Posts Tagged ‘pop music’

If you have been near a radio, in a store, or anywhere where one could hear Top 40 music, you have probably heard “Call Me Maybe,” the inexplicable Top 10 hit by Carly Rae Jepsen, a Canadian singer-songwriter whose other songs don’t really hint at the pop genius of this one.

At first glance, just another disposable pop song. But it’s worth gathering what that means these days. One glance at the top of the Billboard Charts suggests that after years of hearing Euro dance beats and the tyranny of LMFAO and Katy Perry, the Top 10 is getting weird. Gotye featuring Kimba? fun.? Goofy British boy bands? The other shocker here is the return of legitimate melody — songs with catchy tunes rather than catchy beats (contrast Kelly Clarkson with, say, Pitbull). Consider Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” a slow, undanceable song with a monster singable chorus:

OK, but back to Carly Rae. What’s so great about “Call Me Maybe”? Well, to sum it up in one word, it’s the “maybe.” Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Petula Clark, Blondie: they all asked us to call them in songs titled “Call Me,” but they either came from a place of desperation or solicitation. In Jepsen’s case, the solicitation, if it exists at all, is hesitant and non-committal:

Hey, I just met you
And this is crazy
But here’s my number
So call me, maybe
It’s hard to look right
At you baby
But here’s my number
So call me, maybe

It’s a song about the queasy feeling of making the first move, of making yourself vulnerable. The inarticulate lyrics are exactly the point — who has not become tongue-tied when confronted by the object of their desire? Not everyone can sound like Debbie Harry, blithely asking people to “roll [her] in designer sheets.” For the Facebook generation, increasingly mediated in its human contact, there’s no imagery or directness, just staring at our shoes and asking the other person to call us, maybe.

Musically, the song understands that chorus is the key. The verses are kept to a minimum (15 seconds) with almost no backing, save for a generic drum beat and those repeated pizzicato strings, before we get to the pre-chorus when the song truly opens up. “Call Me Maybe” understands the fascistic nature of the pop song; it demands our allegiance and we will sing along, whether we like it or not. In come the cheesy strings, in comes the dance beat, in comes the middling keyboard figure: along with the lyrics of the song, the instrumentation suggests a sort of stasis, unwilling to commit one way or another. The vocals in the verse hover around the same note, and the chorus does the same flailing — climbing ever higher like a cracking voice before zeroing in on the tiny downward steps of “call me, maybe.” Consider the structure of the song, which features so many repeated parts that it’s not much more than window-dressing for the chorus.

  • Intro (pizzicato strings) (4 sec)
  • Verse 1 (“I threw a wish in a well…”) (16 sec)
  • Pre-chorus (“Your stare was holding…”) (8 sec) (in comes hint at the bigger beat and slow crescendo)
  • Chorus (“Hey I just met you…”) (15 sec) (the beat, the strings all come in)
  • Chorus (again!) (another 15 sec + 5 sec outro) (add noodly guitar line)
  • Verse 2 (“You took your time with the call…”) (16 sec)
  • Pre-chorus (8 sec)
  • Chorus (15 sec)
  • Chorus (15 sec)
  • Bridge (kind of) (“‘Fore you came into my life…”) (15 sec)
  • Chorus reprise (5 sec intro + 7 sec)
  • Chorus (15 sec)
  • Bridge again (15 sec)

That is to say, in a full 3:20 pop song, only 30 seconds give or take are lines not repeated elsewhere in the song. Verses, who needs that? The song is essentially nothing but sing-along! Even the choruses themselves are half just “Here’s my number/so call me maybe.” Through sheer repetition and melodic dog whistles, “Call Me Maybe” worms its way effortlessly into your brain, with just enough generic dance beat to throw your hands up.

In the tradition of “A-B-C” and “MmmBop!”, Jepsen’s tune is a perfect pop song for its moment — disposable verses with a heavily-repeated middle section, capturing somehow the non-committal of modern relationships with the machinery of pop songs. It’s worth noting that the song’s popularity derived from a Youtube video shot by Justin Bieber and his friends in which they sing along to the tune while goofing around.

