The State of the American Song
With due respect to those writing strictly for the page, Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for Literature had a point. Language telegraphed by music carries tremendous power: emotional, intellectual, political, poetic—literary by most useful definitions. The prize was announced as Dylan had been devoting himself to Great American Songbook interpretations in recordings (Fallen Angels, Shadows in the Night) and concerts. A surprising turn, maybe, but telling: The man’s now as much a part of the Songbook tradition as an exploder of it.
The award also arrived as masterful songwriting has been flourishing everywhere, filling an American Songbook better imagined as an ever-growing cloud drive. Given the collapse of the recorded music business, this current creative renaissance may seem counterintuitive. But the human need to communicate through art is basic, and it thrives in times of crisis, when that need is amplified. In the context-starved data flood of our media diets, in an era of public debate defined not by oration but by Tweet, the poetic potency of the song appears not only undiminished, but stronger and more essential than ever.
New and old approaches to craft coexist, sometimes dubiously, often fruitfully. In the pop arena, songwriting is a market-tested, software-optimized, multimedia art-science (see John Seabrook's The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory for an illuminating read on the new digital Tin Pan Alley). Not unlike times past, composition today is often a collective process by stylistic specialists: NPR's pick for Top Song of 2016, Beyoncé's mighty "Formation," credits five writers including herself, not counting producers. Some of the best current songs and albums involve elaborate cross-platform presentations: Last year, Beyoncé's Lemonade was also a "video album," Frank Ocean's Blonde an album-magazine hybrid sold only in pop-up shops, Esperanza Spalding's Emily's D+Evolution a staged piece of jazz-dance-theater. Björk debuted "Black Lake" as a museum installation at MOMA in 2015. And maybe more than ever, compositions enter our consciousness via films and TV, abetted by multimedia streaming services.
The human need to communicate through art is basic, and it thrives in times of crisis, when that need is amplified. In the context-starved data flood of our media diets, in an era of public debate defined not by oration but by Tweet, the poetic potency of the song appears not only undiminished, but stronger and more essential than ever.
Do these delivery systems undermine or underscore a song’s integrity? The Great American Songbook was built on multi-platform compositions, after all, courtesy of musicals, whose relationship to pop has waxed and waned over the past century. That relationship seems set to change again. La La Land may herald a new era of film musicals. And Broadway's object lesson is Hamilton, which earned 11 Tony Awards—from an unprecedented 16 nominations—as well as a Pulitzer Prize, the outspoken endorsement of a standing president, the ire of a president-elect, and what's looking like a record-demolishing revenue vector. Its most significant achievement, however, may prove to be its pop literacy. An encyclopedia of song forms, creator Lin Manuel-Miranda has fused hip-hop, R&B, and show tunes with utter authority, quoting Biggie, Eminem, and Mary J. Blige for audiences that may be more well versed in their storytelling than that of Gilbert & Sullivan or Rodgers & Hammerstein (who get quoted, too). It's hard to imagine Hamilton won't change the language of musicals permanently; at the very least, it makes rap recitative seem a no-brainer for advancing complex stage narratives. What's most remarkable is that it took this long to reunite show tunes with multicultural pop in a way that elevates both. Miranda is a rare talent. But as songsmiths increasingly look toward theater as a creative marketplace (including many established recording artists), he probably won't be for long.
But what of modern songs themselves? The prizing of rhythmic complexity over melody and harmony? Of memes over storytelling? Can songs stand apart from their elaborate platforms and outsized stars? These may be apples-and-oranges questions. In any case, there's no shortage of more traditional craft. Country music is experiencing its own (not entirely traditional) renaissance, via both singer-songwriters and via the song-for-hire world of Nashville's Music Row. Many artists straddle both traditions expertly—a sign of the music business's new economic reality, perhaps—often producing compositions more appealingly idiosyncratic, personal, and political than the usual committee writing. Miranda Lambert's nuanced tales of romance ("Pushin' Time," "Getaway Driver"), Jason Isbell's portrait of a friend partying her way through cancer ("Elephant"), Lori McKenna bearing witness to a dying community ("Giving Up On Your Hometown"), and Sturgill Simpson testifying to a veteran's disgust with militarism ("Call to Arms"), while nominally "country" songs, demonstrate visceral storytelling to match compositions in any genre.
To a great extent, the Internet has facilitated the new song renaissance.
Genre walls, meanwhile, are as porous as ever. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and David Bowie's Blackstar, among the most magnificent LPs of the past two years, show jazz informing pop more richly than it has in decades. Artists like Joan Shelley and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon have deep roots in American folk tradition, but their impressionist lyrics follow modern muses. Composers move fluidly between instrumental and lyric-based music (Flying Lotus's work with Lamar, Maria Schneider's with Bowie, Nico Muhly's with Björk, Bryce Dessner's with The National). This, too, is tied to new economics, which inevitably inform creative inclination in a culture when arts support is hard to come by.
The current wellspring isn't just about writing new songs. Master interpreters like Cécile McLorin Salvant and Rhiannon Giddens author work through style and sometimes startling curation, which has become an essential art at a time when history is retold and reshaped online via corporate algorithms. As ever, past illuminates present. Giddens's forthcoming LP, a set of mostly original songs inspired by slave narratives, also includes a cover of the Staples Singers' 1965 "Freedom Highway." Invoking the racist murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955, Giddens sings: "The whole world was wonderin'/what's wrong with the United States," the line landing in 2017 with an urgency only magnified by time.
Similarly, Inuk songwriter and throat-singer Tanya Tagaq covered Kurt Cobain's "Rape Me" on last year's Retribution LP—an anti-rape song written by a man, remade by a woman in the context of an album addressing, in part, the rape of the Earth. Sturgill Simpson's reading of Cobain's "In Bloom," coincidentally, was another of last year's most powerful remakes, a Southerner singing skeptically about gun fetishism, backed by pedal steel. Reinvention through interpretation is central to the songwriting tradition, be it folk, jazz, hip-hop, whatever comes next. Dylan began his career covering other people's songs and, at 75, has come full circle.
Yet Dylan is often identified by his work as a political songwriter, and one imagines that identity was at the forefront of the Nobel committee's decision at this particular moment. Even before our fractious election season, the moribund protest song had begun a rebirth spurred by a reactivated social justice movement, including Black Lives Matter and other organizations. These songs take countless forms, including Tagaq's abstract vocal journeys and the glossy electronic pop of Anohni's Hopelessness, as devastatingly relevant as any work in the protest canon. If the American song is a melting pot, it's also a vehicle for specific cultural identities, an important quality when our divisions seem more intractable than ever. Songs let us truly hear each other.
To a great extent, the Internet has facilitated the new song renaissance: As long as web neutrality holds—not a given, to judge by recent legislative rumblings—music needs no passport and can be confined by no walls. But the boon comes with a downside. The greatest danger to the song may be sheer glut. Like the flood of fake and semi-fake news, the flood of empty and semi-empty songs threatens to overwhelm, as nearly every song in history is available at our fingertips. More than ever, curators are essential: enlightened programmers, obsessive friends, independent critics. So are committed fans and open-eared listeners who support music-making in all its forms, including live performance, a practice that often pays poorly and doesn't offer health insurance. Following a year in which we lost David Bowie, Prince, Pauline Oliveros, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, Mose Allison, Guy Clark, and many other great composers, the best way for us to further their legacies is to ensure that their successors thrive.
Will Hermes is a senior critic for Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor to NPR's All Things Considered. He's the author of Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever, and is currently writing a biography of Lou Reed. Learn more at www.willhermes.com.