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Posts Tagged ‘songwriting’

This WSJ piece about the “science” (such as it is) behind Adele’s “Someone Like You” has been floating around. The premise is interesting, of course: Why do certain songs make us cry? This is fine, as far as it goes, but I find the article to be deeply unsatisfying:

“Someone Like You” is a textbook example. “The song begins with a soft, repetitive pattern,” said Dr. Guhn, while Adele keeps the notes within a narrow frequency range. The lyrics are wistful but restrained: “I heard that you’re settled down, that you found a girl and you’re married now.” This all sets up a sentimental and melancholy mood.

When the chorus enters, Adele’s voice jumps up an octave, and she belts out notes with increasing volume. The harmony shifts, and the lyrics become more dramatic: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”

OK, let’s back this up. First of all, the article purports to identify certain traits that make a song particularly weep-worthy, or rather, universally weep-worthy. Yet, the emotional framework that prompts particular reactions has more roots than mere sonic stimuli. That is to say, context matters. Cross-cultural studies reveal differences in the kinds of stimuli that provoke crying and different social functions that it serves. Any attempt to build the “perfect crying pop song” is probably misguided, or at the very least, restricted by the local culture. Consider the findings of this study about the cathartic nature of crying across cultures:

Several contextual features of crying episodes were indeed predictive of crying-related catharsis. Specifically, the receipt of social support, experiencing a resolution to the event that caused the crying episode, and achieving a new understanding of the event were positively related to catharsis. Crying episodes that featured the suppression of crying or the experiencing of shame from crying were less likely to be cathartic. The data suggest that contextual factors may play an important role in shaping crying-related catharsis.

Although it’s interesting, of course, that appoggiaturas are present in many songs that people identify as causing them to cry, one wonder what made people cry prior to the invention of the appoggiatura, or to pianos, or to the modern musical instrument generally. I think the context matters much more than the piece of music itself (for example, in one study (JSTOR PDF registration needed for full article), women consistently experienced more chills when listening to music than men.). There seems to be more at play here than some inherent connection between appoggiaturas and crying; maybe it’s that we have ascribed certain emotional cues to certain types of music as a society, rather than anything essential to the construction/arrangement of the sounds themselves. I hypothesize that playing “Someone Like You” for a Maori tribesman 400 years ago would have led to a very different reaction.

That said, let’s assume that there is a manipulative way in which Adele’s “Someone Like You” or Schumann’s “Traumerei” have been constructed to make us cry. Let’s say that they are cynical ploys to engage our waterworks, in the same way that certain pop song earworms are designed to be stuck in your head until you die. Does that actually affect your enjoyment of the song? I know that there are dopamine releases when I eat fatty foods that make me feel good, but so what? I can still feel great when I eat it! I know that my favorite movies include manipulative tools to make me feel a certain way. That doesn’t stop me from feeling that way? Perhaps the sign of a work of art that has achieved greatness is its ability to move us even as we know we are being manipulated.

Or, as a friend of mine said, maybe “it makes us cry because it’s BEAUTIFUL.” I think I’m okay with that.

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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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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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