For its noncommittal and tentative attempts at initiating contact, “Call Me Maybe” outro seems oddly deflating: Rather than a fade-out, the song simply peters out, but this seems to encapsulate the moment perfectly. A queasiness, a tepid solicitation, then a fantasy of all that happens in a relationship in the space of a three-minute pop song, followed by ultimate deflation. The only way to bounce back from the deflation? Why, we must play the song again and relive the experience! And so we do.

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In case you missed it, Youtube has its own Top 100 Music Videos charts, which serve as an interesting foil to the Billboard Hot 100.

The Billboard charts, once the gauge of pop song penetration across the nation, has limited utility these days. Although it now incorporates digital purchases, it still has both a bias towards recency (because people don’t purchase songs twice) and bias against the too recent (songs that have been leaked or have not been officially released).

A good example of this phenomenon is the chart performance of Rebecca Black’s novelty song “Friday.” It reached its peak in cultural salience in mid-March, and appeared on the Billboard charts at #72. The song peaked on the charts (at #58) two weeks after its peak in cultural salience. Conversely, the song’s conquering of Youtube happened almost instantaneously with a long tail as people continued watching the videos.

So, a brief tour of the differences in the two charts for this week. Youtube’s 100 still has the big hitters. Youtube’s Top 10 features 5 songs currently in Billboard’s Top 10, and 1 song that very recently was (“Super Bass” – #14 on Billboard). Yet its differences reflect its odd bent. For one, the chart tends to go a bit further afield than whitebread America, particularly in its inclusion of foreign/world/Spanish-language songs. “Rain Over Me,” a Pitbull song from this summer that peaked at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August, sits comfortably at #6. Shakira’s generally forgotten World Cup anthem “Waka Waka” still inexplicably holds a #18 position on the Youtube 100.

What to make of Michel Telo’s “Ai Se Eu Te Pego,” a Portuguese-language song from Brazil with 33 million Youtube views?

I actually have a soft spot for this cheeseball sing-along. Certainly such a song would never make it on the Billboard charts, and most of its audience is likely Brazilian. The Youtube 100’s global reach folds in K-Pop, Brazilian pop-country, and reggaeton.

Consider the kind of American hit that makes it on the Youtube charts but not the Billboards.

This is Don Omar’s “Danza Kuduro.” The song hit number one in Austria, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, but not in the U.S. An American song written largely in Spanish with a large polyglot global audience fits the narrative of the new global music industry’s reach.

In addition to its internationalist bent, the Youtube 100 reads trends before they peak on the Billboard 100. For example, Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe,” a promotional single from his “well, his voice dropped” Christmas album is already trending downwards on Youtube even as it debuts at #11 on the Billboard charts.

In light of these differences, it’s worth pondering what music charts are worth anyways. What do these charts actually tell us? Are they a window into a nation’s soul? I mean, maybe. But charts are essentially ephemeral; they can’t tell us which songs will last as monuments and which songs will slide into oblivion. Cultural critics will capture the ego, and historians will capture the superego, but the charts are pure id. That’s what the Youtube 100 captures, and what the Billboard 100 increasingly cannot do.

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Inspired by recent Beyonce song “1+1,” I wondered what other kinds of math-based lyrics I could find in pop music.

Beyonce’s tune sticks to pretty basic arithmetic, as a result of her limited math knowledge:

If I aint got nothing, I got you
If I aint got something I don’t give a damn, cause I got it with you
I don’t know much about algebra, but I know one plus one equals two
And it’s me and you, thats all we’ll have when the world is through

Still, even the most basic math can perplex musicians; Radiohead’s “2+2=5” certainly illustrates that arithmetic is hard. (OK, there might be some sort of deeper philosophical point being made here along the lines of 1984.)

