We are seeing it starkly demonstrated once again this week: the power of popular music in our lives, and in particular that of the American music format with a product that is embraced all over the world, even in countries where English is not the national language. The occasion differs, but this time it was the passing of the revered soul singer Aretha Franklin that triggered an international outburst, showing the hold that popular music has on mankind. In that response, in country after country, some as far away as Japan and Australia, and some as close as our Caribbean sisters, we are seeing the reach of this form and the depth of it, in this reaction to Aretha.
Looking at the structure of the thing, it is fascinating to notice that pop songs come in all stripes and colours – there is no one overall formula – and often the impact of the work rests on different foundations as well. Sometimes it is the melody, pure and simple, captivating you from the first time you hear it in examples like Amazing Grace and Hotel California or Whiter Shade of Pale or Greensleeves. Often that is all it takes, that finely etched array of notes, leading in one direction, usually in a chorus or finale of some sort – almost every successful song has that. In Hotel California, for example, the verses leave us with a feeling of tension, of suspense, of something about to happen, so that when the major shift occurs and we land on the line “Welcome to the Hotel California,” it is like a relief, like a new day dawning. That ability to create suspense in a melody is a gift the great song writers have – great Broadway writers like Rodgers and Hammerstein (Oklahoma) and Stephen Sondheim have it spades. So does our own David Rudder as he shows in his calypso classic Praise and Barbadian Gabby in his masterpiece Emmerton.
Sometimes, it is the lyric that is so right, hitting some important point and touching that nerve within us. The American song by the Weavers, This Land is Your Land is an example of that, so is the Paul Anka song My Way, made famous by Frank Sinatra, but sung again and again by pop singers everywhere. Sometimes, it is a case of the song-writer, especially gifted with the ability to find an unusual way to make his/her point by coming at the subject differently, an example being Glenn Campbell’s huge hit By The Time I Get To Phoenix, which is a love song in which the word “love” doesn’t dominate; instead the writer uses the approach of showing how often he is thinking about his beloved simply from the time on the clock. Here again the ingenuity of the song-writer comes into play as the creative mind is coming at the subject apparently from left field as in The Beatles’ song Something, where George Harrison creates what Sinatra described as “the best long song ever written.” Similarly, we see the genius of Lord Superior, extolling Obama’s rise as the first black US President, with his song Black Coffee.
Sometimes it is the musical arrangement of the song that pulls us…like Bob Marley using that short organ line intro in the chorus of his song No Woman No Cry. It is as if he has configured those few notes to form a platform on which to give that evocative phrase a place to properly stand. Listen to it again, and notice how sweetly it works, how it’s like a fulfillment.
Many pop songs use that technique, sometimes in the heart of the song – Marley again, with the pulsating keyboard line in the verses of Would You Be Loved and again telling us subliminally that this is leading somewhere, this time to that funky chorus.
Sometimes, it is in the sheer beauty of the vocal work, with voice matching melody and message perfectly as in Nat King Cole covering Stardust or Andrea Bocelli’s Con Te Partiro, or Aretha herself singing Amazing Grace, the beauty of the human voice coming through, strong a steel but soft as velvet. Check out Sparrow singing Only a Fool, originally a Brook Benton song but Francisco Slinger shows us he has the pipes, too. (In the same arena as Aretha, one must inevitably mention Nina Simone, with similar vocal gifts.)
Sometimes it is the producer of the song who takes an unusual and even daring approach to the format, as in the case of the recording by late Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole of the song Over the Rainbow, originally made famous by US movie star Judy Garland. The producer dispensed with the traditional huge orchestra one would expect he would use for that majestic song and simply put Israel in a studio singing with only his ukulele accompaniment –just four strings – and letting that pure tenor vocal dominate.
Or it can be the sheer rhythmic pulse of the thing, that sets toes tapping, that makes mankind get up and dance. Like Elvis Presley’s early hit Don’t be Cruel, drawing on that black American gospel music he was familiar with; or Lord Nelson’s Garret Bounce, and his monster hit La La, or the legion of reggae successes coming out of Jamaica from the ska groups and Cliff and Marley and Gregory Isaacs. Dance time, as in much of our popular soca and dancehall music today.
In this consideration, we can look back and see that Aretha’s work shows all of the above ingredients. She was original, she was danceable, she conveyed emotion, she often reverted to simplicity – Fender Rhodes piano sound and drums – and the voice, like Nina Simone, always the voice, coming through so pure and smooth and causing reactions in the heart, as she did at one of her last performances, bringing tears from President Obama. Certainly, one of the best voices of our time. The work she has left will stand the test of time.