Pete's Blog

Aztec Two-Step

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I saw a short film on hulu.com the other day, concerning a duo from the '70s called Aztec Two-Step. They were an East Coast acoustic songwriting act with close two-part harmonies. I met them a couple of times and open for them I think once. Nice guys. The film spent pretty much its entire 28-minutes asking why Aztec Two-Step hadn't made it. They had great material, great management and record companies, they worked hard, toured and played good shows for years, but none of their albums ever sold more than a certain number and none of their songs ever became hits, despite being considerably more worthy (in the talking heads' opinion and also in mine) than those of their folk/pop contemporaries. Not in Jim Croce or John Denver territory, perhaps - that kind of success is something else again. But Aztec Two-Step could easily have been another Jonathan Edwards, say, or Pure Prairie League. This question resonates with me at the moment more than most stories of showbiz disappointment might, because later this week my old friend Suzanne Vega is coming to town on a much-hyped concert tour. I call her "my old friend" less because she might feel she was (I doubt she would, actually) as in a deliberate use of the cool irony that brought her such success, a success Aztec Two-Step never came close to equalling. Why? It's safe to assume that Suzanne's many fans are not morons, drugged zombies, or tools of the corporate music industry. Her success is genuine and legitimately earned. Honest people honestly like her songs. Yet her music does not equal ATS's in depth, emotion, technique, rootedness, any of the attributes by which I measure the quality of an act like this. And I'm not the only one who finds her work bloodless and disengaged. At the time of her biggest hit "Luka" the New Yorker called her "designer-folk" - it's the chance to deliver sharpened truths like that which made me want to be a music writer. For the record, the New Yorker had an item about Suzanne's upcoming tour in a recent Talk Of The Town section. The author spent most of the piece amazed at how much she still looks like girl in the "Luka" video from 25 years ago. So, what is it Suzanne Vega had that Aztec Two-Step didn't? Both acts wrote good songs, but I think to be successful singer-songwriters need more than just good songs. They need to write songs to fit a persona the audience can identify with. It's too much effort parsing a song and appreciating it for what it is, then moving on to the next. It's far easier to see the songs as part of a whole, a constructed personality. That way you only need to take a line (or, to a lesser extent, tune) here or there. It's all only about one thing, anyway. Bruce Springsteen is a good example. Somewhere along there he stopped writing songs that stand alone. Now he writes albums that let you know what concerns him this year - the unemployed, or the Iraq War - and people consume them not so much because they care about the unemployed or Iraq, but to be close to a personality they find compelling. For songwriters in the country field, all that matters is that you be sufficiently country, for songwriters or rappers in R&B sufficiently "urban." But if you're going after the "singer/songwriter" crowd you want to give them more than music. You want to give them somebody to want to be then they grow up.

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