Furthermore, algebra, even when referenced in pop songs, does not result in many solved equations. (See, e.g., Jason Derulo – “Algebra”: “I’ve got more problems than an algebra equation.” Besides, does an algebra equation really have many problems? I’ll assume that Jason Derulo has a lot of variables in his algebra equation(s).) So maybe it’s best that Beyonce stuck to addition.

Kate Bush does OK with her ode to irrational numbers on “Pi,” but she does get some digits wrong. The lyrics about the “great circle of infinity” don’t quite cut it either, but hearing Kate Bush sing the digits of pi almost correctly is interesting in its own way.

Most pop music references to math tend to be oblique or metaphorical. That makes sense; one hardly wants to spend one’s mindless pop song thinking about math.

The oblique reference usually takes the form of a non sequitur, like Drake’s random verse in “What’s My Name?”

I heard you good with them soft lips
Yeah you know word of mouth
the square root of 69 is 8 something
cuz I’ve been trying to work it out

Presumably Drake means that 69 implies that the participants “ate” something. Plus, he gets bonus points for being technically correct, in that the square root of 69 is indeed ~8.307. Still, the use of a square root seems wholly unnecessary, a tacked-on bit to show off how smart he can be.

Bobby Darin’s “Multiplication” is more biologically based than mathematical, but his fun with numbers is again little more than cursory:

Multiplication… that’s the name of the game!
And each generation… they play the same!

Let me tell ya now: I say one and one is five,
You can call me a silly goat!
But, ya take two minks, add two winks,
Ah… ya got one mink coat!

Similarly, Ace of Base uses the Golden Ratio as a metaphor for a perfect significant other (“The Golden Ratio“), although I wonder how far that metaphor can go. Would you really want to say you found the perfect guy and that the ratio of him:you is ~1:1.618?

So, do any songs actually get math right? Even gifted musicians, when using the math metaphor, either stick to mere counting (Mos Def – “Mathematics”) or the basic one and one is two addition (Brad Paisley – “You Do The Math”).

Unfortunately, the best math songs are necessarily novelty songs. Tom Lehrer writes fun tunes, but they’re never going to hit the big time.

Similarly, Bo Burnham has a nerdy novelty song (also called “New Math”) which combines his typical wordplay with legitimate math concepts:

and if you made a factor tree of the factors that caused my girl to leave me youd have a tree…
full of asian porn.
C-A-L-C-U-LATOR (see you later) mathetmatical minds make industrial smog.
and whats the opposite of ln(x), duraflame the unnatural log.

Maybe the best odes to math in pop music are math-rock songs, using complicated math to push the boundaries of what music can sound like, mostly with ridiculous time signatures and syncopation. The best math in music isn’t in the lyrics; it’s in the songs themselves.

Bonus video: (Because it has to be here)

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The recent spate of confidence-boosting pop songs is nothing new. Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” both became megahits (and frequent caterwauling victims on American Idol — the truest measure of pop song ubiquity). Yet, the current wave of pep-talk songs differs from its past versions in both style and sheer number. Currently on the Billboard charts, the #1, #5, #6 and #8 songs are all of the “inspirational” variety, with a smattering following after. Pop music works in waves, so this is not wholly surprising (as when the Top 10 were dominated purely by songs featuring T-Pain, or more recently, Pitbull). Here, though, the earnestness of the songs and their simultaneous rise in the wake of bullying news stories seems to suggest a broader force at work. One wonders why we need pop stars to tell us to feel good about ourselves anyways.

