Please Can I Be Diane Warren for a While?
This writer admits a weakness – for beneath this cynical and unyielding intimidation, there beats the heart of a musical romantic.
I am a deluded optimist who believes in a very unfashionable form of music, something that I call a “real” song. I share that view with Diane Warren, songwriter (not performer), and owner of the publishing company ‘Real Songs’. Wish I’d thought of it first. Ms Warren has penned many of the biggest power ballads you know, including, but far from being limited to Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”, Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me”, and LeAnn Rimes’s ‘How Do I Live?’.
OK, I must clear up a point here. I’m not in the market for songs like that myself. Of Mmes Dion and Rimes I am most definitely not a fan. And no, before you think it’s just about the bazillions Ms. Warren no doubt earns, no, it’s not just about the money either. But what I really appreciate about Diane Warren, although perhaps not the individual songs themselves, is the meaning of that style of songwriting, both compositionally and in terms of the reach and universality real songs can have. It’s around today – you only have to listen to track one of Frances’s album ‘Things I’ve Never Said’.
Astonishing and eternal
So let me explain what I mean by ‘real’ songs. At the risk of coming across a bit “they don’t make ’em like they used to”, here goes. For me, it starts with George and Ira Gershwin, writing songs not for themselves, but for others to sing. Truly astonishing, eternal songs that exist for themselves, that are bigger than their performers, with so many people recording them that it doesn’t matter who had a hit with ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’, ‘The Man I Love’, ‘Embraceable You’, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, ‘Love is Here to Stay’. It’s not that I’m just being an oldie, because Gershwin died in 1937, so he’s not of my era. I don’t even like Broadway shows. But then there’s Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Hoagy Carmichael. Come into the 50s and 60s and the Brill Building, where Neil Sedaka, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Marvin Hamlisch churned out hits for others to perform.
The Beatles screwed it up
It was the Beatles, bless them, who screwed it up for the songwriters, with their new fangled ideas about cutting out the middleman, not just performing but writing and even publishing their own songs. The increased royalty share that would earlier have been pocketed by others, gave lots of artists the same idea, and the Brill Building lost a lot of its earlier brilliance and popularity. Thing was – bands writing their own songs were writing them for themselves, not necessarily for anybody else. More often than not, these were not ‘real’ songs as such, but merely vehicles for the use only of the musicians who wrote them solely for their own purposes. When bands began writing for themselves, we lost the Brill tradition. Of course there have been a few notable exceptions, of which Paul McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’ and George Harrison’s ‘Something’ are prime examples, but they only serve to show how extraordinary the Beatles were. When we lost Tin Pan Alley and Brill, we lost something important. No longer was the song the star.
Of course you know lots and lots of contemporary great songs – but how many of that list can only be performed by the artist who wrote them? Are you thinking ‘No Surprises’ or ‘(Nice Dream)’? Maybe ‘God Only Knows’? Perhaps ‘You Could Have Had It All’? ‘Honky Tonk Women’? ‘Stairway To Heaven’ (no, ironic performances don’t count)? The key is this – now that the song is no longer the star, what we are writing nowadays are songs that are the expression only of their single performers and so have no inherent longevity. When the popularity of those performers goes, the songs will go with them. Bands have come and gone, but Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ is still here. And Gershwin himself never recorded it.
Diane Warren is writing songs that are meant only for others to sing. So is Burt Bacharach. That means that the songs they write must have an innately universal, and so more likely a timeless appeal. I’m not that much of a performer. Yes I can get on a stage at an acoustic club and scratch out my own stuff. But what I’d rather be doing is writing songs that somebody not even born yet will record thirty years from now, translated from the original English, and be the fourteenth artist to do so. I want millions of people to think “I like that song”, and know it’s been sung by many famous people, but not have a clue who wrote it. But the music industry will know, and will come to me to write songs like that, because they want to be earning royalties from it in their dotage, not just now.
I want to be Diane Warren, please. Just for a little while. Or maybe Burt Bacharach. Or Cole Porter. Or Randy Newman. So I can write ‘real’ songs and give something back to all of the above and especially George and Ira Gershwin. Thanks for the big melodies, the great lyrics and the B-ninths.