Music on TV Part 2: Engineering musical “quality”: A review of The Soundtrack of Our Lives

If you’re a populist who believes that the music most people are buying and listen to is the best music, you’re probably not a music critic. Critics typically favor music aspiring to be innovative, daring, and/or experimental in some way. A bias toward music with a touch of “grit” and attention to the lager social world also defines critics’ taste culture.


By no means does this difference reduce folks who like pop music to being passive dupes, indiscriminate listeners or “lowest common denominator.” Rather, the elaborate promotional machinery that shapes what songs make it on radio playlists, which artists appear on major talk shows and album covers, and who receives funds to make eye catching music videos endures as seductive forces with an almost invisible pull. We have all been pulled in by a catchy melody or swelling chorus of a song even when we’ve recognized the sentiments as cliched or silly. For people who consider themselves discriminating listeners “guilty” pleasures are occasional indulgences not a commitment. The music industry is mostly immune to subjective matters of “taste” beyond an interest in what will sell. The tools that have enabled artists to market themselves independently, including MP3 technology, social media sites, and YouTube, have made it easier for artists to operate with autonomy. But record companies remain a formidable force in shaping the popular musical landscape.


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Record executive Clive Davis, the subject of The Soundtrack of Our Lives, released in 2017 and now available through Netflix (the film is an adaptation of his 2013 memoir The Soundtrack of my Life, written with music journalist Anthony deCurtis), stands tall among the classic “record company men” of the rock era who have influenced the machine. This is not necessarily meant as a compliment.  Davis is one of the architects of the “hitmaker” mentality that has informed, some might say plagued, pop music for decades.  “Quality” in Davis’s vernacular is understood as what is most accessible and more likely to be popular, not what takes risks or advances the popular music form. The documentary tries to fight his fundamental commercial mindset, by positioning his instincts as intangible and magical, but fails to convince. The book is both a banal autobiographical recounting of his life and career, and a pompous reflection on his “golden ears.” When an artist follows Davis’s instructions and sells well (e.g., Barry Manilow, Whitney Houston) he’s right. However, when an artist dares to assert something as strange as a desire to write their own material and sells fewer “units” he gloats that they should have heeded his warning (e.g. middling sellers like Taylor Dayne’s 1993 album Soul Dancing, Kelly Clarkson’s 2007 album My December).


In the documentary, we see Joni Mitchell hugging him; we are inundated with stories of his discoveries of artists like Janis Joplin; and we hear talking head testimonials from such figures as Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana, and Barry Manilow. What could be problematic about this track record?


In Davis’s world these artists are essentially interchangeable. Davis has a reputation as a nurturer of new “talent” and as a revivalist who can take artists past their commercial peaks and make them commercially relevant again. These seem flattering but are dubious when we examine them closely. Artists like Franklin and Dionne Warwick, whose careers perked up at Arista Records, and Santana whose 1999 “comeback” album Supernatural was engineered by Davis, were fully formed as musicians well before being signed by Davis. This fact does not diminish his role in providing them with commercial octane after years of commercial decline, but we should not confuse their commercial resurgences as their creative acme. The artist most clearly sandwiched between his impulse for sheer commercialism and the issue of artistic merit is the late Whitney Houston whose critical stature has gained great momentum since her death.  More on her later.


A telling example of Davis’s dubious legacy is how he steered Rod Stewart away from his fading career as an adult contemporary stylist in the early 2000s to a formulaic interpreter of popular standards through his artistically vapid but commercially successful Great American Songbook series. Though Stewart distinguished himself as a superior interpreter of rock, folk, and R&B songs in the early 70s his “comeback” as a jazz stylist provided short-term commercial rewards, and may have, marked him as “versatile” and “eclectic.” But it put him in a stylistic rut and repositioned him from being a respectable rocker struggling to stay relevant in an industry hard on aging singers, to a directionless lounge lizard. His more recent efforts to gain listeners for his albums of original songs have made little impression commercially.