One notable change in this generation of confidence-boosters is the change in tempo. There are no ballads in this set, taking their hints from Britney Spears’ “Stronger” rather than the traditional ballad set — more “Rocky” montage than “Chariots of Fire.” We’ll dance/montage our way to feeling better! In that vein, let’s start with the execrable “Firework” by Katy Perry. Lord, it’s awful:

Starting with a painfully bad opening line, “Do you ever feel // like a plastic bag,” the song reflects a perfect exercise in banality. Nothing in the song distinguishes itself, from the Coldplay-cribbing string section to the blandest dance beat this side of Justin Bieber. This, however, is the song’s strength for the listener: this could theoretically be about me, since this could theoretically be anyone! Before you know it, your chest too could have an attached firework bra! (What is it with Katy Perry and novelty bras?) Pop songs are made to be universal, but at some point, the generality of “have higher self-esteem by being yourself!” hurts rather than helps. It only reinforces the idea that specialness is everywhere and therefore, generic. If after all your beautiful, colorful explosions, all anyone has to say is “Ah, ah, ah,” how great a show are you?


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Double entendres are the lingua franca of pop music. From Cole Porter (“Kick her right in the Coriolanus!”) through the Beatles (“Baby, you can drive my car!”) through Lil’ Wayne (“She lick me like a lollipop”), double entendres indicate not only the hinted-at taboo act, but also the character of the songwriters and artists. Porter makes a Shakespeare pun to mix with earthy humor, while Lil Wayne prefers a more direct and juvenile approach.

Recently, however, the “single entendre” has begun to dominate pop music.

Here’s Enrique Iglesias’ new single (currently in the Top 10) “Tonight I’m Fucking You.” (video NSFW for language)

So much for subtlety. This is cleaned up for radio, of course, but the song doesn’t make any sense otherwise. But let’s compare Iglesias to the raunchy jump blues double entendres that long predated modern dance-pop.

(various artists, most notably Elvis) – “Good Rockin’ Tonight”:

I say, well, meet me in a hurry
behind the barn,
Don’t you be afraid, darling,
I’ll do you no harm
I want you to bring
along my rockin’ shoes,
‘Cause tonight I’m gonna rock away
all my blues.
I heard the news,
there’s good rockin’ tonight.

All that sexual Elvis energy is restrained by the innuendo of the song. There’s no question what he is really talking about (1950’s fearmongering parents, you were right!), but sex retains some sense of mystery or danger. In the modern single entendre iteration, all of that is removed:

Here’s the situation
Been to every nation
Nobody’s ever made me feel the way that you do
You know my motivation
Given my reputation
Please excuse I don’t mean to be rude
But tonight I’m fucking you

Any pretense is gone; the jump between “I like you” to “Let’s have sex” now takes place in a half second. That’s not to say that the false modesty of the double entendre isn’t still around, but everything about it is insincere. (“I don’t mean to be rude”? Why would that ever be considered rude?)

This particular brand of bravado is new to straight pop music, although it has been relatively common in gangsta rap (Biggie and R. Kelly made this slow jam precursor to “Tonight” in 1997), where all emotions are exaggerated and distilled to their essence. It’s notable, though, that hip-hop’s biggest crossover songs don’t tend to be in this vein.

I wonder more where pop music will go from here. Once you’ve done “Fuck You,” can there be any other kiss-off songs? So much of pop music’s double entendre game depended on toeing a line that created linguistic and musical tension. Surely double entendres will not simply die (see Britney Spears’ latest single), but something in the danger and teasing of those old blues standards cannot quite work with the openness in modern pop. With that line now completely breached, what exactly is left?

The answer, unfortunately, seems to be parody, which seems an unfitting end to a time-honored tradition. Parody and satire have their own richness, to be sure, but pop music’s path towards directness seems to have come to a conclusion. Stanley Cavell famously asked “Must we mean what we say?” Modern pop not only means what it says; it cannot even resist saying it.

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The long tracking shot has been expounded by the likes of Andrew Sullivan and Roger Ebert. A virtuosic feat requiring plenty of practice and technical facility, the long tracking shot is usually more of a flourishy show off than a requirement to make the film. Yet, this show-offy quality fits music videos perfectly, which need that 3 minutes of undivided attention to suck a viewer into a song.

