Recently, I read a story in The Atlantic about the origins of some of contemporary music’s most popular songs. In Hit Charade, Nathanial Rich reveals how five obscure Scandinavian men are largely responsible for the current string of hits by such artists as Taylor Swift, David Guetta, Fifth Harmony, The Weeknd, and Nicki Minaj. Songs like “Bad Blood,” “Hey Mama,” “Can’t Feel My Face,” and “The Night is Still Young” – none of which are on my heavy-rotation playlist – have been penned by the likes of Karl Martin Sandberg (age 44), Mikkel Eriksen (43), Tor Hermansen (44), Lukasz Gottwald (42) and Esther Dean (33).
“Aha!” I screamed in self-righteous disgust after this gruesome discovery of creative coverups! Those phoney-ass pop marketing machines finally have been revealed as the frauds they truly are. Writing their own songs…bah! They’re simply singing along to the formulaic patterns and assembly-line lyrics of some underpaid, under-acknowledged, under-appreciated sweatshop victims living in the icy, desperate throes of Norway, Sweden, and other sun-depraved environs, far away from the majesty of our domestic hit capitals of Nashville, Memphis, Detroit, and LA.
In a world of syncopated synth sounds scrounged up on the clacking keyboards of some first-name-only producer’s MacBook Pro, there is simply no room for the great singer-songwriters of my tender, formative years. Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Patti Smith, and Carol King are certainly dry heaving over this crass sample-laden practice masquerading as the pure art of music making. "Loathsome," I muttered to myself.
Nope, not like the old days. The old days…when we knew exactly where our favorite music was coming from.
And then it hit me. I remembered a film I had seen on Netflix earlier this year. The Wrecking Crew is a hit-rich documentary about a group of Los Angeles-based studio musicians who played on many of the most recognizable songs of the 1960s. Ever wonder who played the music behind stars like Frank Sinatra, The Monkees, and the Mamas and Papas? Or who was responsible for bringing to life Phil Spector's iconic Wall of Sound? Or who played the instruments on the Beach Boys most ground-breaking album, Pet Sounds? Yep, it was the Wrecking Crew. A bunch of hardly recognizable musicians who were the best of the best session players of the time.
And then, one by one, I recalled instances when I learned the melodies and riffs of so many favorite songs had been created by other heretofore unknowns…at least unknown to me. Groups like the Funk Brothers, The Swampers of Muscle Shoals, and Stax Records’ Booker T and the MGs. And more recently, I watched 20 Feet From Stardom and Hired Gun, documentaries that brought recognition to so many talented singers and musicians who worked gigs for session rates, but left a mark on music history.
Gigging is certainly nothing new. Hell, I’ve been doing it professionally for the better part of 20 years as a freelance writer, video producer, and event producer. It’s a life full of all the talent and not a glimmer of glamor. But it pays the mortgage and is a helluva lot more fun than digging ditches or flipping burgers.
It’s simple…someone’s going to get the spotlight, but most of the time that beacon is shining somewhere other than on the source of the magic. Here’s to the unknown, the anonymous artists, the invisible icons who – gig after gig – manage to keep us dancing and singing. Keep those songs coming, Tor!