It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning since you been gone

I stopped at a tea shop to pick up some drinks, and the song that was playing on the radio seemed a little familiar. I thought, “Hey, I think I’ve heard this song before. I know how the chorus goes, anyway.” I kept waiting for the chorus to kick in, but it never did — it turned out to be a different song altogether, but one with virtually the same melody. I was mildly disappointed.

When I arrived home, I got on Google to find out what the two songs were — the one whose chorus I had been anticipating, and the one they were actually playing. Finding the two songs and watching their respective music videos in succession turned out to be a very depressing experience.

Here’s the original of the tune I recognized: Dobie Gray’s 1973 hit “Drift Away” (written by Paul Williams’s brother Mentor).

And here’s the song that made me think of it: Train’s “Drops of Jupiter”  from 1998.

Now “Drift Away” is hardly one of the great songs of all time, and “Drops of Jupiter” is very far from being the worst thing on the radio in recent decades — but still the contrast between the two, and the qualitative inferiority of the latter, is palpable. The melody is the same, but something essential has been lost — something which, though hard to define or explain, is trivially easy to name — soul. Soul, almost in the metaphysical sense. Simply put, when I watch Dobie Gray sing, it’s easy to entertain the idea that he is an immortal being, that he hath had elsewhere his setting and cometh from afar; watching Patrick Monahan, I wear my atheism much more comfortably. That seems like a horrible thing to say, and I certainly mean no disrespect to Mr. Monahan, but the impression is undeniable.

So what happened? What accounts for the difference between these two very similar songs, released only 25 years apart, and what accounts for the fact that — to say nothing of Bach and Mozart, or even of such lesser lights as Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan — today’s music scene can produce no one who rises even to the level of a Dobie Gray?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning since you been gone

  1. Several comments. Firstly, when you compare Bach to Dylan to musician today, I think you have to take into account how the way we listen to music has changed. Bach wrote music that people went and listened to. As recording technology has changed, people have listened to music even more casually and constantly. Music has gotten simple because virtually no one just sits and listens to music any more. I certainly don’t, and because of that, I rarely listen to classical music because I rarely take the time to give it the attention and focus that it requires to be appreciated.

    I’ve also heard it speculated that the way modern music is made, with all the tracks laid down separately and then mixed, results in a sterile sound in the final product, rather than the energy and soul that can result from musicians together in a room creating the music together.

    Finally, despite the fact that Train is atrocious, and that particular song spectacularly bad even for them, I do think there are lots of artists working today who are vastly more inspired/inspiring than Dobie Gray. Regina Spektor’s “Hotel Song,” Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days,” The Magnetic Fields’ “The Village in the Morning” and Janelle Monae’s “Cold War” all come to mind. Heck, I’d even vote one or two of Lady Gaga or Beyonce’s songs (though I’m not a fan of either of them) as better than “Drift Away.”

  2. Good point about how people’s listening habits have changed, though I think the popularity of music videos does suggest that a substantial number of people so still sit and listen to music. (Or are even those becoming less popular? “MTV” does have kind of a nineties ring to it….) Also, simpler music doesn’t necessarily have less soul; in fact, I’d say the opposite is more likely true.

    Soullessness may well be, at least in part, an artifact of modern recording methods — but then why do we use those methods? It’s not like we don’t have the technology to do it the old way.

    I’m not familiar with any of the songs you listened, but I’ll hunt them down and give them a listen. I certainly don’t mean to set up Dobie Gray as a standard for soul, or to imply that literally nobody today reaches his level — but I do think there’s a striking contrast between this completely unexceptional performer from the past and the vast majority of what’s on the radio today.

    (But, really, Lady Gaga‘s got soul? Which song are you thinking of?)

  3. Yes, Lady Gaga. I don’t personally enjoy her style of music, but I’m actually quite fascinated by her. Hmm. How to explain this? Well, for one, half the music on the radio now sounds like her, because other musicians are imitating her, which I think is the mark of a real innovator. And her aesthetic, though incredibly simplistic and cliche, feels very sincere. It reminds me of sort of an adolescent world view. A good example would be Born This Way. It is a dreadful song, and musically basically a rehash of everything she’s already done, but the music video opens with a fairly long voice-over bit which is a very over wrought a straining to be mystical and symbolic which, though it falls quite flat for me, still feels deeply sincere. Unlike, say, Brittany Spears, who feels simply like an empty vessel various songwriters and marketers used in various ways, I think there is a core of reality and soul to Lady Gaga which, though it doesn’t touch me personally, is still there.

  4. I don’t know. For me, sincerity’s not the same thing as soul. I mean, William Topaz McGonagall was sincere. I watched “Born This Way” and tried to feel it, but I’m afraid it struck me as being a decidedly less-awesome version of this. I agree with you, though, that she’s several rungs above Britney Spears on the soul ladder.

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