In terms of Davis’s track record of “discovery,” Manilow is a perfect example of an artist who benefited from Davis’s “hit” mentality yet always seems like a second tier act. When Davis was fired from Columbia (he was later exonerated of the original charges of financial malfeasance) he was given the chance to head the Bell Records label. The only two artists he kept were singer-songwriters Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester, and he renamed it Arista Records. Whereas Manchester’s commercial period ended in the mid-1980s, and she has carved out a respectable second career of acting, interpretive singing, and the occasional album of original songs, Manilow is a beacon of relentless persistence.


As Davis recalls, Manilow originally viewed himself as a composer, but his 1973 debut album was a commercial dud. Davis discouraged him from dominating his albums with his originals and led him to record melodic, sentimental ballads written by other composers such as “Mandy” (originally titled “Brandy”) and “I Write the Songs” (written by Bruce Johnston) that would work better as commercial singles. Manilow’s newfound Davis-led success led to a formula of albums featuring an assortment of Manilow authored album tracks anchored by handful of “hit” singles that gave him a radio presence. Manilow favored big melodies, schmaltzy, toothless lyrics, and swelling orchestrations, sung in an almost abrasive version of crooning (it’s hard singing over all those strings!). Though critics dismissed him he was one of the most popular artists of the 70s, a run which extended into the early to 80s. As music tastes changed toward MTV pop, hip-hop, hair bands, New Jack swing, and other youthful forms, Manilow turned to writing swing pastiches, covering pop standards and showtunes, and other attempts, to redefine himself as a composer and “classic” crooner. Some of his more problematic ventures included 1994’s unironic Summer of ’78 cover album and a rather unfortunate 1998 “tribute” to Sinatra, as well as three Christmas albums released from 1990-2007.


Thanks to Davis, Manilow stayed afloat in the 2000s via guest appearances on American Idol—which briefly succeeded at creating a new generation of Middle-of-the Road (MOR) singers—and releasing a popular series of cover albums modeled after Stewart. Instead of Manilow sings Gershwin (!) from 2005-2010 we got The Greatest Songs of the Fifties (which reached #1 on the pop album charts), followed by albums with the same theme covering…The Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties, and concluding with The Greatest Love Songs of All Time before Manilow switched to a smaller prestige record labels. No longer relevant to mainstream pop, Manilow attempted to become Sinatra but wound up as Engelbert Humperdinck. In the documentary Davis brags about Manilow’s 2003 induction into the Society of Singers (aka the “Ella Award”) but this is more of a triumph of engineering and lobbying than merit. No one would ever compare him to Fitzgerald, Sinatra, or other honorees in their class of singer, such as Tony Bennett or Joe Williams. He doesn’t swing and is too facile to approach their interpretive incisiveness.


Houston is more complicated. After developing her musical and performing chops in a Baptist church choir directed by her mother Cissy Houston, a successful vocalist in her own right, she emerged in the mid-1980s with the essentials: Beautiful voice, gorgeous looks, and a poised demeanor. All she needed were songs. Prior to meeting Davis, she was already performing big ballads like “The Greatest Love of All,” so he cannot be credited with fashioning her into a powerful balladeer. But her taste for uptempo material is less known. Since an album of all ballads was too narrow Davis infused her debut with its share of dance pop including the infectiously poppy “How Will I Know.” Houston was often mocked early in her career for her lack of funk. Essentially, though she sang the hell out of these kinds of peppy pop numbers she seemed incredibly square and earnest for such a young new talent.


