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Category: popular music

Notes On Paul Morley’s “Words and Music”

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“Music is merely a form of guesswork about consciousness.”

“Music is careful attention paid to ongoing experience.”

- Paul Morley, Words and Music (16, 134).

It was with much delight that a few weeks after finishing Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! I read Paul Morley’s exhaustive, masterfully strange, and revelatory history of popular music, Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City (2005). Morley is a music journalist who wrote about pop and rock for New Musical Express in the 1970s and 80s. He was also a member of the groundbreaking group, The Art Of Noise. After taking time off from writing about music after his NME days, Morley wrote a few books, including a memoir, and also this one.

Words and Music is an epic account of music, meaning, and technology–particularly since the 1960s, but also stretching back some four centuries. And the book is not just about popular music. Morley has an ear for the great classical stuff too. He seems to understand that mysterious x-factor that makes a music, a group, a composer, or a song of the first rank. This x-factor has to do with its construction and also how it works socially in the world. Why, he asks, is one song “better than other pop songs that appear to be of similar weight and density? Why does it work in the way that it works at whatever it is working at?…Is it possible to write about the reasons?” (3). These are the deep questions that guide Morley’s writing. He also acknowledges the importance of you and me–the listeners–in the circuit of meaning: “As the listener I am the final element in the making of the music. I have made the music useful” (2).

What makes Words and Music so epic is its scope and construction. The book’s starting and end points are two pieces of music, one pop, one experimental-classical. The pop piece is Australian singer Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”(2001) and the classical piece is American composer Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting In A Room” (1969). Some three decades apart, the musics couldn’t be more different from one another, and in this difference they encapsulate the range of Morley’s interests. He loves the magnetism of Minogue’s perfectly calibrated pop song that obsessively plays in an endless loop in his head, and he also loves the conceptual clarity of Lucier’s classic sonic experiment that deconstructs the very notion of how music blooms over time. (“Hearing a plain descriptive text evolve into something so abstract and beautiful is very moving” [37].) In a six degrees of association sort of way, somehow these two very different pieces serve as touchstones that connect to hundreds of other examples mentioned in Morley’s book. Between them is a whole history of musical sound, style, technology, taste, and sensation. Great music is hard to get out of your head and also creates a special space there. As Morley puts it: “To lose control and find yourself inside the vastness of the mind, where suddenly unresolved emotions and strange images seemed to make sense, once they were filtered through the drone drowsiness of this space-stretching time-twisting sound”(15).

With Minogue and Lucier and their signature works introduced, the book becomes an extended virtual car trip–mostly with Minogue. Minogue is the main protagonist of this musical story, driving her yellow car on a journey through time and space towards a city that is always just on the horizon. The city Minogue is driving towards “is built on the principles of information…that is more and more dedicated to pleasure and the simultaneous experiences of real and virtual experiences” (67). The city “takes physical space away and replaces it with mental space” (129). As Minogue drives with Morley (and us) by her side, she zooms through musical history. There is always something or someone behind her on the proverbial road, but also ahead of her as well. As we will get used to in this book, Morley interrupts the journey constantly to point out the sights. For example, here, over some forty pages, he offers the first of his numerous lists. It’s a list of developments in the arts, philosophy, and technology beginning all the way back in 1624 with Francis Bacon’s idea for sound houses (67-108). On its own this list is fascinating, tracing as it does a chronology that puts musical innovation in its broader social, artistic, and technological contexts.

***

Part two of the book explores some of the other cars sharing the road with Minogue. Ahead of her, driving another car on the way to the city, is the German electronic group Kraftwerk, telling “musical stories about technology and communication” (127). Here the reader wonders, what do cars symbolize in Morley’s universe? Are they metaphors for musical styles or aesthetics? Morley tells us that there is a sadness to Kraftwerk, a group that built “new myths about music, and where it came from, and where it was going in the technological era” (131). Their classic music from the 1970s showed how “experience itself was beginning to break into bits” (134). One of the crucial things about Kraftwerk regarding the history of pop is how their music functioned as an impetus for the emergence of electronic African-American styles. Even as Kraftwerk’s sound “emerged outside of any of the normal black influences on rock and pop” (136), “one of the great ironies…was that the Kraftwerk influence would feed into black music…to completely revitalize black-American popular music” (137). Specifically, it was Kraftwerk’s “non-blues application of repetition in music” (ibid.) that caught musicians’ attention. From this influence, musicians recognized that Kraftwerk had created a “fabulous dance music, a body music for the mind, a mind music for the body” (137).

