Complex Simplicity: How to address pop music
ARTICLE BY JAKE BELLISSIMO
As classical musicians, we channel a lot of our energy into talking about nuance and its relevance in composition. An argument about why the music of “New Complexity” must be notated the way it is typically boils down to “there are too many nuances that can’t be notated any other way”.
Classical musicians also have the tendency to criticize pop music for the exact opposite reason. Musicians circulate slightly tacky videos on Facebook that parody the uniformity of pop harmony to comment on the perceived lack of imagination behind a lot of modern mainstream pop music, citing similar chord progressions and structure as a counterintuitive method.
But why is this a problem? If I were to do the same for most of American minimalists—separate the harmony from the rest of the composition and compare—I would come up with the same result.
Isn’t it interesting that millions of people can write songs using the same chord progression but sound completely different each time?
After all, this is one of the reasons why the folk tradition is still being actively preserved. If nuance was not an inherent part of the process, labels like Smithsonian Folkways wouldn’t bother recording musicians who sing songs that have already been recorded. However, each playing style, tradition, etc. helps differentiate Pete Seeger’s version of “Skip to my Lou” from Jean Ritchie’s.
While I understand that mainstream pop music has a different cultural presence than folk music, I am not interested in discussing that. The discussion surrounding the merits of music part of the “capitalist machine” is a tired and worn-out topic. Pop music critiques are usually centered around personalities, marketing, and messages, avoiding discussing the music itself except when to reference lyrics or cultural impact. Through this, it becomes less of a musical discussion and more of a pop cultural analysis.
Instead, what I am interested in discussing are the qualities of a “good” pop song, because (just like with every musical practice) there are always mixtures of good and bad scattered throughout.
So, political and social context aside, what makes up a great pop song if it isn’t harmony? Well, arrangement is everything. Timbre, texture, presentation is key. Just ask Franz Schubert, arguably the original master of the 2-minute pop song.
That’s what Schubert was good at, after all: incredibly well-done songs about little else but love.
These principles on their own won’t guarantee a good pop song, though, and that guarantee continues into the modern age. For example, take Justin Bieber’s song “Boyfriend”.
The song starts off with a beat that is incredibly unappetizing. The lazy clap sound to emphasize the offbeat doesn’t provide the “right” rhythmic complement for Bieber’s voice. In fact, this beat just sounds like a worse version of what Max Martin would accomplish in 2014 on Taylor Swift’s song “Blank Space”.
The same reasons why Schubert’s songs usually work are the exact reason why this song fails. It has uninteresting timbre, lazy lyrics (rhyming “go” with “befo’”?) and an execution that resembles more hastily getting words out than attention to melodic writing. Overall, it was one of the final bell tolls for Bieber’s career—it was the point where a kid with a voice went from performance pawn to sloppy songwriter all in one quick swoop.
On the other side of the arena, though, there are other people making really clever, well-done pop songs for the 21st century. A great example is Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”. Now, before I get distracted with the concept of “ass” being a centerpiece for songwriting, let me go straight into the music.
What differentiates a song like “Anaconda” as a mainstream pop song that has care put into it comes from the arrangement and timbres that interact. There are many different sounds going on while her voice takes center stage that help accentuate the power of her statements. Even though a majority of these are effects, it doesn’t distract from the fact that Nicki’s lyricism is an instrument of its own. Her voice has a unique percussive touch that simply couldn’t be replicated by anybody else. The fact that she’s able to tell a convincing story with as little harmonic material as possible shows her understanding of pacing and form. By sampling “Baby Got Back” but changing the meaning to fit around her feminist ideology, lines like “pussy put his ass to sleep, now he callin’ me Nyquil” ring true with an almost Cole Porter-esque level of cleverness and poetry.
And that’s the thing: while the directness of a lot of pop music (whether you’re talking about early Beatles, Backstreet Boys, or even Bieber’s “Boyfriend”) can fall flat and reek of lazy composition, there are songs like “Anaconda” that are thoroughly detailed and gems.
Our tendency to take the worst of a genre to represent a entire genre shows our lack of understanding of what makes this music detailed. If you were to break down a song like “Anaconda” and look strictly for harmonic content, you’d find very little and label it as simplistic.
I’m not saying that you have to enjoy this type of music, I’m just questioning whether or not our analysis is fair. Is it really fair to judge music based on its simplicity when multifaceted complexity exists underneath in ways we wouldn’t expect?