Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pop Music is Conservative?

I just ran across something really rare in music journalism: intelligent criticism of the mind-numbing sameness of current pop music. And in the Globe and Mail of all places! Here's the link. The author, Russell Smith, makes the claim that "Pop music is by far the most conservative art form there is." And then he goes on to make an argument for that claim, saying:
A song is a short composition for voice and instruments. It is a piece of sung poetry set to music. It is usually only a few minutes long. In popular music, a song follows a very strict pattern: There are verses, then a refrain, repeated several times. Sometimes there is a short passage of variation called a bridge. In hip hop, the verses can be chanted rather than sung, but the principle is the same. Generally the words are meant to represent the personal emotional state of the singer. The vast majority of them are about romantic relationships, although this is not a necessary condition. All songs – all of them, every single one, that is to say 100 per cent – must have a four-four time signature.
I've written about the metric rigidity of pop music before in my post The Tyranny of the Backbeat. To go a bit further, not only is all current pop music in 4/4, but it is rigidly so: the computers run the tempos these days. Interestingly, in the comments to the article several people mentioned some exceptions to the 100% 4/4 and a lot of them were Beatles songs. Well, sure! But if you look at current pop music, not music from forty or fifty years ago, then there are very few exceptions. I am constantly amused at the descriptions of pop music you see, usually by promoters, that wax lyrical about the unique specialness of the artist's emotional commitment or something and then as soon as you hear the song, it is the same old 4/4 backbeat and all too often at exactly 120 on the metronome. Oh yes, terribly unique!

Let's do my YouTube survey of pop music thing, which consists in typing random letters into the YouTube search and seeing what comes up. Here is what comes up with 'a':

Sorry for the juvenile intro, but just listen to the song. Yep, it's three for three: 4/4, backbeat and exactly at 120 bpm (beats per minute, the metronome marking that indicates the tempo).

No messing around there: straight to the drum machine. 4/4... But wait, I detect some innovation here: there is no backbeat as all beats are exactly the same, plus, I think the tempo is the radically different 122 bpm! Go Britney!

The letter 'c' brings us "C'mon" by Ke$ha:

and again, it's three for three: 4/4, backbeat and 120.

Doesn't anyone ever notice the aesthetic dissonance between all these wild and crazy, free-spirited artistic souls who just happen to always follow exactly the same metric formula in their songs?

And speaking of the Beatles and metric variety, the song from the White Album, "Happiness is a Warm Gun" by John Lennon begins in 4/4, but later on is in 5/4, 9/8, 12/8, (and goes back and forth between the last two a few times) then 10/8 in case you were getting bored, 2/4 and finally back to 4/4. Don't ever tell me Ringo didn't earn his money!


Rickard Dahl said...

Wow, Nicki Minaj AND Justin Bieber, surely it must be a sign of the apocalypse. Maybe it's time to start listening to the quartet for the end of times and the apocalyptic symphony. At least that way the end of the World will be enjoyable to the ears.
Jokes aside, the author of the article is very correct, it is the state of affairs in the pop music World. The lack of variety is extreme. Time signatures are mostly 4/4 as you said for instance. This is weird considering that composing music in other time signatures is no difficulty really. Same old chord progressions over and over/lack of harmonic variety, same again, not hard to compose using other chord progressions & using more different chords. Changing instrumentation, getting rid of song, drums and/or electric guitars, once again, not hard. Making the music more contrapuntal, not hard. Changing tempo, eh, same again. I could go on but I guess each change would make it less and less like pop music. I guess a few of the issues might be:
- Market people want the same old because they know it sells.
- The composers (or rather artists) are pretty bad at music except that they typically can sing at least decently. They don't even know how to read music in many cases. They also don't seem to have a good musical taste (I guess they write what they like (if they write that is) and what they like sounds terrible, if they would listen to a wide variety of classical music they would probably realise how bad their musical taste actually is and maybe they would be able to write music that sounds more interesting).

Bryan Townsend said...

You know, I'm not sure we should even blame the artists! There are lots of people out there doing something that is a bit different and original, like Gotye. Or even really original, like Packwood. I think both those guys are from Australia. I'll bet there are all kinds of musician/songwriters all over the place doing something different. BUT, and here it comes, what is overwhelmingly prevailing is the mass market pop, the music industry stuff. Doesn't that phrase really bother you? The music industry. Like the coal industry or the frozen fish sticks industry. In this wonderful mass media world, all we hear about is Justin Bieber. Beyoncé. Miley Cyrus.

Maybe the problem is the audience...

Rickard Dahl said...

Yes, music industry is a very bothering term. It sounds like a production line producing the same old music. All the music mass produced giving roughly the same quality but also pretty much the same product. And since it's mass produced there is little room for changes, that would reduce the profits after all. Classical music on the other hand is like crafted products, one product (piece) at the time, produced with care and high quality. But yes, maybe the audience is the problem. The bigger the audience the less they think for themselves and the more they influence others to think the same way. And since what the audience likes is bad, things move in the wrong direction. They are like an animal pack waiting for the pack leaders (radio, TV, celebrities etc.) to tell them what they should listen to. I guess I'm in the mood for analogies right now.

Virgil T. Morant said...

It seems that not too infrequently as I'm browsing your posts, they strike an impressive coincidence in real life. In this case, it was a phone call from a colleague just a couple of minutes after I read this post. He knew that I was often at Cleveland Orchestra concerts, and he told me a young lady in his office had never been to one but was interested in classical music, particularly piano music. He wanted to get her tickets for a concert featuring the piano, and he asked for my recommendation. Towards the end of our conversation, he remarked how it was a shame that so few—most especially the young—have that kind of music on their radar. We exchanged a couple of polite words about the bankruptcy of our musical culture. And I think his young associate will have a fine concert to attend some time in the coming months.

Augustine said...

Here lies some solid proof:

Rickard Dahl said...

I'm allergic to that chord progression, at least when it can be heard clearly. Why, Pachelbel, why? (note: I know it existed before but Pachelbel but since Pachebel is most famous for it, I blame him)

Rickard Dahl said...

I know it existed before Pachelbel but since Pachelbel is...*, sorry about the messed up sentence in my previous comment

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Augustine! I don't mention the harmonic clichés of pop nearly as much as I should! There is a great stand-up routine where a guy with a guitar does a very similar thing that I posted once, but I can't remember where. Along with this harmonic cliché, which we might call the Pachelbel/ballad progression, there is another one that used to be a favorite of mine when I was nineteen and playing in a rock band. Let's call it the "flamenco stew" progression: A minor, G major, F major, E major, repeat until tired.