In the film, “Almost Famous,” there is a completely famous scene where the fictional rock band, Stillwater, sings along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and makes everything okay. In the middle of a U.S. tour, their lead guitar player (played by Billy Crudup), during a drug-induced tantrum, has told off the rest of the band, quit the tour, gone AWOL and has stayed up all night partying at the home of a group of Midwestern fans. The road manager convinces him to get back on the bus and finish the tour. His reception on the bus is chilly, but the healing sounds of “Tiny Dancer” melt the ice, and all is well with Stillwater. This is a good movie, and writer/director Cameron Crowe shows off his flair, over and over during the film, for knowing just what song to use at the right moment to give every scene an extra boost. If you haven’t seen “Almost Famous,” check it out, but that is not what is on my mind today.
The 1971 song, “Tiny Dancer” is a tiny masterpiece. The songwriting of Bernie Taupin combined with Elton John’s ability to inject a song with drama and emotion, created some of the most unforgettable moments of pop magic, ever. Cole Porter, Elton John, Paul Simon…these guys are all in the same league. “Tiny Dancer” is timeless perfection: country-tinged guitar, background “aahs,” two or three emotional peaks that build at just the right moment…(shiver). A most excellent song, but that is not what is on my mind today.
What I want to talk about today is how a film audience in 2014 might have a hard time accepting the fact that a hard rock band on a tour bus would just happen to know every lyric of a lightweight pop song like “Tiny Dancer.” However, this scene is completely believable if we remember that, in the movie, the year is 1973.
This was a time when popular music was not as fragmented as it is today. Before Pandora and Spotify (my personal favorite) and before satellite radio, there were not 1,200 customized channels to choose from. In a good-sized town you might have three or four radio stations that played Top 40 music. At best, you could choose between AM pop and an FM rock station, but that was about it. (And you didn’t get to choose between the “hard rock station” and the “soft rock station. All you had was “the rock station.”)
As a result, everyone knew the same songs, and there was something satisfying and communal about that shared experience. Instead of being tucked away in a corner, silently listening with earbuds to our own private playlists, we all enjoyed (and suffered through) the same music together. In a single hour on the radio, you might have heard The Who, Seals and Croft, The Rolling Stones, Jackson Browne, Eagles and Kenny Rogers. You might have liked only about half of it, but at least you had the exposure, and diversity is healthy. Leave it to a parent to apply the philosophy of, “Don’t complain…suffering is good for you” to everything, including a forced diet of music you don’t care for. (By the way, it’s “Eagles;” not “The Eagles.” It’s also “Carpenters” and not “The Carpenters,” but that is another topic for another day.)
The other reason Stillwater knew the song “Tiny Dancer” on that tour bus is because there was a magical window of time, post-hippie/pre-disco, when even a “lightweight” pop song was not lightweight, at all. In the 1970s, before it was considered “classic rock,” pop music was Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel. This is what 14-year-old kids were listening to. Top 40 music was catchy, and it followed a formula (verse-chorus/verse-chorus/bridge/verse-chorus), but it still had substance.
Yes, I am painfully aware that this sounds like a rant about “kids today” and my music vs. theirs, but I’m not talking about kids today. I’m talking about the music they’re forced to listen to. They deserve better. I know that you can still find a good, catchy pop melody that has emotional depth, I just wish there was more of it on the radio. Lady Gaga comes to mind as a contemporary songwriter who can pack the dance floor with songs that still have heart, wit and vulnerability. (By the way, it’s no coincidence that Lady Gaga and Elton John are close friends.)
If “Almost Famous” was set in 2014, and the same scene was re-written to depict The Black Keys or The Roots on their tour bus singing along to a Miley Cyrus song, nobody would believe it for a second. Don’t get me wrong: Katy Perry, Pharrell, Miley…they have my permission—not that they need it—to write all the happy, fun pop music they want. I’ll roll down my car window on a sunny day, turn it up and tap my foot along with everybody else. But a sugary diet like that is not enough for this ex-teenager. I’m not dismissing the music of today. Quite the opposite, I’m digging deeper into it. There are songwriters of this generation who are inspired by more than a big booty and a chilled bottle of Cristal in the V.I.P. room. I’m on the hunt for that music, and, if you’re interested, meet me back here from time to time, and I’ll share it when I find it.
In the meantime, enjoy the scene below. Cameron Crowe says more in four minutes than I’ve been able to say in nearly 900 words…