Culturetopia

Culturetopia: Paint By Numbers

Usher, will.i.am

Usher, right, performs with will.i.am during the NFL Opening Kickoff concert in Columbus Circle on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008, in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow) Jason DeCrow/FR103966 AP hide caption

itoggle caption Jason DeCrow/FR103966 AP

Today's podcast is all about the diabolical genius of will.i.am and how he manufactures his special brew of annoying jackhammer pop that sticks in your head.  But I want to focus on one thing he does in particular: he comes up with those weird little sounds we refer to as "lyrics."

In the podcast, Jay Smooth and Maura Johnston make the point that only will.i.am would think to turn the ubiquitous "g" in "omg" to "gosh," rather than "god," in order to maximize the potential fan base of the song. I love the picture of Usher and will.i.am — the song's credited authors — bent over a notepad, erasing "god" and substituting "gosh."  But even more than that, I love the thought of these two veteran hit-makers scribbling: "oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh."  Imagine the gchat collaboration session:

usher: oh oh oh hey yay yeah
will.i.am: no! just: oh oh oh oh oh oooooh
usher: oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh!
will.i.am: oh oh oh
usher: ok, like:
usher: oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh
will.i.am: :)

I get the impression that pop music songwriting is generally thought of as a low art.  I've been thinking a lot about the Brill Building lately — a pop hit-making factory in New York City from the 1950s and '60s.  It was ten floors of music producers and writers, who came up with songs like "One Fine Day."

Independent radio producer Joe Richman had a wonderful piece on Rose McCoy, a great song-writer from the Brill Building, on All Things Considered, back in February.  He talked to soul singer Maxine Brown about Beefsteak Charlie’s, the restaurant on the corner of the Brill Building, about the open-market feel of the place:

"The place was hoppin'," Brown says. "Writers, they would run over and pitch their songs. Just right there on the spot, start singing it. And the verse would be on a napkin, and he'd reach in his pocket and the bridge could be on a brown piece of paper bag ... [A] lot of the songs that you heard back in the old days were sold right out of that restaurant."

I also heard Neil Sedaka on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me one Saturday morning.  Peter Sagal was interviewing him.

"So you had all these amazing hits that we all remember, still being played today through the sixties," Sagal said.  And then, with his trademark snark, he went on to ask: "In fact, there was that one line in the chorus of "Breaking Up is Hard to Do"— what is it, like, "down doo bee doo down down?" 

Sedaka says, with genuine pride and appreciation of the question: "Those are some of my best lyrics! When I ran out, I put in a dooby doo." 

Sagal didn't expect that. "Really?  You were known for this, you were like the dooby-doo guy?"  And Sedaka says simply, "That's right."

"Did you actually — did you actually write them out, like "down dooby doo down down?" Sagal asked.

"I did indeed."

will.i.am’s strategic use of a limited vocabulary is one of the many things Maura and Jay take on in this podcast, so please listen, or subscribe here.

And you can head over to the Song of the Day, where Maura is writing more about OMG, and watch the video (if you’ve succumbed to the mind control by the end of the podcast).  Want more Jay and Maura on pop?  Check out what they've done so far on Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj.

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