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Songwriting royalty

The right song at the right time can set the world alight, writes Mike Chunn.

Lorde, Ella Yelich-O’Connor
Ella Yelich-O’Connor: catalyst for her generation. Photo/Getty Images


When Lorde dragged the back of her hand across her lips at the end of Yellow Flicker Beat at the American Music Awards in November, there was a tumultuous response. In my corner of the planet I thought one thing: Lorde had achieved the same as Jimi Hendrix when he set fire to his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Both disregarded propriety with sweeping, fiery imagery.

I was 15 in 1967 and in awe of the Hendrix moment, which sealed the vision of me and my bandmates – we were ready to follow. That year I bought a bass guitar. Around me, the older generation – my parents excluded – snorted at Hendrix’s immature and cancerous nonsense.

Lorde’s master stroke, I’m sure, got a similar response from the same demographic: “Tut tut – how unbecoming.” But what of the young? Twitter gives a clue. Helen Showalter (California): “Can we talk about the moment when Lorde smears her lipstick because I don’t know this woman personally but I will now go to war for her.” Keiran Lyons (US): “Lorde has made me fall in love with my generation again.” Matt Bellassai (senior editor at BuzzFeed in New York): “I just want Lorde to look me in my eyes and whisper ‘You’re free.’”

What underpins both these reference points of the past 50 years is the songs. Hendrix’s Purple Haze was embraced in the midst of the youth revolution as heralding a new era. Every savvy teenager knew it. It launched the whole package of who and what Hendrix was and is.

Lorde’s extraordinary Royals, which achieved world domination with 383 million YouTube views, has done the same. The music of today’s youth has been jolted by a song. With a smear of lipstick across her face, the complete entity that is Lorde – other­wise known as Ella Yelich-O’Connor, of Auckland’s Devonport – was realised.

Lorde’s arrival has caught the imaginations of tens of thousands of young New Zealanders. There is ambition in classrooms, playgrounds and the homes of teenagers who want to get to grips with the imaginative mix of words and music and play in the same arena as her. No matter how small their corner, no matter how hung in shadows it might be, the hunger exists.

And this is the moment. From ukuleles, keyboards and drum kits to electric guitars, young Kiwis will have received Christmas presents with which to begin their musical adventures. That, coupled with holidays, sets the scene for songwriting and performing.

The Ministry of Education does not recognise songwriting in NCEA. In New Zealand schools we teach teenagers how to write tunes (composition). We teach them about poetry, plays and short stories (creative writing). In media studies we teach them the skills to conceive and film documentaries. We must also give them the encouragement, support, feedback and mentoring to write songs, which the introduction of an NCEA achievement standard would do.

This is about the voice of young people. Songs give us our individual and collective frames of reference. They are the launch pad for those able to claim the hearts and minds of millions of people through writing, performance, recording, image and character. It’s that simple.

2015 needs to be the year when an achievement standard in songwriting is approved and the means to that end put into play. The Ministry of Education can now, in the reflected glory of Lorde’s global domination, say: “Songwriting is the core of any nation’s musical tradition. Songwriting must be in our nation’s schools.” The time is now.

 

Mike Chunn played with Split Enz and Citizen Band and is the head of the Play it Strange Trust, which promotes songwriting and musical performance by young New Zealanders.

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