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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Koppy's 'Words and Music' indicts know-nothing culture

by Philip Martin | October 17, 2021 at 2:09 a.m.
“Words and Music Into the Future: A Songwriting Treatise and Manifesto” might change the way you think about popular music and the work of some of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed “artists” of the past 60 or so years.

When you write about books for a newspaper, you hear from people who have written books. On any given day, I get 20 or so email messages from authors who would like me to write about their work. Often they'll attach a PDF of the book or offer to put a copy in the mail for me. Sometimes they just go ahead and send the books.

I'm not complaining; it's a perk of the office. I like books and writers and with more time and space and energy I would write about more books than I do. But the obvious reality is that I can only write about so many books a year. And the constituency I seek to serve is not people who write books, but people who read newspapers.

So I am more likely to write about the sort of books that benefit from high-dollar corporate advertising campaigns than the memoirs of minor tycoons or self-published poetry chapbooks. Because more people are interested in Jonathan Franzen's latest novel than, say, the adventures of a dashing Southern small-town newspaper editor.

(That said, let's note that the digital revolution has made self-publishing so inexpensive it's become a viable option for aspiring authors with a realistic view of the commercial prospects, and the big houses continue to publish lots of bad bestsellers. The heavy stigma once attached to self-published projects has somewhat dissipated.)

So it takes a lot for a book like Michael Koppy's "Words and Music Into the Future: A Songwriting Treatise and Manifesto" to crash the gates of this column. Koppy's subject, while of interest to everyone who cares even a little bit about popular song, sounds fairly esoteric, like a technical manual for songwriters.

It bears a copyright date of 2019 (though it's likely being constantly revised and updated), so it's not exactly hot off the presses, even if we make allowances for the pandemic. And it's published by the West Hollywood, Calif.-based Good Track Records, which is probably Koppy's business pseudonym — on its website, goodtrackrecords.com, it pitches Koppy's book, his 2012 album "Ashmore's Store," and a 2015 recording by Florida roots musician Frank Lindamood.

So, right now, an interested reader can't simply drop by their local bookstore and pick up a copy of "Words and Music"; you'd have to have the shop order it. Or you could order it from Amazon.com, though Koppy would prefer you go through your local bookstore.

And there was no local connection I could make between the author and Arkansas, though we did exchange emails about how the last time he was in Little Rock (as a stagehand with the touring company of "The Robber Bridegroom," probably in 1977, because John Goodman was in the cast) he visited Max Itzkowitz, the proprietor of Maxie's Reliable Mercantile and Loan Office, who kept a "going out of business" sign in the window of his shop for 40 years. (Maxie's really did go out of business in 1989, the year after Itzkowitz died.)

On the other hand, I'm a songwriter and a critic who's interested in how (and why) pop songs are made. Plus Koppy wrote an entertaining, erudite email indicative of an original, lively voice. I wanted to read his book, and thought there was a chance to mention it in passing in one column or another. So I asked him to send it along.

And it's terrific.

Michael Koppy is the author of “Words and Music Into the Future: A Songwriting Treatise and Manifesto.” (Courtesy of Michael Koppy)
Michael Koppy is the author of “Words and Music Into the Future: A Songwriting Treatise and Manifesto.” (Courtesy of Michael Koppy)

Let me qualify that.

"Words and Music Into the Future: A Songwriting Treatise and Manifesto" is a brilliant, cranky, obsessive work of cultural criticism that might change the way you think about popular music and the work of some of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed "artists" of the past 60 or so years. It's a necessary corrective to some of the high-flung fanboy academic apologies for the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and The Band and similar prestige recording artists.

(I'm going to continue to use the word "artists" as shorthand for the sort of performing songwriters who make records even though I agree with Koppy's point that writing a good song is more an act of workmanship than whatever it is we think artists do. All artists, even the best, are really artisans who accomplish their work with technique and tools. There is no real magic available to our kind; we can only muster the performative illusion of it coming to us easily via a muse or in a dream.)

And Koppy starts out with the seemingly revolutionary premise that words mean things and that we ought to pay attention to what the singer is saying. It's not just that the song is more important than the singer — no offense to Mick Jagger — but that the lyrics are the most important part of the song.

I know this is controversial, but Koppy makes a persuasive argument, starting out by deconstructing the lyrics of "American Pie" (a relatively easy target) and The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," which if you think about them make no more sense than Don McLean's "good old boys ... drinkin' whiskey and rye" (for rye is a kind of whiskey).

For the record, I pushed back a little against the idea of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" being not good — I wrote Koppy that Levon Helm's vocal redeems Robbie Robertson's lyric and that "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is "a great song with a lyric that simply doesn't cohere."

"And that incoherence," I went on, "has been raised to convention by the practitioners of the form. Singing in character — and Levon's nothing if not a great vocal actor — he's mouthing the inarticulate sentiments of shell-shocked Virgil Cain. That's not letting Robertson off the hook, it's just a way of receiving the work without having to worry about parsing the lyrical content.

"I mean, you're right — but when Roky Erickson sings about being in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog we don't take him literally, we just allow that Roky's a little off his nut and probably under the influence of something."

