The Critics: Rock & Pop - Where have all the great songs gone?

Ivor Novello Awards Grosvenor House, London
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You shouldn't expect too much of a songwriting guild that has Andrew Ridgeley on its honour roll and not the Sex Pistols, but Thursday's Ivor Novello Awards ceremony was still pretty depressing. It's not that it was worse than the average awards bash. Like all the others, there was a posh hotel, a nice lunch, lots of people thanking lots of other people and Rod Stewart with a young blonde woman. (A wife? A girlfriend? A daughter? Possibly even Rod is no longer 100 per cent certain). What was so disheartening was that the Ivor Novello Awards have the potential to be different.

The Ivors, as they're now known, are bestowed by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters on the finest words-and-music-smiths in the country (which hasn't stopped Benny and Bjorn from Abba winning them, for some reason). In previous years, Sting, Mark Knopfler, Elton John and Bob Geldof have all said that their Ivors were their most treasured trophies. Presumably, this is because a songwriting award recognises abilities that lie beyond the shallow, image-based side of the industry. The Ivors are the prizes given by professionals to professionals. They separate the men from the boy bands. Only those who care about the craft need apply.

So much for "presumably". On Thursday, "Horny" by Mousse T Vs Hot N Juicy won the Dance Award. Des'ree's "Life" was shortlisted for International Hit of the Year despite its ghost/ toast couplet being part of what Jarvis Cocker has cited as 1998's most appalling lyric. Robbie Williams picked up a statuette for "Angels"; never mind that its meaningless libretto is the feeblest one this talented lyricist has ever scribbled. (You're loving angels instead of what, Robbie?) Maybe it's appropriate that, according to one music encyclopedia, Ivor Novello himself "profitably mined a market for lushly sentimental music and stories of monumental banality".

If this sounds elitist, then I'm glad to hear it. The British Academy of Composers and Songwriters should be pickily meritocratic - the Ivors can't be prestigious otherwise. But it isn't. Instead of shining a light on hidden gems of skilful, insightful, affecting songwriting, the Academy just pats the most commercially successful backs. Would Cher's single "Believe" - cobbled together by a six-man committee - have been judged Best Song Musically & Lyrically if it hadn't sold as many million copies? I believe not.

I don't think I'm biased by my own musical taste, either. For instance, in last year's awards - covering the year 1997 - Radiohead won Best Contemporary Song and Best Song Musically & Lyrically for "Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android". Now, both tracks send shivers up my spine, but that has less to do with the songwriting than with Thom Yorke's uncanny voice and the stunning musicianship of the band, particularly Jonny Greenwood. The Academy is getting songs muddled up with recordings. To put it another way, how would "Paranoid Android" sound if it were played by a different artiste? It's true that it's increasingly difficult to separate a song as written from the track as heard - to separate the words and tune from the performance and production. But if anyone can do it, it should be the BACS.

Does it matter? Is there any need to distinguish between the songwriting and the recording? I'd say there is. Because even now, good songs are gold dust. Digital technology, rap, remixing ... all the advances that were expected to render traditional songwriting redundant have only increased the demand for it. The charts are stuffed with old songs - mostly by the Bee Gees. I can't remember when there were more cover versions on the radio, even discounting those melodies that are recycled via sampling. And whenever a big old emotive ballad is dusted off, whether it be "Perfect Day" or the heinous "Candle In The Wind" or something that Robson & Jerome have got their hands on, the post-rave generation rushes to buy it.

Western music's popular songbook is more valuable than ever, then. But who is adding to it? Who is writing the songs that will be covered in years to come? (Worthy-but-dull, acoustic guitar-wielding friends of Eddie Reader don't count.) In the past few years there have been tribute albums dedicated to Cole Porter and Ivor Novello's old buddy Noel Coward, while Britain's rock aristocrats have queued up to genuflect at the shrines of the the two Bs, Burt Bacharach and John Barry. But few artistes are following in the footsteps of Cole and Noel and Bacharach and Barry. We're using up all our resources, leaving none for future generations. And as long as that continues, the economy and ecology of pop are in danger. Besides ... I don't want to stray too far into Roger Scruton territory here, but it really is lovely to trip over a clever internal rhyme or to hear a cunning chord progression.

And while I'm grumpy, I wasn't exactly bowled over by Britain's Eurovision entry last night, either.