I have invited my good friend Des to write a piece for my blog so that I can share his subtle wit and incisive philosophizing with you all. When I first approached him to write for me he replied that he didn’t know what he wanted to write about but at the same time he was keen to apply his verbiage to a wider audience. So, after accepting the brief of “Blogging About Everything” he set to the keyboard with great fury and produced this literary gem. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.
Pop Music- Des Reaburn-Jenkin
This essay is going to explore my understanding of popular music. I am a musician, a music teacher and I grew up in a musical family. I am one of those people that likes to think of themselves as having a broad taste in music. It’s hard to nail down a favourite genre, because it depends upon my mood. It’s even harder to nail down a favourite artist or band for much the same reason. But I have been wondering lately if my tastes are more confined that I think they are because, from what I could make out from casual observation, today’s popular music was neither musical nor justifiably popular. I would hate to think I was becoming rigid in my musical appreciation, a “square” or “fuddy-duddy” or whatever young people would call me. Most of them call me “old”, but I’m not, particularly.
So, I’ve been looking into this and one of the first places I looked was at the music that is in the charts. The current number one single on the ARIA charts is “Gangnam Style” by PSY. In the interests of research I have listened to this song and noted some of its features. Because I’m a musician I could tell you all kinds of things about it but also, because I’m a musician I didn’t find a lot to appreciate, musically speaking, in this little toy song. For “fun” (of a perverse variety) I listened to it simultaneously with LMFAO’s Sexy and I Know itand was not surprised to discover that they sit quite comfortably together. Same number of beats per minute, same repetitive structure and so on.
I’m not silly, I know that this is because DJs at nightclubs have become a lazy bunch and it’s much easier to line songs up seamlessly in that way that used to seem like magic when they all basically sound the same anyway. So what else is there in the charts apart from these novelty club tunes? Does music with substance still make the top 40?
Well, prior to PSY it was Australia’s own Guy Sebastian, with his tune “Battle Scars”. Guy had earned a little musical credibility, having recorded albums with the legendary MGs and also John Mayer and his band. This particular track is lacking groove, to say the least. Guy’s vocals sound auto-tuned, Lupe Fiasco’s words are just a string of babble and there are three chords repeating endlessly throughout, the same piano part, with very little ornamentation (oh, except for a kind of “middle eight” later in the piece, where the chords change for two bars). What was most distressing about it was that it was utterly relentless, almost totally devoid of dynamics and grating on the ears. What was most interesting was how neatly the song structure fit with another number one from earlier this year, Pumped up Kicks by Foster the People. Same deal, three repeating chords, also monotonous, but this time with pseudo “lo-fi” mixing, and decidedly flat vocal delivery by contrast.
I invite you to listen to them side-by-side (although not concurrently- nothing can compete with Guy’s intolerable fortissimo) and note the obvious similarities. While you’re at it try Adele’s Rolling in the Deep and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy. The chorus parts are so nearly identical that I’m surprised there wasn’t a lawsuit. Poor old Men at Work had to fork out for borrowing (possibly inadvertently) a bar from a tune written decades before, how Ceelo and Adele didn’t come to fisticuffs is beyond me.
I could go on, but I’ve got to try and make a point, and the point is this:
Popular music is being dumbed down. Except that it isn’t. Maybe.
It must be inevitable that the more music you listen to, the less surprised you will become with new music. But when I think of the music I heard on the radio as a kid, I don’t remember so much repetition. I remember Kate Bush absolutely blowing my mind with Cloudbusting. I remember Duran Duran for their dazzling musicality on songs like Rio. And the evocative harmonies and slightly unpredictable chord structure and instrumentation of Africa by Toto. I’m not hearing the same level of complexity, virtuosity or intelligence in today’s music. You have to search outside of the mainstream to find much of interest these days but then what’s mainstream now?
It’s not just what’s on the radio any more. In fact, it’s very seldom what’s on the radio any more. The world of music has expanded massively over the past two decades. The way the music business does business has changed along with it. Some of that is lamentable, because so much of the music being produced is derivative, predictable and underwhelming. In the early 2000s I was of the belief that the genre of music that was the most dynamic and interesting was heavy metal. Within a decade the genre has become so overpopulated, so saturated with mediocrity and made so infinitely divisible into sub-genres it is stultifying. Metal is going through the same phase that wiped out disco by the mid-70s, wiped out punk and prog-rock by the end of the 70s, killed glam rock by the end of the 80s and grunge by the end of the 90s. We’re a fickle bunch, us music lovers.
Why hasn’t Hip Hop died out? It’s certainly changed a lot from its earliest incarnations to now but it’s been going strong since the 80s. I think there are two reasons: Firstly, it’s incredibly cheap to produce. Secondly, it’s the ideal platform for product endorsement, so there’s a lot of money on offer. For example, Hip Hop lyrics will frequently reference brand names and in so doing that becomes a product endorsement and lo, advertising dollars are made without anyone even really noticing. I invite you to watch the clip for Wild Ones by Flo Rida (ft. Sia) to get a sense of how this works. Musically it’s like a multicoloured strobe light piercing your brain, but throughout there are significant brands featured. Pop music has always been about the bucks, but whereas once it was only during the ad breaks between songs (“And now a word from our sponsors”) now it’s all the way through the music itself, both lyrically and visually.
So what isn’t lamentable about the way the music business does business these days? Well, I think that as recording technology has become cheaper, social media has become more pervasive and people have generally become more savvy to advertising ploys (ok, that last part may be slightly optimistic) independent musicians, who might otherwise have toiled in total obscurity can reach large audiences without the need to be promoted by major recording labels. So there are actually some good things happening in popular music these days.
Probably the most conspicuous example would be Gotye, with his massively successful Somebody that I Used to Know. His music is largely self-produced, and he has had to work his way up through the “scene” to achieve the recognition he has in Australia, and was able to gain exposure to markets in the USA. That song, though, is very clever. It’s repetitive, mostly just two chords are used until he introduces a third in the chorus, but where it wins is in its other musical elements. He uses unusual instrumentation, a wide vocal range, effective variations in dynamics and also makes the most of Kimbra’s very versatile voice. He makes a lot out of very little, which is the complete opposite of what the likes of LFMAO and PSY set out to do with their recent efforts. His music is controlled, crafted and the closest thing I have been able to find in recent chart history to something that is actually, really quite original.
There is still good music being produced for mass consumption, but it is getting harder to find. Having broad tastes makes the task easier, and it never hurts to try and broaden your tastes. I just wish I wasn’t finding myself going back to the old guard to find the good stuff. Kate Bush is still as stunning and original now as she was in 1979. Duran Duran are still releasing fantastic pop music. Gotye has been around a while now, Muse are having a good shot at being the next Queen (the band, that is) so who is going to show us all the way forward? Where is the new blood? I want my mind blown again! Is that too much to ask?
You can read more from Des at: http://mountfranklinannualpagangathering.blogspot.com.au/p/articles-on-paganism-wicca-from-mfapg.html