Our getting to know Kraftwerk is interrupted by another list, this one a music-centered one from 1969-2001 that also covers tech innovations including the Internet and Pro Tools software, alongside numerous artists and classic record releases (157-212). Here and there, Morley elaborates on a topic. For example, twenty pages into the list, in the year 1985, we find Madonna suddenly driving the car on the way to the city. Madonna, Minogue’s predecessor, spun the media by spinning endless variations of herself–“you weren’t releasing singles any more, you were releasing signals” (176). From riffing on Madonna, Morley spins six pages of definitions of celebrity (182-188), moves onto an acute appraisal of Moby (whose 1999 album Play was “a fake ethnic record as dreamed by an imaginary culture right into the mainstream,” [199]), and then a denunciation of the English music impressario Simon Fuller who created–probably for worse, not better–the Idol TV franchise (201-205). By the end of the chapter we have been offered extended entries on Napster, mash-ups (“a hybrid of technological possibility and intimate, mental excitement” [205]), and one of the giants of the past twenty years of popular music, Missy Elliot. Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On,” by the way, is for Morley “the missing loop between Bessie Smith and [Iannis] Xenakis” (209). Morley is a huge fan of Elliot, whose songs show “how music is a massive library of ideas that can be passed on by methods that are the modern technological equivalent of ancient aural traditions” (210).

***

In part three, beginning on page 225, Morley and Minogue have arrived at the city whose shape where “is the shape of the mind is the shape of the universe” (226). Okay, so what city, exactly, is this city? He doesn’t tell us and moves on. The city is “shaped by connectivity and bandwidth…largely asynchronous in its operation, and is inhabited by disembodied and fragmented subjects who exist as a collection of aliases and agents…The city renews itself each day through exchanges of public image and private gestures” (239). Okay, so if the city isn’t a city per se, what does it represent? Passages like this don’t exactly help us know. But elsewhere in the chapter Morley is more direct, as in his discussion of why someone might want to write about pop in the first place: “pop music creates some of the most magical moments in life, and those moments can be so magical that all you want to do, sometimes, is write about them, hold them in place. You want to explain to yourself just what it is that is so enchanting about music” (274).

Part four is the strangest section of Words and Music. The chapter opens by proposing that we think about a soundtrack to the book. The first track would be John Cage’s pioneering silent piece, 4’33. Here Morley’s writing begins to resonate on a deeper level. He provides us with a colossal footnote about what Cage may have been thinking when he conceived his piece. The footnote includes this comparison: “Cage became…the missing link between Claude Debussy and Dr Dre…It’s all in the spaces” (278). The second piece on the book’s soundtrack is maybe something by Captain Beefheart or Sly Stone, or maybe it’s Lou Reed’s famous noise album, Metal Machine Music. The third piece could be by Iggy Pop or the electronica duo Thievery Corporation. Or maybe it’s “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones (294-300), or a tune by Devo, or even better, Britney Spears singing a cover of “Satisfaction.” Here Morley is hitting full stride, bifurcating his writing between text and footnote (with the footnote growing, taking up almost entire pages), and telling us that “the story of popular music…is a story of a great change in the way we live our lives, the way we’re organised, the way we move, the way we seek pleasure, they way we dream, the way we hear things and the way we imagine the future” (308). Ultimately this book “is the story of commercial and uncommercial sound between one moment and another…with no real beginning and no real ending” (ibid.). And with that Morley stops his soundtrack list at song three. Most of the rest of the book is a series of super long footnotes.

By this point, I was wondering where Morley would go with his narrative. (What happened to Minogue and Lucier?) But Morley is a master of the aside–a master of fine print and elucidating the multifold associations triggered by anything he talks about. And so on pages 308-315 he expands on Reed’s Metal Machine Music in a footnote to figure out why it was made and what it may mean. “In a White Stripes sort of way, Metal Machine Music is the missing link between Edgar Varese and Aphex Twin” (312) he tells us. Morley does a lot of this–interpreting one artist in terms of two others and it’s an evocative and insightful narrative technique that demands that we as readers figure out some linkages ourselves. Morley knows how to get us thinking about how musics mean something always in the context of other musics.

As the footnotes grow in proportion to the text proper, Morley simultaneously begins a new approach to holding our attention within the main text by compiling various greatest songs- and albums-of-all-time lists. In their comprehensive quirkiness, these lists alone are probably worth the price of the book. We find lists such as:

110 albums to think about if you think Radiohead’s Kid A is weird (Morley: Kid A wasn’t really “reality-shaking weird” but simply “pop-culture artificial weird” [334-335]);

121 songs that “explain why Kraftwerk are Kraftwerk and just how and where their influence spread and turned” (335-337);

210 greatest singles of all time;

100 greatest albums of all time;

132 alternative artist couplings analogous to the Kylie Minogue-Alvin Lucier one;

plus a list of 99 suspects to whom we can possibly attribute the famous quote, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Strange? Oh yes. But effervescent too.

