On occasion, especially for those who spend their days constantly plugged in to the online world, it can seem like the music industry is based on tweets, Instagram posts, beefs, celebrity power couples and other ephemera. It can be easy, then, to forget (to misquote Shakespeare) that “the song’s the thing,” the unit that moves us and can forge such a strong connection between the songwriter and the listener that we start to care about any of the “celebrity” nonsense.
Since 2011, journalist and author Marc Myers has penned the “Anatomy of a Song” column for the Wall Street Journal, talking with songwriters, artists and others involved in the creation of some of the greatest songs of all time. In his new book of the same title, he compiles 45 of those, with insights from artists such as Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Joni Mitchell.
amNewYork caught up with Myers to talk about adapting a column into a book and what he’s learned about the process of songwriting.
What kind of changes did the columns have to undergo in order to form a book?
I find anthologies to be academic and tedious. What I wanted to do is create something people would read almost like a novel, where they would be pulled forward. I put additional material in that I couldn’t fit in the paper, and I got rid of the original introductions. I put in new ones that would work horizontally. If you read just the introductions — and that’s all you did — you’d get a history of R&B and rock. So you read one, you read two, and they feel drawn forward. Even if you don’t know “Kansas City,” or the earliest hits, the introduction puts it in context of the time.
After writing about all of these big hits from throughout the decades, have you found a commonality that makes them all successful?
There is no one recipe. Every one of these songs exist in their time. I don’t know that “Magic Carpet Ride” would have made sense in 1955, and I don’t know that it would have context in the video age. Each of these have a spot in their moment. ... Ultimately, these songs touch people and inspire them. And that’s what really holds them together. There’s something being said there that transcends the song. “You Really Got Me” speaks to teenage guys. “Carey” really touches young women — there’s something about Joni [Mitchell]’s voice, and there’s a truth to what she’s singing. In each case, there’s something in there that goes beyond the song, an invisible wave that goes from the artist to the listener.
Who’s the artist that you haven’t been able to talk to yet for the column?
I would love to be able to interview three different artists: Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. I’ve tried on all three; sometimes you can’t quite get them for a variety of reasons. But I hope with the book and the column, the people around these artists will see the value in having them speak with me.