James Brown did so many substances that it’s surprising how little substance there is to his music. This isn’t a knock against James Brown: He made some great stuff, but he did so through great performances, not great artistry. It’s hard to imagine him fulfilling the legend of the tortured rock star. James Brown had a recipe for his music: some funky guitar, some funky brass and lyrics about how funky (insert noun) was. A verse, a chorus and a bridge using those ingredients, and he had a song. It was a great recipe, don’t get me wrong, but he made his music by putting together fairly static pieces. On many songs, you can hear him ordering his band to “take it to the bridge,” the equivalent of “needs more salt!”
The godfather of soul is hardly the only artist to use formulaic constructions. Much traditional jazz can be reduced to an A-A-B-A form; probably half of all rock songs ever written use a verse-chorus-bridge schematic. You can have horizontal formulas like these, laid out along the length of the song, or vertical formulas like James Brown’s timeless cocktail of funky guitar, horns and self-referential exhortations of funk. In both cases, a new song can grow on the skeleton of an old one. But it can be ambiguous whether a formulaic song is really its own song, or a new coat of paint on an old one.
There’s plenty to be said for songs that rely on time-tested axioms. The instant familiarity of a song that works exactly as you expect can be comforting rather than boring; songs with instant popular appeal often employ fairly basic construction instead of dragging listeners through a maze of unexpected changes. A verse-chorus-bridge formulation can also serve as scaffolding for interior brilliance; no one ever accused Bob Dylan of being a compositional genius, but holding that against him would be missing the point of his music. Nirvana might have exaggerated the verse-chorus-bridge structure more than anyone else by the characteristic differences between their moody verses and explosive choruses, but Nevermind that because their music was amazing anyways. In short, we have these formulas because they work.
Yet anyone who has ever half-napped through microeconomics will be acquainted with the law of diminishing returns, and that certainly applies here. Doing the same thing over and over, whether it’s producing widgets or writing jazz songs using A-A-B-A, gets old. Yes, the old formulas are familiar, but eventually they stop being reliable and start getting redundant. Axioms can be the foundation for brilliance, but as they become more and more rote, songs have to employ them more and more judiciously to avoid sounding stale — it’s much harder to write a fresh-sounding verse-chorus-bridge song now than it was in the days of Led Zeppelin, who, as much as I love them, were the kings of verse-chorus-bridge. Anyone who releases an album full of verse-chorus-bridge songs today is liable, even likely, to get roundly panned by critics.
The critics’ view always has to be taken with a grain of salt, but they have a very legitimate gripe here. The old formulas work, but as they get used and reused, there’s less and less space for a truly novel reinterpretation or appropriation. It’s lazy, even cheating, in some sense, to repurpose an old formula without somehow making it your own. If no one innovates, we end up with a lot of complacent music indistinguishable from older sounds. That the old formulas work makes it that much more impressive to create something powerful without using them. The accolades heaped on innovative artists like the Dirty Projectors or Titus Andronicus acknowledge and reflect such an achievement.
And yet I’m sure that at this very moment, someone somewhere is writing a song that would move me to tears with its verse-chorus-bridge simplicity. Not because of it, but despite it. A great song is a great song, formulaic or not. It’s just that, using the old formulas, fewer and fewer remain to be written.