The melody lingers

A few weeks ago, I was booked to DJ in the lounge on a Friday. The promoters specifically asked me to play only EZ Listening, an idea I considered amusing . . . at first. Then I had nightmarish visions of Sergio Mendes provoking drunken weekend warriors to pelt me with half-filled beers; the sound of their nightmarish battle cry—"Hey DJ, play some Madonna!"—piercing my ear like an ice pick. This would end in tragedy.

To my surprise, quite the opposite occurred. Patrons made requests I didn't mind: Nat "King" Cole, Petula Clark, Sammy Davis Jr. And there was dancing! Even with alcohol consumption and raging hormones figured into the equation, the booty shakin' struck me dumb. What unholy force could whip folks into a frenzy over Jim Nabors' version of "Cabaret"?

The answer arrived this weekend. I was writing a long essay about the genre once dubbed "intelligent techno," encompassing electronic musicians like Aphex Twin and Autechre. After 72 hours of straining to wrestle artists who've abandoned traditional approaches to harmony and meter into engaging prose, I wanted to put a bullet through my head. Instead, I slipped disc two of Rhino's new The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection into my CD player.

Bacharach has been on my bad list lately. His new collaboration with Elvis Costello, Painted from Memory (Mercury), has two—count 'em, two—memorable songs ("God Grant Me Strength" and "Toledo"), and too many near-misses. But his classics have endured: "I Say a Little Prayer," "What the World Needs Now Is Love," "Casino Royale." Even cuts I didn't know, like Gene Pitney's creepy "Fool Killer," were striking a chord.

Then it hit me. We're famished for melody.

Great melodies, the sort anybody can learn quickly, yet that aren't so banal they're Teletubbies fodder, are in scant supply these days. Ever wonder why you don't see Bush, Everclear, or Korn among the offerings when you're picking karaoke selections? Because nobody on the radio can write a decent tune to save their life. Even professional songwriters blow. Diane Warren (a favorite of Gloria Estefan and Celine Dion) has yet to eke out anything that compares to Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, or Jimmy "MacArthur Park" Webb.

Even current television jingles are tuneless. We were singing, "Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce . . . " before we could walk. Now Burger King is recycling Donna Summer and the Gipsy Kings tunes for commercials. The last worthwhile original jingle was "Always Coca-Cola."

No wonder that "Music Sounds Better with You" single by Stardust gets played at every nightclub in town—it actually has a few bars of catchy melody. So here's a tip. Go buy the song that Stardust's is based on, "Fate." You can find it on Chaka Khan's What Cha' Gonna Do for Me (Warner Bros.) dirt-cheap in the used-LP bins. Spin it a few times, then try singing along. Belt at the top of your lungs—Chaka's loud enough to drown out your braying—and hear what you've been missing: melody.

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