The revenge of the song poem


Rebecca Black's derided semi-hit song "Friday" has altered our perception of - well, not what's good, but what we're going to allow in our headspace. It's a singularly weird pop moment in which a song has - well, not been embraced, but turned a profit because of its awesome incompetence. That's something new in terms of musical economics (or what's left of it).

But artistically, "Friday" is actually reanimating and, in a way, legitimizing a form of perversely fascinating pop music that's been lingering in the cultural dustbin for a long time. And now, finally, it's having its revenge.
-----------

I think we can relax about the ungodly possibility that "Friday," the freakishly bad single from 13-year-old Rebecca Black, will become a touchstone of pop music. It's already down to #66 on the charts. The money's come in, there's not going to be any more, and "Friday" will retire as the Keyboard Cat of "incorrect music," which we'll loosely describe here as "music made by people who probably shouldn't be making music." Irwin Chusid would probably refine that definition. But let's leave it at that for our purposes. The "Friday" video got over 95,000,000 views on YouTube, with (at this writing) 1,927,208 "dislikes" versus "likes." People were watching this video to see just how bad it was, not to gaze upon its resplendence.

I feel bad for the girl. Not because I like the song. I don't really see how it's materially possible to like the song. But I feel bad for her, for two reasons. The first is that that no innocent 13-year-old deserves to be dragged through the mud for this. It's not like she's Damien from The Omen. He sounds more like Tom Waits.

The second is that "Friday" being so bad isn't really Rebecca Black's fault. You could blame the producers for the grating Auto-Tune. But the bulk of the blame lies on the shoulders of the songwriters. When the dangling question of whether your protagonist should get in the front or the back seat serves as the climax to, not one, but two verses in your song, then you're something much, much worse than a dumb pop music songwriter: You've exposed yourself as being utterly incompetent. Not just at songwriting, but quite possibly at life itself.

I'm serious. If all you have experienced in this beingness has inspired within you an internal conflict about car seating arrangements, and the need to remind audiences about the positioning of Thursday as "yesterday," Friday being "today," Saturday strategically being "tomorrow," and then, as an unwarranted bonus, Sunday as a day that "comes afterwards" of said Saturday, as if any 13-year-olds might be in need of such a refresher course - geez, never mind creative tension, I'm shocked you've even mastered the art of walking. If you indeed have, 'cause right now it seems like you're having a moral quandary about whether to get in the frickin' front or back seat.

"Friday" the song is historically bad. That's where it gets its mojo: from its titanic, monolithic, curdled badness. Its popularity is based on its extreme unpopularity, its brazen ineptitude.

But believe it or not, it's not that unprecedented. Because I realized sometime last week that all "Friday" is, or will ever manage to be, is the most commercially successful product of a long-standing subset of music - one that's existed as a strict commercial property for almost half a century, has always been a source of disparagement, but remains a fascinating topic for fans of musical irony and outsider culture.

That is to say: "Friday" is the most popular song poem of all time. Its iTunes success could even be interpreted as the revenge of the song poem.

What's a song poem, and what does it sound like? Thrilled to death that you asked:

Image hijacked from http://www.songpoemmusic.com
In the '50s, '60s and '70s - and possibly later for all I know - some magazines had ads like the above in their classified sections. You, sitting at home in at your kitchenette table, might've been a hit songwriter and not even known it. Companies like Songcrafters offered you the chance to have your poem evaluated as to whether it might be good enough to be an actual record. You just had to send your poem in for a "free appraisal" to gauge if your writings were worthy of a real, professionally recorded song.

Your poem was reviewed by these recording houses and, almost always, judged as being more than good enough to be a song. You're a winner! So then the company would ask you to send some money their way to cover expenses, and in return you would receive a real recording of your song, set to music by in-house composers, and recorded by studio professionals.

In that regard, at least, companies like Songcrafters were not strictly scams. You did get a copy of your song, recorded by professionals, in contemporary pop styles. Whether they'd try to market or promote your song, though - well, that was up to you. Their job was done. And you, probably not having the acquaintance of independent record promoters or radio deejays, didn't really have the opportunity to market your song. So it died there, or shortly after you tried to give your local radio station a copy of your new record and were politely escorted away.

These recordings lingered somewhere in a vault, I suppose. Then someone with a sense of humor found a bunch of them, and released several collections legitimately in the early 2000's.


Let's just say the lyrics of these songs were not always replete with Coward-like wit or Porter-esque wordplay. They were the product of people who really didn't know how to be poets. But not all of them were entirely unsuccessful as final products. Rodd Keith - kind of considered the grandaddy of song poem magnates - had a fairly high return rate of enjoyability, given the materials he had to work with. And it wasn't all strictly ironic enjoyment, either. Keith was actually considered a legitimate musical genius by many. By and large, his songs on these post-mortem collections always stand the best chance of being something good.

Gene Marshall, on the other hand, often got the thankless task of recording the most structurally bothersome song poems. Marshall was the go-to guy for awkward statements of philosophy, moral didacticism, and social issues. But you got to hand it to him: He pushed through some stupefyingly bad lyrics - allegedly over 10,000 of them - with disarmingly good nature. His most astounding song was something called "All You Need Is A Fertile Mind," a truly weird lyric that, from what I can surmise, suggests that the listener avoid pornography in favor of masturbation. Marshall recorded song poems in support of both Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.


Song poems tended to reflect suburban concerns of a very specific time period. They took a stab at eternal questions, of course, but most song poem writers were using the most current events and social phenomena to convey those questions. Meaning you got songs about Santa Claus arriving on a nuclear missle, or about flip-flops.

Other questions were related through metaphors and personal stories only the original songwriter could understand, and couldn't fit into any reasonable meter. Such as:


And, of course, some song poems were submitted as total practical jokes that nobody's really sure the recording studio professionals got - like the recording that was the most famous song poem of all time before "Friday" came along:


This is the tradition that "Friday" belongs to, of which it is the rightful heir. The difference is that the composers of "Friday" are not suburban housewives or klutzy small-town poets - they're considered professionals. That might be because our standard of professionalism is at an all-time low, or because the music industry is so desperate. Whatever dreams of immortality the original song poem lyricists might have had were quickly laughed off, hopefully by themselves. The writers of "Friday" are actually in position to thrive as businesspeople, though their swivel chairs might be a short a wheel.

Something as bad as "Friday" getting revenue because it's bad is a new economic turning point, that's for sure. But artistically, the mindset required to create a song like "Friday" has been there for years. And now song poem publishers, if they're still around, are watching this song take hold of the public imagination in bizarre manner - and they're laughing with it, not at it. It's their revenge. I would guess that it's just as sweet as all other revenge is said to be. But I ain't gonna lick the spoon to find out.

Besides, at least there's one good version of "Friday" floating around out there.
2 comments

Popular Recent Posts