I was treated to an unusually good run of songs on the radio this morning during my commute. One of them was Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” It wasn’t the a capella version from her album Solitude Standing, but the one that came a few years later with the dance beat and synthesizers, extended to standard pop-song length by repeating her “do de do do” interlude as a refrain after every verse. I guess I’m glad I got to hear it; it’s a quirky little piece and I’m used to the padded-out version now, since that’s the only version they play on the radio. But it bugs me that there’s no way it got any airplay until they made it sound more like everything else on the radio.
Another example: The Dixie Chicks covered Stevie Nicks’s “Landslide” a few years ago. Probably a song that didn’t really need another cover version; I guess they were channelling their inner Welsh witches. (I mean that kind-heartedly. I like the Chicks.) They had a pretty good-sized hit with it, back before radio decided they were too outspoken to be allowed to have any more of those.* But it wasn’t till I acquired the CD that I realized the radio arrangement was different. There’s a string section on the radio version as a break (where Lindsay Buckingham played tasteful guitar between verses in the original), not fiddles but violins, and it continues through the rest of the song. On the CD, it’s just the Chicks and their band. Martie Maguire and Emily Robison play a nice, understated interlude on mandolin and guitar (if I remember right) that’s totally appropriate for the way their song was arranged. It would have segued nicely into an Alison Krauss + Union Station tune. But no, radio wasn’t allowed to have that, or radio wouldn’t take that, one of the two.
It just bugs me how it seems that it isn’t “music” unless it’s extremely highly produced, processed, and made to sound like everything else that’s been on the radio. No a capella tunes, none of that folkie crap. When was the last time you heard an instrumental tune on a pop or rock station? (Classic rock tunes don’t count; I mean a NEW one.) And, because that’s what radio gives us, a lot of people expect that. I sometimes feel that I get patted on the head when I play my simple guitar and vocal tunes, but most of my family and friends are waiting for me to put out something “real.” It’s pretty frustrating. Certainly doesn’t make me want to put myself out in an effort to try to “make it big.”
I’m not saying that Suzanne Vega or the Dixie Chicks should’ve held some moral high ground on their arrangements. There is value to getting heard and to getting residuals. I just don’t want everything to have to sound like everything else, that’s all. It’s supposed to be creative, after all.
* Don’t get me started about radio.