So Elton John recently made news headlines for bashing songwriters of today, and commenting on how boring the X-Factor (British singing competition similar to American Idol that resulted in the career of Leona Lewis) is as a result, among other things.
Is modern songwriting boring? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is.
The modern celebrity machine has changed how music is written, as successful music is emulated in an attempt to either capture or recapture celebrity. The unfortunate fallout is that much of what we are exposed to today as listeners is only what has traits sufficiently similar to prior successful music to meander its way through the forces of natural selection (or payola) to the top of the distribution & broadcast pecking order. And that is definitely not compositionally challenging or diverse.
How did we get here?
Danceability & Composition
One cause is definitely danceability. Danceability can provide success without composition. There were Latin rhythms, and from blues rock we got funk, and also hip-hop, and other forms of long-form jams, that really consisted of improvisation over a single composition.
Then there was Berkeley’s Power Progressions – the defining bible for hit-making composition. Which, I’m fairly convinced, must have only two or three chord progressions.
Which is where we are today: long-form groove-based improvisations over a single composition, or chord progressions heavily dictated by the Power Progressions.
What songwriting is Elton John reminiscing about? Weren’t many of these forms of music around when Elton John was coming up?
Well yes, but ethnic music was just that: ethnic. And music distribution wasn’t the same as what we take for granted now. You know who were the top bands playing blues in the 60′s? Eric Clapton’s Cream and Led Zeppelin.
Coincidentally, some old Bob Seger and David Bowie had popped up on my iPod‘s shuffle, and motivated me to peruse some of these songs a little deeper. Specifically Bowie‘s Space Oddity, Suffragette City, and Seger‘s Still the Same. Overwhelmingly, I found that the composition of these songs did not fit into anything remotely close to the Power Progressions templates.
Suffragette City turned out to generally be just barre chords following the vocal with the standard 1-5 / 1-6 blues diad on each chord.
However Still the Same showed me what I was looking for. It featured chords from C major, where minor chords were intermittently replaced with major chords, for example E major and A major.
Space Oddity followed, but with a much more disorganized structure, and the same replacement of minor chords in C major with major chords. The defining harmony of Space Oddity‘s chorus, the “this is ground control to Major Tom” is a C major – E major change, something we never see today. This change is also used in the pre-chorus and chorus of Seger‘s Still the Same. Space Oddity also replaces the A minor with an A major for the clapping part, with C-F-G-A barre chord shapes being slid around the neck.
I can’t guarantee that either writer intentionally went out of C major to create the harmony for these songs, so I’m going to chalk that up to the legacy of barre chords. I mean, Hendrix knew classical theory, and he tended to jump around, so you never know. And Space Oddity does an F major to F minor change, although Mama Cass Elliot had just released a version of Dream a Little Dream of Me, which is really a great usage of the same change. Both songs go from F to F minor to C, which is a little suspicious…