My point, one that has been argued many times, is that song lyrics serve primarily as a channel for the emotive flow of the singer's voice. They are not meant to be attended to too closely; to do so is to straitjacket the singer and discount the whole of the song — the music, the performance, the "vibe," or what have you.

Paul Simon has argued that rock critics tend to treat songs "like English lit" because that's what they're most comfortable writing about. Because they are writers after all, and it's not always easy to grasp, much less explain in words, what's happening musically in a song. A lot — probably most — rock critics don't play an instrument. So they put more emphasis on the words, performing exegesis on lyrics because they can.

And there's certainly some truth to that, but Koppy argues we "deserve better."

In his email response, Koppy allows that a great singer like Levon Helm "can obfuscate lyrical ineptitudes — and even outright stupidities (!) — but they remain in the song itself. That we've all been conditioned to accept, or at minimum create 'rationales' for, material which clearly does not intrinsically merit such indulgence is, yes, a fact. But it's not an excuse or license — or benediction — for the material.

"So no, I don't think it's at all 'treating (song lyrics) as English lit' to require that a serious song ... be exposited with the seriousness it purports to obtain. (Again, note, I'm addressing 'serious songs'.) But 'Na-na-na-na-na-na; na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na'? That ain't even close to what a song like this should ... be expected to deliver ... That ... is simply solely imperious contempt for the task, and for the audience."

Koppy allowed of my example, the Roky Erickson song "Two-Headed Dog," that if "an effort is framed — obviously, consistently written — as (shall we say) 'whimsical realism,' then the bar is set lower."

But he also added that Erickson was in fact "taking off from specific actualities there — a Russian scientist 'experimenting' Mengele-esquely on animals."

And I thought it was about drugs.

"The Key Question to each of us that I raise, ultimately, is much larger than anything above," Koppy wrote. "It's this: How willing are we ... to be suckered by the cynically pompous entertainment industry? Where are we ... willing to draw the line? How unwilling are each of us to be embarrassed — have our intelligence assaulted ... by what we (deliberately or inadvertently) buy into?"

■ ■ ■

"Words and Music Into the Future" isn't just about how bad a lot of pop songs are, it's an astute indictment of the know-nothing culture that elevates the loud and the overt, that indulges in reality television and cable news and dismisses anything difficult as pretentious.

More than once while reading the book I thought of culture warrior Alan Bloom's 1987 broadside "The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students." But while Koppy does have some of Bloom's obsession and crankiness, he understands rock 'n' roll and acknowledges that the heart wants what it wants.

There's nothing wrong with liking what you like, Koppy seems to be saying, you should just understand what it is and what it isn't. And most lyrics in venerated pop songs are just plain dumb.

Koppy recognizes how in "Ode to Billie Joe" Bobbie Gentry "beautifully incorporates believable quotidian mundanities throughout her song, as a literary device lightly obscuring the profound confessional that's the heart of the piece — critical, pivotal facts of 'Ode to Billie Joe' which she tantalizingly and skillfully never fully reveals. And, most substantively, to brilliantly capture the oblivious but entirely innocent self-absorption that permeates most human preoccupation and behavior."

Then he turns around and contrasts Gentry's work with Bob Dylan's "Clothes Line Saga," his "Basement Tapes"-era parody of "Ode to Billy Joe."

"Dylan's creation is hack garbage — hack garbage with a big smarmy smirk on its face," Koppy writes. Then he offers up the two lyrics for us to do our own research. He's right — Dylan's work is far inferior, and "this isn't a situation in which something is 'transcendentally clever' due to its pretending to be hack work. No, this is the real thing."

You could argue that with Koppy. But you'd probably lose.

Sure, there are reasons to criticize "Words and Music Into the Future" — the title is odd, it reminds me of something the Amazing Criswell, the charlatan psychic most famous for his appearance in Ed Wood's "Plan 9 from Outer Space," might have intoned.

And Koppy could have used an editor — I didn't find many typos, but sometimes the book suffers from a certain choppiness. Its 308 pages are divided into 59 chapters; there are also four appendixes and an index that would be very useful if it were more accurate. (Most, if not all of this awkwardness probably derives from the book's beginnings as a series of blog posts.)

I would have preferred footnotes to endnotes — copious, entertaining and enlightening — that Koppy supplies. I didn't read them until I got to the end of a chapter, and then I found myself flipping back through the text to see exactly what they referenced.

And Koppy obviously has a strong distaste for Bob Dylan that proceeds from a quite reasonable critique of Dylan's ethical and business practices, which have raised eyebrows in many quarters over the years. This might color his judgment of some of Dylan's work — while Dylan is generally highly overrated as a lyricist (and some of his most famous songs contain some of his worst "poetry"), he has written a number of genuinely great songs, none of which might survive Koppy's parsing. Nearly all of "Blood on the Tracks," "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," "Like a Rolling Stone" and the nasty "Positively Fourth Street" deserve the esteem in which they are generally held.

But those are quibbles, and "Words and Music Into the Future" is a smart and funny book by a man obsessed with quality who is unwilling to allow the naked emperor his dignity or to cut the fools who flatter him any slack.

It's essential for anyone who cares about the craft of songwriting — which should, but unfortunately doesn't, include all current and aspiring practitioners of the trade.

Email: pmartin@adgnewsoom.com

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