(Pictured: Peter Wolf, on stage in 2015.)
(Disclaimer: I am not entirely sure this post isn’t utter nonsense. Caveat emptor.)
During a recent week, only one of the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 was written by a single person. Some Katy Perry hits credit six writers, some Pitbull songs have eight. Country singer Thomas Rhett’s new “Vacation” credits 14 writers for one song; Beyonce’s “Hold Up” credited 15. In the old days, these credits were called cut-ins, in which a DJ or manager got a credit as a means of sharing in the royalties and not for thinking up any part of the song. Today they often go to the programmer who designs a beat, the engineer who mixes the track, or a random dude in the studio who offers a phrase that ends up in the song. In Rhett’s case, “Vacation” samples two other songs (including War’s “Low Rider”), and everybody involved in the writing of both gets a credit.
Part of this has to do with the staggering amounts of money on the line with top stars, and our litigious society. Give Random Dude a credit so he gets paid now and doesn’t sue later. That’s not to say Random Dude didn’t contribute to songs of the past, however. And not just random dudes: Ringo Starr famously came up with the phrase “a hard day’s night,” but he didn’t get credit for it on the song of the same name.
Part of this also has to do with the idea that you can make worthwhile art by committee. But can you? If you’ve heard anything from 1989, you understand that Taylor Swift, young woman of flesh and blood from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, a songwriter with life experience to draw upon, has been lost amidst a gaggle of songwriting collaborators and producers. Thomas Rhett, despite being the son of an accomplished Nashville songwriter, is merely the vessel by which market research data is passed on to consumers in song form.
Art isn’t the point of this stuff, really. Selling the product is, and these methods of creating product are proven to do it.
However: today’s all-consuming need to move product is a difference only in degree, not in kind. Popular music has always been shaped—and distorted—by the desire to sell it. The record men who prowled the rural South in the 30s looking for “authentic” blues were hoping to profit. Blues god Robert Johnson’s repertoire included hymns and pop songs he’d heard on the radio, but record companies weren’t interested in that stuff. Sometimes their influence is positive—think of Jerry Wexler’s impact on the career of Aretha Franklin. But think also of Colonel Tom Parker’s insistence that Elvis keep stamping out movie soundtracks instead of recording more challenging music.
Even in the age of moguls, the personalities of individual artists still shone. But today, when there’s so much money to be made (Taylor Swift grossed $73 million last year, lots of which trickled down to labels, producers, songwriters, and Random Dudes), trusting to personality and/or the quirks of individual genius is risky. And it’s not just in music: our whole society leaves little to the whims of a single individual, preferring instead to run everything through “channels,” where many people get to weigh in on the nature of the finished product. That the bureaucracy of 21st century pop music occasionally produces great art is a wonder; that it more often produces calculated, soulless product is exactly what it’s designed to do.
Which brings me to A Cure for Loneliness, the new album by Peter Wolf, formerly of the J. Geils Band. A Cure for Loneliness is pretty much the opposite of soulless 21st century bureaucratic product, drawing instead on one man’s half-century in music, and the music of the quarter-century before that. Like Wolf’s 2002 album Sleepless (one of my favorite albums of all time), A Cure for Loneliness rambles through a half-dozen different genres, from blues to bluegrass, always with respect and good humor. Life can be hard and weird, Wolf says, but real talk and good music always make you feel less alone, so come hang out with me.
Peter Wolf and his label, Concord, have a commercial interest: they would like you to buy his record (and so would I, because to spend your money on lesser things is a shame). But even if nobody did, the making of it would still be worthwhile. An artist with something to say has to say it. If you and I don’t hear what they have to say because we’re too busy listening to mass-produced nonsense, it’s our loss.