The Worst Songwriter of All Time

April 9 1998 3:30 AM

The Worst Songwriter of All Time

From "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?" to Barbra Streisand's "People."

(Continued from Page 1)

Hey, Mambo!Mambo Italiano ...Go, go, Joe!You mixed-up Siciliano

The guy who wrote that gets hammered from both ends. To those who love the great American standards, Merrill is the man who single-handedly produced the worst songs of the decade and so debauched the currency of mainstream Tin Pan Alley that it had no moral authority to resist rock 'n' roll. And, for baby-boom rockers, when all other musical, lyrical, and sociopolitical claims for the rock 'n' roll revolution have collapsed, the memory of growing up with the Bob Merrill songbook will always be justification enough.

Merrill moved on to Broadway and Hollywood. Having been told he was too complex for pop music, he was now regarded as too simple-minded to write show scores. But, 33 years after he gave Barbra Streisand "People," she's still singing it. These days, over the instrumental break, she's prone to toss in a homily about world peace and how, whether we're in America, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Middle East; are young, old, black, white, gay, straight, or transsexual, we're all still people, people who need people. When she first sang the song, in the musical biography of Fanny Brice, Funny Girl, it was about precisely the opposite: Fanny was so obsessed with her public identity that she'd neglected the personal; she could love audiences but not individuals. Only James Brolin and the more assiduous tabloid reporters know whether that's true of Barbra in private, but it's increasingly the case professionally: She declaims her love songs as if addressing an audience of millions rather than "one very special person." Ostensibly Bob Merrill's most general lyric, it is, in fact, the most specific of all.

Mark Steyn writes about popular music for Slate and about film for theLondon Spectator.

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