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Stop making sense: style over content or content over style in contemporary song



Ian Tamblyn has written more than 1,500 songs over his lifetime and released more than 30 albums, earning a Juno nomination and a Canadian Folk Music Award in the process.  So we were thrilled here at Roots Music Canada when he offered to share some of his wisdom with us.  Ian has reflected on and written about many facets of artistic life over the years, and we’re publishing some of those writings here.

I got a girlfriend who is better than this

And you don’t remember at all

As we get older and stop making sense

You won’t find her waiting long.

Stop making sense, stop making sense…..” – David Byrne

Before I get into this look at style and content in songs, I will confess that I have rarely written a song that didn’t make sense – at least to me. Some of my songs might be nonlinear, but they are hopefully emotionally centred. Occasionally I will include a phrase that seems to come from the “speaking in tongues” territory, but nothing like the work of David Byrne during his time with Talking Heads. And yet, his seemingly disconnected snippets of cultural graffiti made perfect absurdist sense in the context of totally danceable grooves and the post-modern urban scene of New York. “Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa! – Psycho Killer- Qu’est ce que c’est!” It didn’t make sense but you couldn’t help but sing along! He was “the times,” just as Dylan had been the New York “times” when he came out with his post beat phantasmagoria on Highway 61 Revisited in 1965.

God said to Abraham “Kill me a son”

Abe says “Man, you must be putting me on”

God says “No,” Abe says, “What?”

God says “You can do what you want Abe but

The next time you see me comin’ you better run.”

Abe says “Where you want this killing done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61.” – Bob Dylan

This hip rewrite of this Old Testament biblical tale helped bring an end to the earnest and erstwhile folk movement. With a style-driven “beat” look at the world, Bob’s new order shocked his fans. They called him a traitor, but Bob knew the times better than his audience. He was ahead of the curve. He had the talent and skill to move with the time – in fact, to determine the cultural times. The song, of course, was laden with content, but it was the style of the song that truly indicated the times were changin’! He was at the helm and felt the shift in the wind.

A recent version of style over content might be Feist’s hit song “1 2 3 4.”

1 2 3 4

Tell me that you love me more

Sleepless long nights

That’s what my youth is for

Old teenage hopes

Are alive at your door

Leave you with nothing

But they want some more. – Leslie Feist

Recall how catchy the song was because it was exactly indecipherable and perfectly, brilliantly stylish. In this case, the style absolutely triumphed over the content of the song; its catchy melody, a definitive voice, and a perfect combination of innocence, seeming amateurism and slick professional gloss made this the ultimate pop song. In many ways this modern approach to songwriting owes a lot to the eighties hit song “What I Am” by Edie Brickell. As Dylan ushered in the mid 60s, Edie Brickell introduced a new generation’s take on things through a stylish statement. Once again the content was in the style. If you think this type of style-over-content song is a recent phenomenon think about T-Rex’s “Bang a Gong” or The Kingsmen’s perfectly garage band “Louie Louie.”

In the cases above and many others, it would seem that style rules over content and, to be McLuhanesque, style is the content. Songs like “What I Am” read like RD Laing poems found in Knots, his zen-like explorations of pyschological conundrums. The swing of style and content, and how it is balanced in song has moved back and forth over the last century and probably before – diddle dum diddle dum fah! For many songwriters, however, particularly those leaning towards the folk and country end of the spectrum, narrative content remains the important element.

The style in the content of the song comes with every writer and player. The way one sings, the way one plays the guitar, the way one approaches the writing of a song, the subject matter – all are the beginnings of a style. Some of us might also subscribe to a style of the day, or to that of an artist one particularly admires. One might take on the voice of Neil Young, Tom Petty, or Lucinda Williams. Sometimes there can be some piling on of styles. Tom Petty, for example, was influenced by the guitar sounds of the Byrds and the vocal twang of Dylan. Mix that up with some excellent writing, small town Florida, and a great band, and you have Tom Petty.

It is important for each songwriter to be aware of style and content in their work and where their work fits or stands apart from the ongoing song continuum. We write songs in some solitude but not in a vacuum. I think it is important to develop your own style and, in doing so, be aware of ongoing and emerging styles that are coming from the street or are part of the sonic palette of the times. To be ahead of the curve or to be the curve can involving turning verses from Ecclesiastes into Pete Seeger’s “To Everything There is a Season” and the Byrd’s “Turn, Turn Turn!” with the sound of a twelve-string Rickenbaker.


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