And as you spin from reading these lists–thinking about the listening they require to make full sense of, and the connections they might illuminate should you actually ever do all that listening–Morley skips ahead, explaining in one of my favorite passages the difficulty of writing about music: “to write about music is often to fall back into utter abstraction, a sort of level some levels beyond the good and evil of pre descriptiveness, where you are creating symbolic sensation with the words that match and catch the potential sensations of the music” (324).

So what is the writer about music–or any evanescent, abstract, yet deeply meaningful phenomena–to do? Go for it says Morley, by continually reinventing yourself along the lines of your subject matter: “your ideal is to chase down a perfection that can never exist and to be unrelenting in that quest for the impossible, to marvel when you come close, and rewrite the rules all the time so that you can never quite make it” (325). Which leads the author to say that in order to be great, the essential qualifications include “utter isolation, uncompromising bloody-mindedness, a rejection of any particular canon, including your own, as soon as you feel it is getting in the way of your quest for impossible perfection” (ibid.). And maybe most difficult of all, we need “to match the otherness of music with an otherness in the writing about it” (328). This is getting interesting!

***

In part five, the book’s final section, Stanley finally explains to us the reason for all his list-making: “The list is information, and information is everything. Life is information, information about itself. We have become nothing but information. The most concrete thing in the world is information” (351). This, in turn, explains what the city is that he and Minogue (and Kraftwerk, Madonna, and others) are perpetually driving towards in the car: “These lists are the buildings, the trees, the landmarks we know the best, the ones where we live most of the time, our local neighborhoods, the places where we work and play” (352). Lists are like musical styles too–“a shifting, evolving juxtaposition of elusive energies and experiences that can never settle down” (353). More existentially, lists “tell a story of how music is the lining between us and eternity, a protection from the desolate vastness of everything, an interpretation and celebration of this devastating vastness and our ability to coax any kind of meaning out of this desolation” (353). “The list is a code…the list is a diagram…of eternity” (354).

So where does Morley leave us? As I read him, he seems to be suggesting that music is a technology designed to help humans evolve. Indeed, the accelerating technological developments of the last twenty years point “towards a cultural renaissance where aesthetic and pleasurable experiences will be unbelievably enhanced” (358). It will be interesting to see if Morley is right about that. In the meantime, he sums up the contribution of the arts and technology to human flourishing over the past two centuries. Briefly: the 19th century gave us the modern; the 20th century gave us the postmodern; and in the 21st century “we are on the brink of being post-human, post-technological, a partnership of increasingly intelligent, self-maintaining self-evolving machines and the biological, social and psychological dimensions of humanity” (358).

In sum, Words and Music contains an ocean of musical understanding vibrating among its pages. Morley can be a mesmerizing writer, capable of articulating distinctions on the finest levels of meaning and subtlety. This ear for detail is apparent in his many lists, his chronologies of musical idioms and influence, and in his constant–almost manic–comparative work that makes sense of the messiness of musical style through “missing link” connections, disparate pairings, analogies, vividly descriptive prose, ad hoc inventive riffs, and on and on. Morley’s writing compels because it has a musical hyperness about it as it plays with words, plays with ideas, and plays with the playfulness of language. Last but not least, Words and Music convincingly bridges the high-low, classical-pop music divide. As it turns out, Minogue and Lucier do appear again at the book’s end, and when they do the large musical circle Morley has been tracing becomes apparent. But if there is a single, essential takeaway from this gloriously jam-packed book it may be that all music–no matter what its style, its sound, or its intended audience–is the richest of substances, offering vital information about ourselves and how we imagine the worlds we live in.

On Lip Syncing And Musical Authenticity

Like a lot of folks, I watched the music acts perform at the Obama presidential inauguration. The Brooklyn Tabernacle choir, singing “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” sounded fantastic;

American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” sounded smooth and polished;

James Taylor’s “America The Beautiful” was a reassuring presence;

and megastar Beyonce sounded quite amazing on “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Imagine the pressure to nail a song like that on a big occasion with many millions watching and listening?

But in the days after the inauguration, gossip about Beyonce’s performance began emerging until the gossip became confirmed fact: she had lip synced her song! I read several outraged news pieces about this, and all of them shared the belief that lip syncing is a profound kind of sonic deception–a kind of karaoke without the fun factor. No matter that it was cold out (hard on the vocal chords yes, but then neither the choir nor Clarkson nor Taylor had a problem with it) and no matter that Beyonce didn’t have (or make?) time to rehearse–one just should never ever lip sync. Period. To refresh your memory, other earlier cases of lip syncing in popular music that inspired public outrage include the entire career of Milli Vanilli

and Ashley Simpson’s performance on SNL in which her pre-recorded voice jumped the gun and began without the singer faking along to cover its tracks:

To her credit, Beyonce lip synced flawlessly to her own recorded singing and the result was what looked and sounded like a seamless performance. (It fooled me.) But when word got out that hers was fake singing, critics weighed in with discussions about the nature of authentically live musicianship. Writing in The Guardian, Gary Younge explained that performing live is important because it’s the only context where performer and audience can meet in a truly meaningful way:

“the essence of a live performance is the understanding that the audience is experiencing the event in real time and anything can happen. It is that combination of synchronicity, spontaneity and frailty that gives live performances their edge – it’s the one take that matters.”

