A friend wrote in and sent me some of the songs of Keith Urban, asking for my opinion. As part of an initial reply, I made the comment to her about changes in country music and what constitutes “country music” today:

“Is it the twang in the voice, the occasional use of country instruments (banjo, pedal steel guitar), the content of the lyrics? I know that there has been a fluid relationship between country music and rock ever since rock’s beginning. Many early rockers straddled the boundary – Elvis, Bill Hailey, Conway Twitty (model for Conrad Birdie in “Bye, Bye Birdie”). Still, I wonder.”

She said in response:

“I think, ultimately, your point about fluidity is precisely what defines country music. Oxymoronic, I know, but if you look at the history of country music, it has never fully taken on an identity independent of anything else. It has always grown out of everything else happening around it. As times and tastes changed, country music would pick up new sounds, continuing to carry along with it something it had had before, and just sort of layering new influence after new influence after new influence into an ever-widening format. Sure, over decades, certain instruments and approaches came to be considered the core or foundation of country music (“true country music”), but it kept developing around that core. Right now, country music really sounds like everything else because the globalization of entertainment has wiped out individuality. Everyone has instant access to virtually any kind of music, and that immediacy means taste barriers have been worn down, and influences have multiplied exponentially. The industry has pushed for innovation across genres to attract more business, which means there’s very little distinction between genres anymore. That’s working fine for the present, but ultimately, it’s going to backfire, and I think in the not-so-distant future, there will be a return to more exclusive sounds (given that people seek novelty, and nothing is novel anymore because it’s all the same).

Until quite recently, I think it probably would be fair to say that if anything, country music stood out thematically. Country music used to be very story-driven, as opposed to self-expression driven. Where other forms of pop were all about how the ‘speaker’ feels, country was sung from the perspective of an observer. Even in more modern times, a lot of ‘country’ songs have expressed a personal feeling through at least a minimal plot structure, as opposed to simply describing feelings. For the longest time, love per se didn’t really figure in country music, but only secondarily where the main topic was the day-in day-out of the common man, so to speak. Again, that’s a theme that still looms large in country music. In general, country music still prides itself on a sort of down-home celebration of everyday life and making the best of bad situations instead of just complaining about them (a la rap). However, music reflects society and society is a mess right now, so country music isn’t as wholesome as it once was (though it’s also true that country music has never been as wholesome as some people like to think, and it has been through phases in the past where it was pretty terrible).”

This is a very good presentation on the matter, so I quoted it in full. I would only pick up on her statement that

“[e]veryone has instant access to virtually any kind of music, and that immediacy means taste barriers have been worn down, and influences have multiplied exponentially.”

Now there is a lot of truth to this statement, except that, upon critical analysis, it becomes clear that only certain influences have spread and been adopted – others have pointedly not been adopted. Why is this? Call it a theme or a ‘hobby horse’ of mine, I hear increasing evidence that, across the board, people have lost the ability (or perhaps the desire?) to write a truly tuneful melody. Of the 15 Keith Urban songs which my correspondent sent me, only one of them had a memorable melody, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” however this was actually a cover of a song written in the 1970’s by Billy Nichols – ancient history to most young people today.

Now, just to be clear, Keith Urban is clearly a competent musician and, from an interview I watched, seems to be a very personable individual. His lyrics are interestingly moral for our times, too. However, from the standpoint of compositional craft, I detected two musical approaches in his songwriting technique: 1) lots of repetition of small phrase units (“Stupid Boy,” “Til Summer Comes,” “Long Hot Summer”) or 2) an almost recitative-like delivery of words on one or a limited number of pitches (You’ll Think of Me,” “Song for Dad,” “Raise ‘Em Up,” “Black Leather Jacket”). Sometimes these two approaches are combined, as in “Without You,” “Put You in a Song,” and “For You.” There is also quite a harmonic parsimoniousness; “Raise “Em Up,” for example, is one of the most harmonically static songs I have heard recently. This is by no means unique to Keith Urban, I have recognized this across the board in song writers such as Adele, Alicia Keys, U2 and Coldplay.

I almost feel like Oliver Twist in a rather hip, cheery orphanage which, nonetheless, still refuses to give me second helpings.

However back to the issue of melody, what I hear in some of his songs is something somewhat (and I stress SOMEWHAT) akin to recitative or arioso in opera. I mean this in the sense that, while one can argue that there is a logic to them – they are melodies of a sort – they are not tuneful or memorable. Going back to my operatic analogy, there is a reason why arias, and NOT recitatives or ariosi, were excerpted for home performance, by street corner musicians, etc. This tunefulness was a characteristic of American popular song, also, for decades.

Such a melody has an ebb and flow, a rise and fall in the pitches, often a motivic development – but, above all, an inevitability and memorability. This is regardless of genre. Let me present one example of a memorable, successful country melody sung by Johnny Cash – “I Walk the Line.”

Notice the little rise and fall within the first musical phrase on the words “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.” He then repeats the same musical phrase on the second line, “I keep my eyes wide open all the time,” which builds a little intensity. Next, on “I keep the ends out for the tie that binds” there is a similar musical phrase, however it peaks a third higher, thus taking us to the climax of the entire melody. “Because you’re mine,” takes the melody back down in simple step-wise fashion, where things level off on “I walk the line.”

It is a classic arch form.

Now, this is an extremely simple melody and I am not saying that all country music (let alone all popular music) must sound like this. I am taking a simple example to make my point about what makes a successful, tuneful melody. If you want more ‘advanced’ (but still tuneful) country melodies, listen to Willie Nelson or, perhaps, Garth Brooks. These are influences within the living memory of many of us. If not, they are readily available to younger people via modern technology: cd’s, mp3’s, YouTube, iTunes. Why do these songs not function as influences on modern country songwriters?

Why do people in general seem not to desire beautiful melodies anymore? Am I wrong? Are there lots of beautiful, tuneful popular melodies out there that I am simply missing? Please correct me. I would love to be proven wrong.