Rihanna, Kanye West, Paul McCartney, and What I Hope to See More of In Pop

I really like the collaboration between Paul McCartney, Kanye West, and Rihanna.  It’s nothing more than a pop song, but it is a really good one.  I’ve always liked Paul McCartney, and have long thought Kanye West to be brilliant, especially his Yeezus album.  I haven’t payed much attention to Rihanna, largely because the music she makes seems really generic, although one can see with this song that she can really sing.  I wish pop music would take a hint from this song, that with a great singer and melody you don’t need all of the gimmicks and tricks that reduce artists so often to mere minor characters in their own hits.  I’m not even necessarily talking about big productions vs. the acoustic guitar simplicity of this song.  I love epic productions as much as I love folk songs.  What I mean is that a great pop song should have a strong melody, and that the singer should also be represented in some kind of way where their humanity gets across.  That is so important, that the singer’s voice in a pop song should be allowed to express emotionally what the singer is feeling, and not be covered up in either the production or the mix in a way that makes it seem less human.  I didn’t like the last collaboration with Kanye West and Paul McCartney very much, though I haven’t listened to it a great deal, because the excessive use of autotune bugged me.  I also didn’t think the melody was as strong as this song.  Now I know that West used autotune extensively on his album 808s and Heartbreak, and I actually like that record, but that is because the use of that technique there was specifically to make his singing sound emotionally distant.  I like Daft Punk too, but again what they are doing with autotune is part of their concept and not just part of a trend or to cover up the fact that someone can’t sing.  Autotune is fine if it is used in a way that fits conceptually, but a real human voice, naked in its emotions, will win almost every time.

P.S.  It is a common production trick now to use autotune on a lot of pop songs in a subtle way that is harder to detect to fix flat notes.  I have no idea if this is the case on this song.  I haven’t listened to it on headphones yet, but at least Rhianna’s vocals sound natural. She has great phrasing on this song as well.

Teen Tragedies Set to Music

I have become fascinated lately with the teenage tragedy song.  This is a form of song that was in high fashion in the early 60’s.  Some irreversible ill fortune struck the narrator or someone close to the narrator, often to a joyful bubblegum melody.  A prime example is the Shangri-La’s Leader of the Pack where Mary Weiss’s boyfriend dies in a motorcycle crash.  Other songs include Jan and Dean’ s Dead Man’s Curve and Teen Angel by Mark Dinning.

I really love the motorcycle crash of Twinkle’s Terry.  Many people think of Twinkle, if they think of her at all, as a sleight talent with an average voice.  However, it is precisely her lack of emotion that makes this song, and others, so great.  The only time she seems to rise above boredom is when she is describing the actual crash itself, and then she sound slightly excited by it.  Because of this the tragedy of the song turns into a human comedy of error.

These songs are mini movies or plays that miraculously take place in two or three minutes.  There is also again a great deal of camp, comedy, and tragedy delivered in these songs.  Are you supposed to feel sad or elated when listening to them?  Quite often the music is very happy and if not the melody is usually beautiful.  None of these songs sound like the horror they are describing.  They are like films that combine different genres.

It is these contrasting emotions that make these songs so powerful to me.  I find myself laughing at situations in which I normally wouldn’t.  When you laugh at something you shouldn’t you are less afraid even if you aren’t thinking through that process while you are actually listening.

Edgar Allen Poe once said that, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world.”  The lyrics of these songs would never quality as high poetry, and quite often it is the boys that take the plunge in these songs, but there is something wonderful about young lovers facing tragedy over a candy coated melody, made old before their time.  They are often stoic, with a stiff upper lip, singing sweetly into the whirlwind.

Synth Pop

I have always been keen on synth pop.  Being too young to have been conscious of the golden age of synth pop in the 80’s, I only turned 12 in 1990, I had friends whose older brothers and sisters schooled us.  Various kinds of synth acts like New Order, Erasure, Depeche Mode, OMD, Pet Shop Boys, and Book of Love have taken space in my music collection among other lesser bands.  Now bands that draw influences from these acts like Haim, Chvrches, and The Chromatics have joined them as well.

