write that I feel like as long as you have a pretty face you have a better chance of getting signed than a band who is out in the trenches trying to carve their own path. It doesn't matter if a band writes their own songs anymore. As long as it's a good song wrapped up in a good looking package, they figure you'll buy it. At least that's what they think. I mean, no offense to YOU, but a real record company guy like Lyor Cohen doesn't give a shit about your feelings. Wait, that's not totally true. He cares about your feelings, but only those specific to the product he is pushing. He cares so he can hopefully get your money. By any means necessary.

If we look at it from the song writers perspective, they are usually pretty stoked. And should be! The college I attended had an entire major devoted to professional songwriting. Some very good friends of mine have written songs for other bands. Some of those songs have been hits. Some not so much. Some should have been. But hey. It's a tough business. These writers are the musicians and who I think should be getting all the attention. But sometimes the "image" of these songwriters is not what They think will sell. Other times the songwriters aren't very good live performers. It's safe to say that to gain "maximum exposure" for a song, the muse isn't always the correct choice: enter the PERFORMING ARTIST. As much as you may say "I'd be pissed if my favorite band didn't write their songs!" Actually, no, you wouldn't. If the plan goes off without a hitch, you'd never even know. Remember: If the songs are good, the songs are good. The music industry is based on smoke and mirrors. Tricks.

"He's an artist with cards."

I wonder if I should just start listing off the bands that have co-written or had successful songs that were written by other people. Would it matter? Would it make the songs not as good anymore? I don't know. All it would probably do is start a shit storm on some "music" website or message board. I'd probably loose a few friends because they'd be embarrassed to admit they didn't write their songs. To be completely honest I didn't choose this subject to call out bands. Bands make their own decisions on what direction they take their career. I can't speak for them and I won't judge them. But I can talk about my own experience.

My band co-wrote. We're not afraid to admit it or talk about it. One of the most popular songs we ever released as a band was a co-write with Mark Hoppus. I love Mark and enjoyed working with him. I will admit that when my manager at the time asked how I felt about co-writing, my response to him was "What the fuck are these people gonna to teach me about songwriting that I don't already know?" I should have know I'd eat those words. For what it was worth, it was a great learning experience and I learned a bunch of different techniques that I would have never thought of on my own when it came to composing. For that, I'm appreciative. For the flack we got for doing it and openly admitting it; not so much. We did what we thought was right for our career. I'll never apologize for that.

So go ahead. You want ask it. OK. I'll ask it. "Then who's song is it?" My response is "That is a Less Than Jake song."

Yes, Mark wrote part of it. We took his original idea, transformed it, changed lyrics, rearranged it, played it and finally "owned" it. It's not a Mark Hoppus song featuring Less Than Jake. It's also not a Less Than Jake song featuring Mark Hoppus. It's a Less Than Jake song. Period.

So does that mean "Party in The USA" a Miley Cyrus song? Absolutely.

That song is a great song. What if it was the composer performing the song? I bet it wouldn't have gotten as much attention. In the pop world, it's the combination of the right parts put together that creates hits. Just so you know, a producer named Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald was the mastermind behind "Party". Look at the songs he's had a part of. You'll be surprised. While you're searching around, look up another songwriter named Desmond Child. Now THAT guy wrote some hits! The composers of these songs are the real artists here in my eyes, but no one cares about those guys. And with the amount of money they have most likely made, they probably don't give a crap about not being in the spotlight. And for real, most people are too busy checking out Miley's jean shorts and cowboy boots in the video or "nodding my head like yeah" to the track to really care who made it all happen. You're just glad it happened.

To you bands out there who are writing your own songs, keep doing it. But please stop being angry at artists like Lady GaGa and The Jonas Brothers. They deserve to be here playing their music just as much as you do. Both of the aforementioned acts are fantastic performers and if you don't agree, turn the "ego switch" off, take a look at it again. You can enjoy a magic show even if you know they are just illusions being performed, right? It's about the show to me. Live is the difference maker. What these pop acts are doing on stage I could never do. Love it or hate it, just respect it because you probably couldn't do it either. Take your jealousy and turn it into motivation, you will benefit. Promise.

And to you bands who are co-writing don't use it as a crutch and let someone else write for you. Use it as as classroom. Learn what these song writers do. Listen to your favorite songs and analyze them. Figure out what makes it so damn cool. Figure out the chord progressions. Read the lyrics. Lyrics are probably the most difficult part of writing a song, the most important part and also the most often over looked. Do some research. If you like a song see who wrote it. Google search is an amazing invention. So is wikipedia. It's ok to know the truth on who wrote your favorite song. But don't be shocked if you choose to take the blue pill and look beyond the looking glass. Because when the wizard is revealed you'll realize that there was never really any wizard at all.


  1. JR -- I discovered this 20 years ago and it taught me to always read the liner notes to see who wrote what. I met Desmond Child in the Early 90s when he was doing a promo for his solo album...I was in awe because I recognized all the hits he had created but most of my friends didn't have any idea who he was. The sounds of the final product may always be a "Bon Jovi song" -- but I'll always admire the original creator for what they dreamed up.

  2. which less than jake song was co written by mark hoppus?

  3. Insightful post. I wonder with the demise of the CD and hence liner notes if kids today even think sometimes about who writes the songs they enjoy. I used to love looking at liner notes growing up, even I find myself looking at them less and less even with digital booklets on iTunes.