A highly promising research project into the power and effects of the popular song is being undertaken at the University of Hertfordshire. A lecturer in health psychology, Dr Nick Troop, has fed all the lyrics written by David Bowie into a computer and has come up with a list of words and phrases most likely to make a hit. At this point, revealing himself to be a frustrated pop star, Dr Troop strapped on his guitar, played a song he had written based on these musical buzzwords and posted a video of his performance online.
The strumming academic’s lyrics suggest that it may be some time before he hits the big time: “Buddy loves good loving: Calm and proud while peace wins/ Warmth and conversation: Heaven’s energy and an elegant charm” are the opening lines of his song. Summarising what he has discovered about Bowie’s song-writing, he is slightly clearer, but not startlingly original. “Songs with positive emotions and social processes were more successful than the songs that talked about mortality,” he reports.
What, one wonders, would the strumming psychologist have made of the great songwriter Ellie Greenwich, pictured, who died last week? One of her most famous songs, “Leader of the Pack”, was entirely about mortality and, if he had fed the words of two of her other hits “Da Do Ron Ron” and “Doo Wah Diddy” into his computer, it would probably have blown a circuit. Yet, working with her husband Jeff Barry, Greenwich was right up there with the great songwriting partnerships of the 1960s, Lieber and Stoller, Holland Dozier and Holland, and Lennon and McCartney.
Her hits ranged from the wildly dramatic “River Deep, Mountain High” to songs which captured teenage love as well as any before or since, “Be My Baby”, “And Then He Kissed Me” and the Beach Boys’ “I Can Hear Music”.
In fact, Dr Troop’s idea of analysing songwriting and how it works is such a good idea that it is a shame that it turns out to be a clever, if slightly obvious, way of promoting his own musical career. “This is not science, so don’t take it too seriously,” he writes rather off-puttingly on his website.
Someone should take the power and effects of a popular song seriously. A three-minute burst of a Barry-Greenwich song, after all, affords a more instant and vivid evocation of the time in which it was composed than a poem, a novel, a painting or even a photograph. It packs a bigger emotional punch and snags more surely in the memory than any other art form can manage.
And what of the after-effects on the writers themselves? The lives of songwriters, even those whose talent flared and died quite early in life, seem on the whole more settled and fulfiled than, for example, that peculiarly insecure and happy bunch, the ageing writers.
Yet, as therapy for listener and creator alike, songwriting has been rather ignored. In the various good-hearted initiatives aimed at getting children playing an instrument, the creation of words with music takes something of back seat. In spite of being ignored by educationalists (or perhaps because of it), a new generation of songwriters are taking advantage of the new recording technology to put out songs on the internet and, when allowed by the absurd new legislation controlling live music, to play them in public.
There is a huge opportunity for schools, and for television companies, to discover and encourage 21st century versions of Ellie Greenwich and David Bowie. Weirdly, it continues to be ignored.
Censoring policy should go up in flames
The drearily prim people who see it as their duty to save lesser mortals from themselves have been busy recently. Liverpool Council are considering whether to slap an “18” certificate on any film, of whatever vintage, in which a character smokes, putting One Hundred and One Dalmatians and the James Bond films out of the reach of young viewers.
In Richmond, another goody-goody council has refused to include a photograph of the author Lynn Barber, cigarette in hand, in a brochure for its literary festival. In France, posters showing Jean-Paul Sartre with a cigarette have been censored and corrected.
The effect of this civic prissiness is to turn smokers into heroes of individual liberty. Tobacco is not an illegal substance and proscribing images in this way has no grounding in logic. If it is to protect the vulnerable, then public images of Henry VIII, Fats Waller and Dawn French should be banned: serious obesity, we now know, causes more premature deaths than smoking.
On one team, Sartre, James Bond, Cruella de Vil and Lynn Barber; on the other, the officials concerned for your health. Which side would you prefer to support?
BBC’s next big thing: personal exploitation
It was somehow inevitable that the new market-led BBC would find the recent murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich a profitable area for new drama. A mere three years after the killing of these sad young women, our state broadcaster has commissioned a mini-series based on the story – omitting, it seems, to consult with some of the girls’ parents.
Risqué comedy and swearwords are now dangerously offensive for the BBC, it seems. The heartless exploitation of unbearable personal misery is, on the other hand, just fine.