The wisdom of pop songs – Heartbroken

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

The world is full of sad songs, because sadness is an emotion that makes people want to write, to pour it all out. And as listeners, consumers, we have an insatiable appetite for hearing about it.

But what makes a great sad song stand out is the raw, painful, avert-your-eyes reaction it evokes in us. When Neil Diamond said something to the effect that his best songs were embarrassing for him  to listen to because they were so real, he was talking about You Don’t Bring me Flowers, his duet with Barbra Streisand, which deals with taking a partner for granted.

A real heartbreak song takes it one step further as the writer and singer reveal insecurities, fears, inadequacies and all the rotten infrastructure of our character that we would rather people didn’t see.

Amy Winehouse’s problems were public knowledge long before she died, her susceptibility to alcohol and drugs compounded by her relationship with an equally vulnerable man, a classic bad influence who not only caused her emotional distress and encouraged her substance abuse but accompanied her down the dark roads to which that led.

Back to Black is a typical piece of Winehouse bravado, making light of situations before revealing the damage they did her.

Unlike many people, I don’t claim she had the greatest soul voice, but she did have a way of wearing her heart on her sleeve that leaves us smeared in the blood it sheds.

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In the early 1960s Roy Orbison produced some very affecting, very real material, his rich timbre and mountainous range taking us over the edge of melodrama and into the real stuff.

It’s Over and Crying both hit us like a policeman’s early morning knock at the door which can only mean bad news.

While these seem completely genuine, there is also room here for products of the songwriter’s and singer’s craft, and the dream team of  writer Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, to whom he entrusted the song, make Until You Come Back To Me a chillingly beautiful experience. Aretha seems almost unfairly gifted with her voice; she hasn’t suffered more than everyone else, it  just sounds like that. Her sublime talent is as an interpreter of songs, and when Stevie Wonder called her one night and said he had a song for her, she said “I’ll take it,” without even hearing it. When the author of My Cherie Amour offers you a peach, you have no doubt that it’s going to be sweet.

Compare and contrast Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, in which, whatever the title might suggest, he plainly isn’t that bothered. Irish songstress Mary Coughlan  (see pic at top), whom fame has passed by, took the song, slowed it down and injected some emotion, but it still really just talks the talk rather than walking the walk.

Rickie Lee Jones is an interesting character, her early tomboy front masking a fragility that exists for real in her character as well as her work. Company is an achingly intimate account of the loneliness she knows is about to envelop her as this man leaves her for good. She’s not suicidal, but she is looking forward to seeing him again on the other side.

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Prince and Sinead O’Connor might have seemed an unlikely pairing until she took on Nothing Compares 2 U, but his ability to write direct from the tatters of his heart combined perfectly with her willingness to wash her dirty laundry in public to produce a timeless piece of heartache. Seven hours and fifteen days has now grown to more than 27 years, but it still feels like a kick in the guts from someone you’ve  given your heart to.

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The wisdom of pop songs – Duets part II

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
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Freddie meets his match: big girl, big voice, big subject (the Olympics). Barcelona!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The vast majority of duets are man-woman, but Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson showed that a single-sex pairing could work too with 1982’s Ebony and Ivory, the latter also taking the duet into new territory as regards subject matter. A plea for racial harmony sung by one white megastar and one black legend, and a solid gold McCartney tune into the bargain.

McCartney repeated the trick a year or so later with Michael Jackson and Say Say Say, but without the racial message, and it worked a treat once again.

There followed another golden age of the duet with the  film-related likes of Up Where We Belong (Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes) and  Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin’s Separate Lives. And there was Olivia Newton John and John Travolta with You’re The One That I Want and Summer Nights.

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“Up” being at the top of the charts

The astonishing vein of form hit by the Bee Gees in the 1970s meant they had hit songs to spare, and Barry Gibb put some to good use with Barbra Streisand, notably Guilty. Streisand apparently liked the duo format so much that she teamed up with several more people, including Neil Diamond on You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, and Donna Summer for Enough is Enough.

Meanwhile, away from the pop charts, The Band’s farewell performance had been made into a film, The Last Waltz, by Martin Scorsese, and tacked onto the end  is a song seemingly recorded at the same venue in private a day or two later. By definition a duet involves two singers, but The Band had three lead vocalists who took turns, and in this case Rick Danko and Levon Helm did a verse each, with Emmylou Harris joining in. If being well rehearsed is key to a good performance, this is a minor miracle, because guitarist Robbie Robertson had only written the song the night before.  To further confuse matters, it sounds like a Cajun folk song.

Back in the top 40, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross hit big with Endless Love, which also sold by the bucketload a few years later in the hands of Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey.

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Yes, you get to sing a duet with me. Oh, you want your name on it?

Stevie Nicks enjoyed the genre, it seems, doing Leather and Lace with Don Henley and Stop Dragging My Heart Around with Tom Petty.

George Michael, too, took advantage of his fame to partner with Aretha Franklin on I Knew You Were Waiting and Mary J Blige on Stevie Wonder’s  sublime Always. Both brave moves: it was like a decent amateur boxer getting into the ring with Mike Tyson, but perhaps Michael had more confidence in himself than some us had in him.

From around  that point the duet goes into decline. In the past 20 years or so there have been plenty of songs featuring a guest singer, but often this takes the form of an already-recorded performance being dropped into a new one, sometimes even with no pretence at the two vocalists having been in the same studio at the same time. Rap songs can often benefit from a drop of melody, as Eminem’s adaptation of Dido’s Thank You for his own Stan amply demonstrates. And it resulted in exposure for both of them to the other’s audience, which means more sales and more profit. But it’s not a duet.

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Senza una donna. The only trouble with this was that the key was too high for Zucchero. Or maybe he wasn’t well. It’s clearly a struggle, anyway

Jay Z and Alicia Keys may have issued a joint version of Empire State of Mind, but the piano diva’s solo version sounds like the real deal, while Nelly Furtado and Timbaland’s Promiscuous also doesn’t feel like a true partnership.

The same could be said, admittedly, for Natalie Cole’s reworking of her long-dead father Nat’s old hit Unforgettable. But it works, and although some uncharitable souls have seen it as disrespectful and perhaps commercially-motivated, to these ears it’s just beautiful and if she felt she had to make that connection with her Dad through what technology had made possible, then good for her.

Finally, if I may be permitted a personal favourite that is a bit of a rarity, I was  browsing through YouTube one day when I came across Burt Bacharach doing a live version of A House is not a Home. Alone at the piano, he laboured through a minute or so until I wished Dionne Warwick was there, when suddenly the audience buzzed as Dusty Springfield appeared and took over. Shivers down the spine. Burt croaked some harmonies, but only showed why he is principally a composer rather than a singer – and as much as I love Dionne Warwick, in the right mood Dusty could make her sound like Miss Piggy.

Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmS473ToPW8