The Heartbreak of Melodiphobia

It's my Slog, and I'll cry if I want to.  

I believe that we live in a time when the art and craft of songwriting has been debased nearly to the point of non-existence. Rhyme schemes aren't scheming anymore, ideas are hackneyed, or hacked off AT the knees and never given a chance to bloom.  Worst of all, melodies have almost entirely disappeared. Our modern song culture is in the grip of Melodiphobia--a fear of melodies.  When confronted with a new strong melody, people today seem to get freaked out, like it's some alien presence. And yet they still secretly love melodies. They continue to cherish and recycle great melodies from the past. (Note the chestnuts from the 70s and 80s a being performed on "American Idol" and the endless recycling of The Beatles, who were master melodists. This plays into Brian Woodbury's comments about the Tyranny of the Oldies in last week's Hitocracy discussion.) 

If lyrics and structure could be considered the head and body of a song, the melody is its soul.  "My Funny Valentine" is "My Funny Valentine" because of Richard Rodgers' melody.  "The Star Spangled Banner" is THAT TUNE, not some other aggregation of notes.  That's how we recognize it. That's its personality. Today's songwriters just aren't bothering to provide their creations with souls.  

Take the new hot  teenage country singer-songwriter Taylor Swift for instance.  I heard about her, wanted to see what the fuss was about.  So I got the CD. (Somebody gave me a gift card at Best Buy.)  She has some catchy engaging words, and a pleasing voice, and a pretty face, but the tunes were all this sort of aimless up and down, down and up that passes for melody these days. Now Taylor, if you're reading this, you seem like a very nice young girl and if I knew you personally I'd encourage you.  I'd encourage you to spend some time with the masters of melody--and there are many, and many different styles to choose from--and learn the secret of what makes one group of notes going up and down on a scale become Jambalaya by Hank Williams, and another group is just a murky tasteless soup. 

What makes a great melody is not something that can be codified.  It's a feeling.  And a songwriter has to wait and keep panning for gold in the song stream until he or she comes up with a collection of notes that gives that feeling.  It doesn't have to be flowery or elaborate.  There are many excellent two or three note melodies. (See "Subterranean Homesick Blues" by Bob Dylan or the bridge in the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out") But when you get it, you feel the birth of a new, living song, that stands up and sings itself, because its melody makes it different and special. It is the only one of its kind.

Marc Shaiman, the composer and co-lyricist of "Hairspray" and of may fine film scores, bemoaned the absence of melody in modern film scoring at a music writing symposium last year.  He noted that great film composers of the past, such as Henry Mancini, Nino Rota, Max Steiner, and John Barry had managed to create the necessary moods for films using melody (I'm sure you can hum huge sections of the Pink Panther score, or the Bond films, and you must remember "As Time Goes By") while today's film scorers do everything with rhythm and texture. No melodies to be found. (Danny Elfman is a notable exception.)

So let's break free from Melodiphobia! Keeping digging till you find that gem.  And if you know of some great melodists working today, please clue me in to them.  I'm eager to hear and learn.