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What is a song?

Submitted by admin on August 4, 2008 – 11:57 amNo Comment
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Conversations, not conclusions

By Omar Afra
I am not an asshole. This is not a thesis, just a rant. Take it for what it is.


Men profess to be lovers of music, but for the most part they give no evidence in their opinions and lives that they have heard it. ~Henry David Thoreau


What is a song?
Sounds like such a simple question? You may say there is not a simple answer. What is simple is the fact that what constitutes a song has really been lost. There has been much discussion in Houston lately pertaining to the music scene and what folks can really do to make it better and convince people to go to more shows. What better solution than to write stellar songs? Well, to do this people need to know what really makes a song. Therein lies the tricky part. A song is more easily recognized than defined. To understand this, you need to erase all of the baggage that contemporary culture attaches to the word song. Forget about singer-songwriters. Forget about top 40. Most importantly, forget about ‘structures’ like verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus. Then what is a song? I am not sure I can tell you but I am very sure I can tell what is not a song. A song is not a collection of ‘riffs’ in the same key. A song is not a melody smashed on top of musical masturbators rocking out. A song is not a catchy hook with unfortunate verses crowded around it. Fact of the matter is that many critically acclaimed bands, even local heroes, have everything it takes to be a great band except for the elusive song. Bands spend decades honing their chops, developing their own sound, deciding on the coolest pair shoes, and playing before thousands of people. Many a great local band here in Houston make it just short of the mountaintop but fall short because they have no songs. Now a ‘piece of music’ can be great and popular yet not be a song. Huh? Ya see, there are great bands out there with no songs. Shitty bands write great songs. There are also terrible pieces of music that are indeed songs as well. Conversely, many great bands do not write songs. Know what I am saying? Neither do I. Now, you may be saying to yourself that experimental and fringe music takes the blame here. Not at all. This is not a genre specific argument. Band of all breeds differ on this one critical detail. For lack of a better example take Jimi Hendrix for instance. There were legions of hyper-talented guitar players during hat era that get not an iota of the same credit as Jimi does yet were comparable guitar players. Why did he get the kudos for revolutionizing the instrument? Simply said, because he put his wondrous playing in the context of great songs. Another example would be the world of indie rock. With countless new bands born and dying every 15 minutes, why are only a handful remembered despite us living in an age where recording, producing, and delivering music has become so easy thanks to technology. Again, songs. So many of these bands are so focused on peripheral factors like aesthetic, soundscape, identity, and novelty that they lack a vehicle to deliver these things. As I see it, counter-culture music was once leaning more towards literature and has veered to lean way too far towards entertainment. Not just that, but learning music has become frowned upon by the masses. Which brings me to my sad yet sobering hypothesis. We are entering an era where our brightest days are behind us just as literature was in Europe shortly after the apex of Shakespeare or Star Wars after Jedi. Yeah, there is more to come but it won’t be is good as it’s predecessors. Where are the Stevie Wonders of our generation? The Ramones? The Willie Nelsons? Now, I am sure I sound like a cantankerous old man and I have to mention that amazing songs are being written everyday around the world d and here in Houston. Local artists like Fat Tony, The McKenzies, Craig Kinsey, Satin Hooks, and countless others all push the song-peddling envelope. Nonetheless, the problem of putting songwriting on the backburner persists. Do I have any solutions? Shit no. But I can make a few suggestions to the many musicians that complain to me of the status of their band, scene, or city? Do yourself a favor and study music, listen to the greats, and dig deep in your soul and internalize what a song means to you. Who knows, you just may prove me wrong. I actually need that. I pray to Allah you do so.

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