- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

Having landed a slot on the judges panel of “American Idol” this season, Kara DioGuardi will become a familiar face to millions of Americans.

It’s an unusual position to be in for someone like Miss DioGuardi, a producer, songwriter and vocalist who has helped craft hits for mega-selling artists including Celine Dion, Faith Hill, Christina Aguilera and Miley Cyrus - and yet remains anonymous to industry outsiders.

Such behind-the-scenes pros are used to being heard, in effect, but rarely seen.

Concentrated in New York, Nashville, Tenn.; and Los Angeles, they’re a crucial part of a $40 billion music industry that churns out new material every Tuesday - material that some of the business’s main attractions aren’t equipped to produce (on their own, at least).

Songsmiths such as Diane Warren, Desmond Child and Linda Perry have discographies that read like contemporary pop versions of those old Time Life music compilations.

Miss Warren has a mortal lock on the light-rock ballad market; she has written or co-written hits recorded by Celine Dion (“Because You Loved Me”), LeAnn Rimes (“How Do I Live”), Aerosmith (“I Don’t Miss a Thing”) and countless others. She also, we should note, is a former “American Idol” judge.

Mr. Child’s handiwork is on several Bon Jovi (“Livin’ on a Prayer”) and Aerosmith (“Dude Looks Like a Lady,” “Angel”) hits.

Linda Perry, who scored a hit (“What’s Up”) while fronting 4 Non Blondes has become a go-to writer and producer for female artists from Pink to Courtney Love to Gwen Stefani.

They’re the guys and gals with the golden pens.

So what’s it like to enjoy a piece of the riches but only sniff the fame?

“If you have the epiphany early enough, it really eliminates a lot of the angst,” says Glen Ballard, a songwriter and producer with credits that include Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” Aerosmith’s “Pink” and extensive work with Alanis Morissette and the Dave Matthews Band.

The epiphany he means is the realization that you’re not likely to become a star.

As soon as he was able to crawl onto a piano bench, Mr. Ballard, 55, started pecking away at original material. A natural composer, he says he experiences an urge to write every day.

What he isn’t, he happily admits, is a great singer.

“I don’t have a Stradivarius living in my throat,” he says. “No one really wants to hear me sing.”

With an eye toward a new solo album, Roger Daltrey, the singer and non-songwriter of the Who, this week solicited material from those with the Ballardian talent/handicap.

“I feel there must be an enormous amount of really talented songwriters out there who can’t sing,” he told Billboard magazine. “So please, send me your songs.”

Mr. Ballard adds that “there are certain voices God has designated to be distinctive” (Mr. Daltrey’s, for instance). His was not one of them, so he decided early on not to “chase that rabbit.”

Still: What to do with all those ideas swimming around in his head and filling up demo tapes?

After graduating from college, the Natchez, Miss., native moved to Los Angeles to try to make a living in songwriting. He took a job as a gofer at Elton John’s label, Rocket Record Co. Three years later came a break: Two of Mr. John’s band mates, Davey Johnstone and James Newton Howard, sampled one of his compositions and liked what they heard.

Rocket artist Kiki Dee recorded Mr. Ballard’s “One Step” in 1978 and furnished the young songwriter his first chart single.

The division of labor between composer and performer, to be sure, is as old as popular music - and in the early days, songwriting was no way to get ahead. In “The House That George Built: A History of the Golden Age of American Popular Music,” writer Wilfrid Sheed notes that Stephen Foster, America’s first great songwriter, was warned by his father that (in Mr. Sheed’s words) “songwriting was a low-life waste of time.”

We all know what eventually happened: Spurred on by movies and radio, composers including Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern turned popular songwriting into a highly sophisticated - and remunerative - art form.

The rock explosion of the 1950s paved a way for amateurs to get in on the act: With just three chords to master, rock, broadly speaking, was a folk music. Hence the advent of the singer of his own songs - Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, to name just a few obvious examples.

Even after artists including Bob Dylan and the Beatles lifted rock to new heights of sophistication, wedding raw elements to formal elegance, songwriters such as Carole King and Randy Newman maintained the tradition of the urbane professional composer.

So it continues to this day.

Mr. Ballard is no stranger to charges that his end of the business caters to mainstream, dentist-office tastes on which critics and connoisseurs are quick to heap derision.

In fact, he says, “I was probably one of those persons earlier in my life - an intellectual snob.”

Various academic studies and songwriting guidebooks over the years have attempted to explain with formal rigor the logic of melody, the scientific recipe for hit songs. The formula, to employ a freighted word.

Mr. Ballard, for his part, says he doesn’t consider entertainment value to be vulgar. If an artist doesn’t on some level seek to entertain or communicate with others, why bother recording - why not just sing to oneself in isolated purity?

“I wish I had a formula,” he says. “It would make things a heck of a lot easier.”

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