Putting all these acts together is a little bit confusing, because they are all different.  It would be like comparing the Beach Boys to the Rolling Stones just because they made pop songs in the 60’s and used real musicians.  What they all have in common, despite completely different aesthetics, is that at least for awhile they wrote in the pop song format and wrote primarily on synthesizer.  I did not include bands such as Kraftwerk or Daft Punk, because many of their songs are not structured like a traditional vocal dominated pop song.  All of these other bands threw monkey wrenches into the form at one point or another, but their discography is largely composed, at least during the 80’s, of songs that fit this bill.

However, aside from the form, what do these bands have in common and why do I like them?  First of all, despite relying at various times on synthetic instrumentation, these bands are all highly emotional.  They still let the human voice; the most emotional of all instruments, take front and center stage.  Although bands seem to be slowly getting back to passionate singing, over the last ten years it has been common to obscure the vocals in some way.  This is often done through effects or through mixing.  True synth pop usually has a very emotional vocal front and center.  That is all I need to become invested in music, a unique and passionate singer.  That’s not to say that I can’t get into a band because they have a great guitar player, but I usually will never love a band whose singing I can’t get invested in, unless that music is non-verbal in nature.  I would argue that bands like Kraftwerk and later period The Knife are almost non-verbal in their aims.  They are using the minimum amount of natural singing to get across their emotional content.

These bands are also masters at the pop song format.  The bands listed above have created many gigantic sounding sing along choruses.  If you have ever written music you understand how hard it is to write a really big catchy chorus.  This is not the work of amateurs.

I really believe that the 80’s, behind only the 1960’s, was a golden age in pure pop writing.  Pop at its best is a form that allows you to become invested in it without any heavy intellectual burden.  That is not to say that these bands couldn’t be intellectual or subversive.  Many of them were.  But your brain doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting to become emotionally involved in this stuff.

Sometime you should listen to something like early New Order and then listen to even a rock band on the radio nowadays.  Even though New Order might use any number of sequencers and synthesizers their music is much more human sounding.  Technology has always been a part of recording.  I’m not a Luddite and I do not feel that one recording technique is necessarily better than another, when in the right hands.  However, when things are completely perfect they can often lose the inherent emotional quality.  The best of synth pop can give one an idea about how technology and emotion can be married and married well.

Out on The Wire

Although I love music that features uncomfortable dissonance, like PIL’s Albatross, my first inclination is towards pop music.  I love well written melodies that stick in your head.  If they feature intelligent lyrics and a groove that can make you dance like a child on electricity, all the better.  I have heard the first new pop song that I love in quite a while.  It is a song called The Wire by the band HAIM. 

Before I get to why I love this song allow me a moment of criticism.  This song is a pop song in the truest sense.  The lyrics seem written as if for no other reason than supporting the melody and creating endless hooks.  I could not tell you what they are, and don’t think that they would bring much enlightenment to my life if I could.  The song is also not any kind of grand step forward in music.  It’s a pop song, a glorious one, but nothing more.  It sounds like it could have been written in the 80’s although there are some slight modern production touches. 

HAIM is a group of three sisters in their early 20’s.  They excel at writing and singing the kind of pop songs that used to be staples on the radio.  Songs that when you are ten beers in, make you feel like you are way sweeter than you are. 

If it seems like I am downplaying something by saying it is a simple pop song, I am not.  I love pop music.  Music is an emotional medium first and foremost, as I have stated before.  A song that instantly makes you feel something is really all that one can ask for.  If a song can make you think on top of that, then all the better.  I prefer intelligence in my pop songs, but I don’t require it. 

There has been a trend in recent years for detachment in pop vocals.  A lot of indie bands that lean towards pop music either can’t sing, or bury the vocals in the mix.  The voice becomes just another instrument.  Meanwhile in mainstream pop the vocals are often auto tuned and treated in such a way that they lack the humanness that connects on an emotional level.  There is nothing more emotional than the sound of a human voice singing with passion.  No amount of production can overcome this. 

