Posts Tagged ‘pop’

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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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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NY Magazine has an illuminating profile of Dr. Luke, the current songwriter with the golden touch, who has built such hits as “TiK ToK,” “Right Round,” “Since U Been Gone,” and “California Gurls” (all of which hit No. 1). Although it does include some fun anecdotes (“Once, while producing with Avril Lavigne, he asked her to pepper-spray him, just for fun.”), the most intriguing bit to me was the way in which his production process works. For a songwriter, he does not follow at all the sit-down-and-write-a-song mentality at all. The process is much more fluid:

Dr. Luke wrote “Dynamite”—sort of. It’s not entirely correct to say he writes his songs, at least not in the romanticized sense of a lonely dude scratching notes while strumming away on an acoustic guitar. Rather, he assembles songs. He curates them. He hears a song before it exists, then he figures out who can best help him bring that song into existence.

In this case, he created a basic beat track with his fellow producer Benny Blanco. (Dr. Luke has a slate of producers signed to his company, Prescription Songs.) The track was originally intended to go to the rapper Flo Rida, but it wasn’t a good fit as a rap song, so Luke sent it to Sweden, to Max Martin, who wrote half of a hook for the chorus. Luke wrote the other half, then sent that track to Bonnie McKee, a lyricist. Then Luke started looking for the right vocalist to attach.

He plays me a few different early versions of “Dynamite.” In one, a singer laid vocals over the beat around the theme of “double it up,” but it fell flat. Another vocalist tried the song in a reggae-dancehall style, which Luke hated. A producer wrote a melody over the original track, but it was weak; listening to it, Luke grimaces. “I would call this a failed-hook attempt.” He seems almost offended by weak beats. He can’t exactly explain why one groove “moves” while another falters. He just knows by listening. “Certain people are amazing songwriters. I don’t really know that’s my skill,” he says. “It might be more knowing what song is right for which artist and what to do—like, don’t do it like that, do it like this. Making the right judgment calls.”

This is practically song-writing by committee, or song-writing as a project in a major corporation. You have your project manager, and you have your various suppliers, support staff and whatnot. The “songwriter” is Dr. Luke — the man in the chair, spinning and relistening and judging. The “lyricist” on the other hand, Bonnie McKee, is just another cog in the process, rather than an essential piece.

What the story immediately brought to mind, though, was not the contrast with singer-songwriter types, but the similarity to the Motown process of songwriting with Holland-Dozier-Holland, as well as the army of arrangers, musicians and lyricists who punched up each other’s songs like a comedy script.

“How Sweet It Is” results from a communal effort, where the true skill comes from matching the talent (Marvin Gaye) with the right arrangement (Holland-Dozier-Holland) with the right sound (the Funk Brothers). This is not to diminish the work of Gaye or Holland-Dozier-Holland, or any one piece of the process. Each piece is essential, and getting them all right is a rare occurrence. It’s worth mentioning that after 1967, when H-D-H famously fell out with Berry Gordy over royalty disputes, they would never make songs quite as good as those they made at Motown. Even the maestro, without the right tools and talent, can’t make the machine work quite right.

We’ve moved into an age of Dr. Lukes, with songwriting teams curating songs in the same way (Max Martin, The-Dream, Espionage). And as much as I appreciate the craftsmanship of building such diabolical earworms as “Baby” and “Your Love Is My Drug,” I do wonder what this means for the idea of personal expression in art. Is corporate art less artistic because it’s corporate? Is a pop song less of an artistic achievement than a 12-minute noise rock assault, simply because of their intentions (one is “fun,” the other is deliberately “artistic”)?

Although their message and polished veneer seem unsophisticated, pop songs and their production are among the most complicated machines of our time. Woody Guthrie famously wrote on his guitar: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” I don’t know what the Pop Music Machine does, but it does it very well.

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