Friday, August 19, 2005

The song vs. the performance

Back in the 1960s, one sure way to spark a heated discussion was to ask your friends who they liked best – the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Everyone fell into one or the other camp. You may have listened to both groups, but you always identified yourself with just one.

For some folks, the Beatles vs. Stones debate was a cultural one. The Beatles presented a safe, almost cuddly image; the Stones, in contrast, were wild and dangerous. You might be okay with your sister or daughter dating John or Paul, but God forbid they hung out with Mick or Keith. (Although, to be fair, Charlie Watts was probably as safe as Ringo; it’s a drummer thing.)

To me, however, the difference between the Beatles and the Stones was more about the music. There’s no denying that the Beatles’ music was more melodic, more sophisticated, more arranged and produced; the Stones’ music was more rhythmic, more raw, more unpredictable. To identify yourself as a Beatles person was to declare your love for sophisticated musicality; to identify as a Stones person said something about your love of the rock ‘n’ roll performance.

And thus is the essential and time-honored division between all music fans. You’re either a fan of the musical creation itself – the song, the arrangement, the production – or you’re a fan of the performance. There doesn’t appear to be much middle ground.

This is certainly the case in popular music. Song lovers appreciate artists who create sophisticated, melodic works. It’s the composition itself that’s important, which is why music lovers are often disappointed to hear their favorite groups perform live. ("It doesn’t sound like the record," they whine.) Song lovers appreciate the creators of the music – the composers and arrangers and producers who make the music they love. We’re talking classic composers like the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, and modern artists such as Coldplay, Fountains of Wayne, and A Girl Called Eddy.

Lovers of the performance appreciate bands who put on great live performances. They love the interaction of musicians onstage; there’s nothing better than a great groove or a hot jam. The song the group is playing is less important than the playing itself. Performance lovers appreciate great players, guys like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck; they love bands that cook, whether that’s the Rolling Stones, Widespread Panic, or the White Stripes.

The same holds true in the world of classical music. Some classical music lovers are attracted to the great works by the great composers – they go to a concert because the symphony is playing Bach or Beethoven or Stravinsky. Other classical lovers are attracted to the great symphonies and performers – they go to a concert because Yo-Yo Ma is the guest soloist, or because Lorin Maazel is conducting. The former group appreciates the players, but loves the compositions; the latter group appreciates the compositions, but cares more about the performers and how they interpret the music.

Then there’s jazz. Due to its improvisatory nature, it’s fair to view most jazz fans as performance lovers. While there’s some composition and arranging involved – especially in the big band genre – most jazz is less about the tune and more about the performance. In this way, jazz lovers have a lot in common with jam band fans. It’s all about the playing.

Myself, I’m a lover of the music who also likes to perform. My personal tastes run to the great composers of popular music: Burt Bacharach, Lennon/McCartney, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and so on. While I certainly recognize and appreciate great performances, my record collection is more about the musical creations than about the playing. On the other hand, I used to be a performing musician, and when I’m playing I could care less about the composition; there’s nothing better than a group of musicians clicking together onstage. But while I do listen to my share of live jazz, in the privacy of my own home I gravitate to the music composition side of things. Go figure.

Now, I may be mistaken (I often am), but it seems to me that popular music today is veering more towards the performance than it is the composition. I’m not sure why that is; I think it has something to do with the general decline of musical skills (especially compositional skills), the cult of the celebrity (let’s face it: performers are more interesting celebrities than composers are), and our national inability to perform two-step thinking. You see, it’s easy to be a fan of the performer – that’s who you see when you watch them onstage or in a video. To be a fan of the composer, you first have to separate the composition from the performance – not always an easy thing to do for the musically unsophisticated – and then realize that someone actually wrote that song. That’s two- or maybe even three-step thinking, which is too much work for the average dullard. (Not that performance fans are necessarily dullards, mind you – although some are.) It’s a lot easier to see someone singing a song and say, "I like that person’s song." What they mean is that they like the way that performer is singing the song, whoever composed it, but try explaining that to the average music fan. Such unsophisticated beasts.

Anyway, I’m sophisticated enough to recognize and to appreciate the creators of the music I listen to. I also appreciate the performers, but realize that even the best performer can’t make a bad song worth listening to. A good song, on the other hand, will still hold up under even the worst performance. I realized this at an early age, when I heard Tony Randall singing "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" on some salute-to-the-Beatles TV special; it was a god-awful performance, but it was still surprisingly listenable, thanks to the intrinsic strength of the song itself. If it still sounds good when Tony Randall sings it, it must be a good song!

But that’s just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

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