News Column

The song will always remain the same - no matter how it's written

June 14, 2013


A few weeks on from the Ivor Novello awards and the aggro/ verbals/handbags continue to fly. At the core of the debate is the question of what actually constitutes a song. And whether Calvin Harris should be burned at the stake by "real" musicians. Strap in, things could get bumpy.

We begin with the musical man of the moment, Harris. He carried off the songwriter of the year award at this year Ivors, a recognition of the fact that he has written more hits than any other living being over the past five years.

The nod to Harris was perceived as commercial dance music being accepted by the mainstream - the Ivors usually like their music to be of the "composed and played on guitar or piano" variety.

But traditionalists asked: is Calvin Harris actually a songwriter? If you remove all the studio hocus-pocus and reduce his oeuvre to bare melody line, is there actually a song (in the commonly accepted definition of the term)?

The man at the Daily Telegraph went to great lengths to show that Harris's best-known song, We Found Love (In a Hopeless Place), was simply a four-chord sequence repeated "ad infinitum" over which "floats some vague impressionistic verses". Most damning of all, "there is no bridge, no middle eight, nothing but rhythm, verse, chorus, sound and that incessant two-note keyboard hook." Goodness me.

We learn that other Harris songs are "just two chords with someone going 'Oh'". Harris's songs don't stand the test of just being played on a piano and "won't be sung around a campfire in another 20 years," the article concludes.

All of which is arrant nonsense and, more disturbing, an example of musical fundamentalism which runs counter to the very spirit of the free-wheeling/anything goes/ joyous nature of popular music.

Harris's award wasn't decided by a bunch of teenagers texting "We heart Calvin" to the Ivors; it was judged by other songwriters. A song is what you hear, not a mathematical equation with middle eight and bridge components. Even if you regard Harris as the Chris DeBurgh of dance music, it is an ineluctable fact that he's an extremely skilled pop music composer. Abba were similarly divisive in their day.

But then popular music can be surprisingly reactionary. Ivor Novello was accused of writing light and inconsequential music; Elvis Presley was not considered to be a "real musician" when he began and The Beatles and The Stones had to contend with similar prejudices.

If it is accepted that the two best popular music intros belong to Pretty Vacant and Mamma Mia then you're looking at simplistic, repetitive and cliched musical moves (just like Harris's We Found Love ), but the effect is gloriously transcendent in both cases.

Noel Gallagher didn't enjoy his lifetime achievement award at this year's Ivors because he doesn't agree with "teams of songwriters" getting a Novello award.

It matters not a jot. A song can be musically stupid, can have its bassline written in a Swedish music factory, its rhythm line can be a sample and its melody can be put together on the back of a beer mat in a pub by however many people it takes.

There are no rules. And there never should be.

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