Forever Songs - Show Tunes Set The Standard
In the midst of this paradigm, where Jamaican music has once again been thrust into the limelight as a globally popular sound and influence, discussions have emerged from watchful players holding the indigenous treasures of reggae and dancehall close to their hearts. They are seeking to determine exactly what makes a song last forever.
Whether it be by cover or by sample, good music can be carried across generations and genres. Some tunes can turn up on a dancefloor decades after they topped charts and get man, woman, and child up on their feet, singing and dancing. Some musical turns and phrases occur again and again, sending ‘throwback’ vibes into contemporary spaces. Some songs can carry on forever. But why do these songs carry and others do not?
The watchers hope this paradigm inspires modern musicians and producers to put their efforts into making ‘forever songs’ – music as perennial as the grass, that was composed with intent to set standards or raise the bar of expert musicianship. “If you bring that into the context of Jamaica, what are our forever songs? What are our standards?” historian and curator of the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) Herbie Miller rightly questions.
Music producer Tony Kelly initially encouraged this question of ‘forever songs’ with a repost on social media. Naturally, his definition leads this discussion. The initial post was made to indicate that dancehall artiste Mr Easy should never be ‘hungry’, because his song Drive Me Crazy (2001), on the Buy Out Riddim, is still a hallmark card for dancehall deejays. He told The Sunday Gleaner: “To me, a ‘forever song’ is one that can reach a wide audience – not just Jamaica. It also has to do with the melodies. It can’t just be straight, hardcore … because other people can’t relate. They can’t understand the melody or what you’re saying. It’s not relatable one way or another.”
Kelly posits that Drive Me Crazy is melodious, comprehensive, and speaks to a relatable issue on a timeless topic relevant to many heterosexual men across the globe. Or perhaps Kelly is simply touting his own production as undying, using the example of T.O.K.’s Money to Burn on the same riddim.
Despite those established elements, there is ultimately no true formula to produce a forever song. However, there is a method.
“In every song that has been written, they are aiming for the greatest song that has ever been written. A forever song is what we call in my language, ‘standards’. I don’t think the great writers in what is referred to as the Great American songbook, where we find these exceptional standards, written by people like Lawrence Har, Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers, sat there and said ‘I am going to write a ‘forever song’. They wrote songs based on the need for that song,” Miller sated.
Under The Boardwalk (1964) by The Drifters, would Spanish Harlem (1961) by Ben E. King are two songs that Miller regards as being everlasting. He continued: “Was it just a song, or was it a song for a show? Most of these great standards are actually show tunes. Somewhere Over The Rainbow (1939) was written for The Wizard of Oz, sung by Judy Garland. It’s a great standard by 20th-century measurement.”
He continued, “ One Love, No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley, Oh Carolina (1959) by The Folkes Brothers, or any number of The Skatalites or Don Drummond songs – these singers made music to the best of their ability, and some of them turned out to be Jamaican standards or what Tony Kelly refers to as forever songs. If you go to popular music, the great writers of pop music who did all of those wonderful songs for Ben E. King and The Drifters, they were just good songwriters. I’m sure they wrote a lot of duds.” Still, it is pertinent to observe that Miller was raised on his references as Kelly made a living from his.
While these examples do exist, have any forever songs been recently added as ever-lasting? Kelly believes that Omi’s Cheerleader (2015) is a forever song. “Him ah guh live offa dat. And the original song is not a forever song because it was on an old-time beat that a lot of people couldn’t relate to. Then they remixed it and put it on an EDM-type beat with the saxophone stuff in it – it just catch everybody. The original beat didn’t make it a forever song because the beat was holding it back. A lot of younger people couldn’t relate to that beat. The remix brought it to the world,” he reasoned.
Kelly also referenced Koffee’s Toast. Though it may be too early to tell if the newcomer’s song is ‘forever’, there are some elements that the music producer has contextualised as everlasting in millennial sensibilities. “Now, a forever song can be a song full of memes. For example, ‘gratitude is a must.’ You see and hear that everywhere,” he declared.