Refusing to tamper with a winning formula (her 1985 debut spawned three number one pop hits and won her a Grammy) 1987’s Whitney led with the effusive single “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” followed by sky-high ballads (“Didn’t We Almost Have it All,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go”) and more dance pop (“So Emotional,” “Love Will Save the Day”). The critical issue with her second album was its transparent duplication of her debut’s ballad and dance-pop formula, in terms of content, and a penchant for oversinging. Houston’s luscious voice and supple phrasing became her signatures, and her producers milked this by seemingly encouraging her to invest an almost parodic gospel intensity into every performance. Her tendency to sing every song at such an intense fever pitch made it difficult to   distinguish one song from the next. The frothy “So Emotional” seems less weighty than the lamentative “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” but both are so over arranged and intense they both come across as torch songs. Davis’s bald effort to connect her to black listeners through 1990’s New Jack-oriented I’m Your Baby Tonight resulted in her weakest album in execution and sales. Rather than transforming her sound or image the album offered the usual big ballads (“All the Man I Need,” “Miracle”), and unconvincing ridiculous lite-funk songs (“My Name is Not Susan,” “I’m Knockin”) undercut by an almost cartoonish sexuality that belied her clean cut persona. Listening to these albums many critics wondered who was Houston beneath the slick veneer?


Three popular 90s era soundtracks (The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife) did not answer this question but were highly listenable albums that provided fine dramatic showcases for her talents in three very different settings: torch songs, plush Babyface style R&B, and gospel-pop. 1997’s My Love is Your Love was more telling. Co-produced by Davis it’s Thoroughly Modern Whitney featuring credible fusions of Houston’s natural vocal exuberance tempered by the beat driven nature of late 90s highly syncopated R&B. It’s promising mix of old and new Whitney lost some luster as Houston’s struggles with her marriage to Bobby Brown and substance abuse overwhelmed her public image. She became an increasingly erratic talent who missed concerts, scheduled TV talk show appearances, and even The Oscars.


Davis was not responsible for these personal issues. Larger personal forces diminished her talents, and the commercialism of pop and an unforgiving tabloid press were formidable adversaries. Just as Joplin struggled to handle her propulsion from local misfit to icon of acid rock (and succumbed to a heroin overdose), the music industry fed Houston’s crossover aspirations and she collapsed under its weight.  Houston was a complex woman not a Pollyanna or the proverbial “girl next door.” The persona designed to market her was based in the idea that women, especially women of color, had to project an almost adolescent “innocence” to be acceptable to pop audiences which robbed her of complexity from the outset. Davis seems sincere in mourning her loss but the industry’s drive toward commercialism is inseparable from her triumphs and struggles.


After enumerating his successes at Arista, the film aspires to lionize him by documenting the way BMG’s management coldly deposed him as the head of Arista in favor of L.A. Reid. Reid was a talented up and coming executive with great promise, and Davis received funding able to form and launch the J Records label. Reid’s struggles in the position (he left in 2004 as a result of a Sony and BMG merger and went to Island Def Jam) are positioned as vindication for Davis. Davis was appointed head of the RCA music group, then appointed chair and CEO of BMG North America, and currently holds the position of chief creative officer at Sony Music entertainment.


His taste is a lynchpin of the film, but two things stuck with me as the film concluded. First, one of the more telling moments in the film is a “quality control” meeting where Davis and a room of record executives listen to different mixes of songs to determine which pieces of the recordings should be combined to foster the most commercially successful rendition of a song for radio. This disturbingly literal pseudo-scientific approach to a medium that listeners may associate with “fun” illustrates the calculated attitude about audience tastes and represents the proliferation of bland formula pop. Second, Davis’s most important legacy is his emphasis on having a “hit” single. But since albums no longer sell as they once did, and people feel freer to download or stream singles (legally or not) his approach seems antiquated. Pop music ate itself gradually by overcharging consumers for CDs and creating a bloated web of promotional machinery. Though the digital revolution has never fulfilled some of its utopian aims for connectedness it gave musicians and audiences options that have chipped away at the top down structure of the industry. Davis’s endurance notwithstanding, his approach seems more like a reminder of the immediate past than the future of pop music. The film’s title alludes to some imagined populist camaraderie between the audience and the music Davis “gave” us by the memoir’s title is more accurate—it’s all about him we’re just meant to consume.