On The Trickle Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics: The Cases Of Rihanna and Britney Spears
by Thomas Brett
Until relatively recently, it used to be the case that your favorite pop songs made the transition to the clubs when they were remixed by a well-known remixer/producer or DJ. The club remix of your favorite pop song is an exercise in democratizing it to the demands of the dance floor, which almost always involves squashing the song to the constraints of what is colloquially known as a “four-on-the-floor” steady bass drum beat that clocks in at around 120-130 beats per minute. Using surgical procedures made possible by computer software and digital editing, remixing is fairly easy to do (though like any craft, not at all easy to do really well) and requires only the most local of musical anaesthesias to subdue a pop song’s constituent parts. Typically, what happens is that some song parts like its verse-chorus structure may be dismantled, individual instrument sounds are isolated and tweaked or jettisoned altogether, new (usually electronic and pulsatingly rhythmic) sounds get thrown in, the whole song is extended (giving listeners more time to dance) and voilà: a remix is born. For an in-demand remixer, remixes are big business because just about every kind of pop artist wants his or music to undergo the alchemical procedure to make it club-friendly. And it’s through the remix that the aesthetics of electronic dance music have trickled down into the world of mainstream pop. But in recent years you may have noticed that some straight ahead pop artists are doing away with the remixer middleman altogether, releasing original songs that sound like straight ahead electronic dance music remixes. Two examples of such artists are the singers Rihanna and Britney Spears.
Rihanna’s recent album, Loud, is a varied collection of electro-Euro pop with a strong electronic dance music influence. On the single “Only Girl (In The World)”, for example, you can hear the driving four-on-the- floor beat:
But there is more. If you listen to two specific points–at 1:02 and 2:18–you’ll hear a move straight out of DJ culture known as the “breakdown.” A breakdown is a brief section where the hard-hitting percussion and bass–the virtual rhythm section, essentially–drops out entirely, leaving only the singer and the melodic instruments floating above like untethered balloons. It feels like the bottom–in this case, literally the bottom, since the rhythm section provides the song’s “low-end” bass frequencies–has been taken out from underneath you, creating an anticipation of something big about to come back. In this song, the breakdown section is the chorus section and the hook. Very cool move, Rihanna.
2. Britney Spears
Another artist whose work has been suffused with electronic dance music sonics is Britney Spears. Perhaps it’s easy to cursorily dismiss and not listen critically listen to Spears because she has for so long been smack down the middle of the pop mainstream making pure pop, but like Rihanna, she has top flight producers shaping her sound, and her music is intricately crafted. On Spears’ recent album, Femme Fatale, there are two songs we can listen to. The first, “Till The World Ends”, has a huge, anthemic techno-house-trance music sound, and like Rihanna’s “Only Girl” features breakdowns at song’s choruses. Listen, for example at 0:40 and 1:52, where you can hear the bottom drop out. Also, there is a bridge section that consists of a filter sweep which temporarily removes the high frequencies from the mix, making it sound like someone is playing with the treble knob on an old stereo. This is a classic DJ move and is simply a way to make a section of musical material sound new by altering its timbre (or sound “color”). You can hear this bridge filter sweep section at 3:04. Finally, right at the tail end of the filter sweep there is a snare drum roll that gets faster and faster, making a dramatic lead-in to the end of the song. (It’s kind of hidden in the mix, but it’s there.) This kind of machinic drum roll flourish is another remixer move. Bonus: If you listen closely at 3:24, you’ll notice as well a fleeting, single-beat long piece of silence where everything but the vocals just cut out. Again, a DJ-inspired move to mute parts for just a moment before bringing them back in with increased energy.
Here is the song:
A second Spears song we can listen to is “Hold It Against Me” that features two things of note. First, as with Rihanna’s “Only Girl”, the chorus consists of a rhythmic breakdown which you can hear at 0:57 and at 2:09. Second, you can hear in this song the influence of dubstep, a recent popular electronic dance music subculture from the UK. Dubstep is characterized mainly by two things: a quick tempo (in the 140 beats per minute range) that paradoxically sounds slow by virtue of the music’s half-time rhythmic feel and its woozy, wobbly synthesizer basslines that slither along and between the half-time beats. If you want to hear some classic dubstep, listen to this clip called “Oskilatah” by the artist Skream (start the clip around 0:28):
Now go and listen to the section from 2:46-3:30 in Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” where you can hear the song morph into a dubstep groove for the entire 45 second bridge section. Although it’s derivative of dubstep, it’s also very well done.
Here is the song: