In my previous blogging incarnations, I have definitely written reactionary pieces. I've avoided them here, trying to make the crux of this particular publication more educational and analytical than opinionated, but here I found myself being both reactionary and analytical. Yay!
There was a "viral" post made by a Los Angeles musician, a Grammy-nominated one at that, who fronts a big band, about why today's popular music is generally so bland and boring. From the outset, I take umbrage with anyone who makes a sweeping statement about "today's music" or "today's kids" (nb: today's kids are awesome, so long as they have the support they require). Here's a quick embedded link to what he wrote and then my follow up. Enjoy!
Got it. Here's my response:
Not every ill-conceived social media post about popular music deserves a response, but this particular post appeared to me to be an opportunity to flex.
Mr. Gordon Goodwin wrote a long post about how a lack of chromaticism contributes to the sonic shallowness of today’s popular music, as evidenced by last night’s Grammy Awards. In some ways, he is correct. There is a lot of corporately pushed pop that has been stripped of a good deal of harmonic language & melodic complexity, but that’s not to say that all is lost in terms of complexity and nuance in popular music. Songs written in the golden age of pop songwriting, which in my opinion was the 1970s, written by David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Carol King, Karen Carpenter, and Pete Townsend, among many others, were often more harmonically complex than many hit songs today.
But for what hit songs today may lack in chord complexity, many make up for in changes in modality, timbre, and rhythmic complexity. Modes other than basic Ionian have come to make up a larger portion of Billboard Hot 100 singles, with an overall increase in Aeolian mode hits (including award-winners like Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”, Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”, and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”), Dorian mode smashes (more award-winners, such as Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” and Pharrell Williams’s “Happy”), and even Mixolydian mode anthems (Lorde’s “Royals”, 2014 Grammy winner for Record of the Year). And regarding non-diatonic chords, although it was not a recent hit, a modern smash that comes to mind is Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”, which makes great use of changing meter and a repeated non-diatonic chord, although on the surface the song seems repetitive. (Which makes me think about Simon Frith talking about disco music. Anyway, back to my point.)
Additionally, for the most part, what popular music scholars tend to discuss lately is timbre, and the possibilities of the sound studies field. As for last night’s awards, I agree that Adele’s big hit song and album both lacked the sort of compositional complexity that draws me in. I think that Beyonce makes much better use of genre stretching, song structure, and rhythmic ostinato. If anyone can give me some sound theoretical analysis of Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber songs, I’m all ears, but for now, I’ve got nothing where these guys are concerned. Goodwin is right in that Bruno Mars is one of the more interesting pop stars from a traditional compositional standpoint, but for many scholars, his compositional style is more backward-looking than many more minimalism-inspired artists (including The Weeknd) or genre-blurring artists (like Chance the Rapper).
To quote Tori Amos, who knows her darned chromaticism, regarding genre, “There’s good stuff everywhere and there’s crap everywhere.” For one guy, who is very likely a much better musician than I am, to stand up and proclaim that modern pop music is generally crap because it’s not chromatic enough (maybe they should hearken back to the synthesizer motifs in 1990s West Coast rap? Dr. Dre was absolutely killing it with the chromaticism, dude) seems amiss. Don’t throw the pop baby out with the bland Grammy-winning bathwater.
Tl;dr: If you’re going to come for pop music, you’d better come correct.
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