Many best-of lists have been compiled for films, but music videos often use the same technique of the single take, as in this fine new single by J. Cole, featuring a Mr. Cole, a marching band, exploding cars and the city of Fayetteville, N.C. (Warning: Not Safe For Work… coarse language)

I tried to think of other music videos that use the same long tracking shot. A few immediately come to mind, but most are recent.

The cheap-o version: the fixed camera take, as in OK Go’s “Here It Goes Again.” I’m sure the take required plenty of choreography and practice, but there’s something about the fixed camera that keeps this video from the kind of artistry visible in some of the other videos. I wonder if this classifies as a “tracking shot” video, in the same way that I wonder if Ozu fixed-camera shots belong in the same category as, say, P.T. Anderson’s panning around in “Boogie Nights.”

There’s Vampire Weekend’s imitation of Wes Anderson storytelling, which moves between scenes of varying interest (not unlike J. Cole’s video above).

There’s Michel Gondry’s “Is that really one take?” Radiohead video for “Knives Out.” The video tells a distinct story, while keeping the usual Gondry whimsy amidst Radiohead’s gloom.

There’s the over-the-top production number, which has a tendency to flame out. Feist gets it right, though, with “1 2 3 4.” I’m pretty sure the video is what sold me on the song.

Even the venerable (and often boring) band-plays-the-song video can be gussied up with a little single-take magic. Observe…

One category of tracking shot video that deserves special mention is the fan-made lip dub variety that has made the rounds. The sight of joyous people singing an otherwise horrific pop song is enough to redeem even “Hey Soul Sister.” This kind of video encapsulates the pros and cons of single-take music videos: sometimes the gimmick overpowers the song or the visual onscreen, but the overall enjoyment of the technical achievement and the rapturous experience of the people in the video are enough to wipe away any qualms.

Finally, the one-of-a-kind split-screen single-take altogether perfect music video. I’m pretty sure this is the Platonic ideal. Solid pop song, video subject material tangentially related to song, band-playing-song trope still evident, insertion of band members into story, unsatisfying yet satisfying ending — it’s all there folks.

Anyone got more?

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Basically everyone I know thinks I am trolling — or at the very least, deluded — when it comes to Taylor Swift.

Blogs I like reading (Vulture), people I like talking about music with (Linus), and many rock critics whose opinions I respect (the Sound Opinions guys) all consider her somewhere between dime-a-dozen pop demi-star and airbrushed garbage.

Thus, I feel I should lay out my defense of Swift, as well as explain some theories behind her mainstream appeal.

Swift’s music grows out of the ’90s suburban country music era — Shania Twain, Leann Rimes, et al. — in which country music, like so many “rural” trappings (stock car racing, SUVs, and cowboy boots), became mainstream. That’s not to say that country was without crossover before; certainly, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline achieved success on the Billboard charts. Nevertheless, the suburban country-pop of the ’90s was epitomized by Twain’s particular brand of feminism, emotionally charged lyrics, and overall smoothness that appealed to a suburban crowd — fitting for the gal from Windsor, Ontario. It’s no surprise that Swift cites Twain as her “biggest influence.

As rougher Southern artists, who might have been country artists in another era, gravitated towards rock (My Morning Jacket, Drive-by Truckers, Black Crowes, Band of Horses, etc.), country became dominated by the slicker sound of the suburban country star.

Enter Swift, 12 or 13, recording demos and trying to write songs. At age 14, sitting in math class, she starts writing her first hit single, “Tim McGraw,” the kind of bittersweet love song that teenagers love to write and listen to. The difference is that Swift’s songs are both honest and evocative, showing an in-depth knowledge of the construct of the country pop song. This aspect is important when viewing Swift’s pop-star rise; her gift is primarily as a song-writer, not a singer. RCA’s original deal with her kept her from recording on her own, and Nashville establishment first recognized her for her song-writing. She brings to mind the young song-writers of the Brill Building — Neil Diamond, Goffin and King, Burt Bacharach — churning out pop songs.

Lyrical analysis after the break!


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