By BRUCE DENNILL
Literary criticism, songwriting analysis, and cultural commentary, Words And Music Into The Future is an uncompromising examination of the current state of popular songs and songwriting in the English-speaking world. Devoid of hero worship and celebrity gossip, using mostly well-known songs from recent decades as examples, author and musician Michael Koppy presents a compelling case that listeners have been force-fed a steady diet of industrial illiteracy, and that the time has come for songwriting and song criticism to riser to greater heights.
Why are you so angry? This is not meant as a cheeky question – there is a consistent tone of outrage throughout the book and I’m interested as to why you choose to engage with it in this way – allowing it to annoy and infuriate you (much of the time) – rather than offering more conventional, perhaps more academic, commentary.
I’d say “angry” is a mischaracterisation; “righteously indignant” might be more accurate. I believe we, the mass of us, deserve better in popular song than what we’re inundated with by the cynical celebrity-industrial complex and its wannabe aspirants. My book is purposely, even idiosyncratically, conversational rather than academically distanced because there’s no need to be other than plain-spoken when addressing the second-rate writing that dominates pop songwriting. The facts are here for us all to see in plain sight, so let’s cut the crap and tell it as it is.
Appeal versus accuracy: there is no doubt that songs like “American Pie” resonate with millions, regardless of many of its lyrics making no sense. Where does poetic license fit into your perspective as a listener? Expanding on that, few would argue that poetry necessarily needs to make grammatical sense to have value – how or why should analysis change when a melody is added? Would you concede that the so-called “x factor” is not closely aligned to any single major song component (melody, lyrics, even a strong hook)?
Words have meanings. This is foundational. Nonsense is not communication. The great gift of sophisticated use of language, however, is that once we authoritatively use the right word or words, we’re then further allowed the opportunity to create poetic concatenations that no, don’t make ‘real sense’, but that add depth and even beauty to what’s being presented. Think, perhaps, of word combinations like “a used car grin” or “the cardboard sun”—or Shakespeare’s “winter’s ragged hand” in his Sixth Sonnet. None of these make literal sense—winter has no “hand”, ragged or otherwise. But as the often brilliant English literary critic John Carey points out, insightful ‘literary indistinctness’ is what delivers a greater, stronger and more on-target thought or even direct message. Again, however, the first order of business is to use the language with precision and authority. As for your “x factor”: in the book I make wide indulgence for personal preferences and weaknesses, accepting that we’re all easily made victims now and then—enthusiasts, really—of songs that we know are ephemeral, silly or flat-out stupid. C’est la vie. The critical fault is imputing to those trifles meaning that doesn’t by any rational intelligent standard exist, and asserting stature that doesn’t obtain. We’re all allowed to waste our time, most certainly; it’s just better—more honest—that we sheepishly acknowledge when that’s happening rather than do acrobatic contortions to ‘justify’ it….
Words And Music Into The Future – given that title, would you say that, ideally, this book would influence not only the way songs are written, but the way music is listened to? Is it as simple as expecting people to put more effort and/or brain power into listening? And are listeners the chicken or the egg here – is writing bad because it’s encouraged or listeners lazy because the writing isn’t worth it?
The culture is continually dumbed down by industrial manufacture—it’s a whole lot easier to package utter garbage in a superficially attractive wrapper, with a big a shiny bow, than to create worthy material. When that’s all we’re given—and because we all want more—we understandably end up compliantly making excuses for shoddy work. We ‘interpret’ the pretentious or hare-brained writing to ‘mean’ this or that. We impute the substance we want to have been there. It’s wishful thinking—a kind of intellectual desperation, really.
Problematic original writing is one thing. Problematic writing that plagiarises other problematic writing is, well, doubly problematic. Your writing on this topic is possibly more accessible than some of the more subjective topics, particularly because you’re not afraid of highlighting examples that many commentators steer clear of (presumably so as to stand on as few toes as possible in a bid to remain popular). Bob Dylan is a major issue for you – and undeniably one of the most influential songwriters in history. Does that combination make it seem, to you, like informing the ignorant is of more than intellectual value (i.e. is there a moral aspect to it as well)?
The point of writing something should obviously be to express an idea in an original, insightful way. Yes, there’s only so many ways of saying “I love you”, or its simulacra, so you have to work harder. Good! Find a way to make it work without boring us or making us roll our eyes. You want us to pay attention? Work harder. Do better. Have talent. Think more and sweat more.
Communication of a message versus inference of a mood: both words and music can fill both functions. That said, language is more accessible than dynamics (in terms of understanding over, say, being pumped up or brought down by something). But not everybody who uses language uses it in the same way, and words can confuse as often as they inspire. How can songs bring listeners up to a better standard? Is it worthwhile – occasionally – for more sophisticated writers to “write down” to a level where the average listener can grasp what they’re trying to say?
“Writing down” is a loaded phrase, really. In the short chapter called The Kids Are Alright, I excoriate the pernicious idea that pop songs should be—are supposed to be—simplistic or plain dumb because it’s ‘all a part of youth culture’. Ninety percent of that notion is just imperiously cynical industrial marketing. One can write colloquially without writing stupidly or incompetently.
Your muse seeks the perfect song – in your eyes, crafted, clever and so much more – to listen to. Have your philosophies coalesced in a song or songs you can unreservedly recommend?
There certainly are songs I recommend in the book, and many of them are examined therein—along with a whole raft of popularly exalted detritus. But the matter of my personal likes is rather extraneous to the mission of the book, and I eagerly invite countervailing thinking—intelligent, informed countervailing thinking. The book is squarely intended to advance the cultural dialectic—to help bring about better writing, and better songwriting in particular. Why? Because we deserve better.