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The Beat: Spooky and Sue’s “Swingin’ On A Star” and the Difference Between a “Record” and a “Song”

The Beat: Spooky and Sue’s “Swingin’ On A Star” and the Difference Between a “Record” and a “Song”


Spooky and Sue

“Swingin’ On a Star” was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke way back in 1944 for the Bing Crosby film Going My Way, for which it won the Academy Award for Best Song.  This was back in the days when the Best Song Oscar and was actually given to songs.  Nowadays, songs from films are so few and far between that the Oscar frequently goes to any musical thing written specifically for a film.  For example, Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp,” from Hustle & Flow, which won Best Song in 2006.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the Three 6 Mafia track as much as the next pimp, but it just really isn’t a song; coming from a traditional music publishing background, I find this irksome.

Technically speaking, “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” is a record, or in today’s parlance, a track. A track—or record—is something that is made in the recording studio by a producer.  From a music publishing perspective, the same song can have many records made of it.  “Swingin’ on A Star” is a great example, having been recorded dozens of times over the years.  A song that gets recorded enough times and withstands the greatest test of all—time—can be considered a standard and is valued as a significant copyright.  Some records are versions of songs and others are really more like musical collages, consisting of a series of tracks.

Traditionally, a song must have music and lyrics and is something that can be distilled from the recorded version and  played on the piano or guitar.  Like “Moon River” or “The Way We Were” or “Streets of Philadelphia.”  A record can really be anything; it may or may not have a melody (“Single Ladies, Put A Ring On It”); the melody, or hook, could be sampled from a different record (“Right Round”); or it could just be some snap beats that sound like a heart beating next to a rattle snake while some guy raps about fuckin’ bitches (“Wait, The Whisper Song”).   If you disagree or feel confused,  I recommend you try playing “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” on the piano the next time your friends drop by.  If you’ve never heard of “Wait, (The Whisper Song),” this is the point: songs have more shelf life than records, even today.

In case you’ve ever wondered, this is why the Grammy Awards have two separate awards, the Song of the Year, which goes to the songwriter, and Record of the Year, which goes to the artist and producer.  I learned this when I was about ten because I was confused so I did the logical thing and wrote a letter to the Recording Academy, the organization who give out the Grammy Awards. They wrote me back a lovely note explaining the whole thing and I took them at their word.  The 2008 “Song of the Year” honor bestowed upon Beyonce’s fun little “record” “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It),” suggests to me that maybe I should dig up the letter and send it back to Neil Portnow, the N.A.R.A.S. Chairman, to remind him of the distinction.  In an era where the beat has pushed melody over a cliff, the song has been completely subsumed by the record, and there are literally thousands of songwriters who can’t make a living anymore.

But back to Spooky and Sue.  I love this song and I love their version of it.  I love their little line dance, which is very Soul Train, circa 1974, and I also love their vaguely Native American get-ups, which are also very 1974.  All I know about them is that Spooky was from Aruba and Sue was British.  I don’t think they had much chart success in the states, as the only thing I could find about them was on the Wikipedia site in the Netherlands, so I didn’t get too far with that.

But their joyful version of “Swingin’ On a Star” lives on as a wonderful “record” of a great “song.”




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    September 9, 2012 at 12:54 am

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