At the other end of the spectrum has been the trend that has come out of the R&B world.  This is where singers feel that they have to show off their vocal power in every line.  They make a meal out of every note and it is unbecoming of the singer.  The vocals become more about showing off the singer.  This is ego driven music of the worst kind.  A well written song can potentially express many emotions depending on how it is delivered.  When the singer gets in the way of that song and melody, they get in the way of the emotion that is inherent in that given piece. 

When I heard this song, I got excited.  Maybe this band will take off and they will bring others with them.  It would be nice to turn on the radio again and hear pop songs with people singing with their natural voice again.  Again, this is a pop song.  It is nothing more and nothing less.  Such a simple and beautiful thing should not be taken for granted.  

Roads Still Yet to be Traveled

I’ve really become interested in electronic music lately.  Some bands that I’ve been listening to lately have been Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, OMD, and Book of Love.  I also love the Knife, though their music fits less moods than the others, as they are more abrasive and confrontational.  I also love the music on Johnny Jewel’s label, especially the band The Chromatics.  I’ve always loved synth pop.  I grew up on bands like New Order.

I’m interested in the idea of people getting emotion out of technology.  Also some of the best pop songs are in this genre.  Bernard Sumner from New Order can write endless melodies that never leave your head.

Although I grew up with bands like New Order, Electronic, and Depeche Mode, some of my current interest has been driven by the films of Nicolas Winding Refn.  He uses this music to great effect in films like Drive, Bronson, and Only God Forgives.  He understands that although this music is very synthetic on one hand, it is also capable of great emotion.

If country and folk music, which I also love, evoke pastoral settings, electronic music reminds me of the city at nighttime.  That’s not to say that electronic music can’t also be pastoral.  Brian Eno’s 70’s album Another Green World is an album that brings nature to mind more often than not.  Kraftwerk’s Autobahn album also has moments like this.  Although I love songs that have a message and am a fan of great lyrics, sometimes music is wonderful when it just creates space for dreams.

Haruki Murakami’s book After Dark creates a surreal dream like version of the city at night.  When I read things like this I often picture certain pieces by Kraftwerk and the Chromatics as being the perfect soundtrack to these worlds.

I grew up as a fan of the pop song.  More recently I’ve begun to be as interested in music that is non verbal.  Music that is non verbal has to create emotion and thought through pure sound.  This can be music that is instrumental or music that has the vocals obscured through production techniques.  Non verbal to me can even be bands that sing in foreign languages, where I can’t understand what they are saying, and the voice becomes just another emotional texture.  Often in electronic music, especially as you see with bands like Daft Punk and Kraftwerk, only a few simple phrases will be repeated throughout a song.  Even though you understand what they are saying it is open to interpretation when combined with the music.  The words become almost just another sound that feeds into the music and vice versa.

Although I write in the pop song format, and it’s still my favorite format, there is something to be said about music that is non verbal.  The human imagination is a powerful thing.  In the place of words we will often find that our dreams take over and place meaning into things that may or may not be intended by the artist.

I’ve mentioned before how David Lynch liked using grainy digital video for the movie Inland Empire, because he wanted the human imagination to fill in the space that the imperfect images left.  I think a lot of electronic music, the kind that is non verbal or almost non verbal, does this same thing.  It allows for interpretation and dreaming on the part of the listener.

Well there are many forms of instrumental music, many of which I love, the sounds created by electronic instruments create a different headspace.  Again it is often, but not always, more urban and futuristic.  Some bands like OMD, who write pop songs and instrumental pieces, create a retro futurism.  It’s like the sonic version of a film noir that takes place in the past and the future at the same time.  One of my favorite albums right now is their album Dazzle Ships.  It is an album full of mystery, ideas, and dreams.

Too often I think people let cultural or tribal things get in the way of exploring new worlds.  People are more open now to new musical experiences than ever before.  Sometimes though, there still exists a certain tribal instinct that gets in the way of people enjoying different forms, based solely on what they might find “cool” or acceptable in their group.   The human imagination can go anywhere and should be given as much room to roam as possible.  Don’t listen to anything but your own gut.  There are many roads still yet to be traveled.