It seems that there needs to be an element of risk for us to deem a performance the real McCoy. That’s what makes live music so thrilling and the news of Beyonce’s slight of mouth so disappointing.

On Grateful Sound: Thinking Through “Dark Star”

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I have a secret: over the past few weeks while riding the subway with headphones on I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead. And maybe not coincidentally, I haven’t shaved in about two weeks. So as I write this I’m wondering–Are these twin facts somehow related? Do they point to a strange metamorphosis taking place in me through an alchemy of music and listening?

***

Formed in 1965 in San Francisco, The Grateful Dead was a peculiar kind of rock band that blended blues, folk, psychedelic-rock, bluegrass, jazz, reggae, country, and free improvisation into a trippy whole that sometimes achieved very musical results. Though they sold some 30 million albums over their 30-year career, what they really liked to do was play live, and in that regard the band seemed to have singlehandedly initiated the “jam band” scene.

I was never a Grateful Dead fan and my lack of fandom, is, I guess, altogether unfair since I never even once listened to the group’s music while growing up. Maybe I was a dormant fan who just didn’t know it yet, but I had a sense that their social-sonic world was something you had to be a believer in to truly appreciate; the music didn’t enculturate you, you had to join its cause–such followers of the group are called Deadhead, by the way–almost with a pre-knowledge of what its makers and its scene were all about. Also, Deadheads seemed to hang with other Deadheads and I didn’t know any in the first place. All this to say that for one reason or another the Grateful Dead never entered my musical orbit.

I began thinking about and listening to the Dead recently after reading a very fine article about them by Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker. Without being sentimental, the article traces and celebrates the author’s own fandom as he recalls his first experience seeing the Dead perform, describes trading and scrutinizing fan bootleg recordings (or audience tapes) with friends, and hangs out with an archivist who is in charge of the Dead’s vast recorded legacy. Along the way, Paumgarten unpacks the sound and structures of the Dead’s music and explains how, for its devoted fans at least, it has had such enduring appeal. The article raises a question: How does a music become resilient to time’s passing? In the case of the Grateful Dead, their music has lived on mainly through a vast number of live recordings.

Even though I didn’t listen to the Dead, I had long heard that their recordings really don’t do justice to the band anyway; their music was all about a magic conjured in performance. You just had to be there. The Dead had lots of songs to draw on, but what they were famous for was improvising new versions of their material at every concert. Ironically enough, as Paumgarten points out, this group that apparently could only be understood through its performances is best known today for its astonishingly large archive of recorded music which is stored in a climate controlled vault in California. Indeed, having played over 2,300 concerts between 1965 and 1995 “the Dead have more recorded music in circulation than any performing group in history” and there are more than 8,000 Dead recordings on archive.org alone. Many of these recordings are audience tapes–the work of fans who meticulously recorded Dead shows. (The Dead encouraged audience taping as a way to spread the good word.) This “immense body of work”, notes Paumgarten, “invites and sustains obsession, and its variability is in some respects the draw.” Obsessive listening invites new perspectives too. Reflecting on his getting to know the musical details of particular recordings of Dead concerts, Paumgarten says that “the music, on repetition, began to feel like something composed, rather than improvised. It took on a life of its own…”

Another irony of the Dead is that it played a “ragged, improvisational amalgam of old-timey American music” amplified through a most sophisticated sound system known as the Wall Of Sound: 600 speakers with an output of over 25,000 watts. Thus, between its thousands of recordings and its famed sound system, the Dead is as good a locus as any for thinking through the story of technology’s impact on our consumption of music over the last fifty years. Even though they looked like hippies, they were postmoderns who were all about the improvised remix–or what Kevin Kelly calls “recombinant” culture–years before this became a guiding idea of contemporary music.

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One of the Grateful Dead’s most famous songs–or platform for acoustic recombinant remixing/improvisation–is “Darkstar.” Released in 1968, the song eventually became the Dead’s most anticipated and hallowed live numbers. There was an aura about this song that fans simply referred to as “It”–perhaps due to the fact that Dead stopped playing the piece for many years and then, in the late 1970s, suddenly resumed playing it again. Structurally, “Dark Star” is, as Paumgarten accurately dissects it, just “a modal vamp based on the A mixolydian scale, with two short verses and no bridge.” The original studio recording of the song clocks in under three minutes. But like the “head” of a jazz tune, the brief song is just a skeleton for the group’s variations. Thus, various live versions of “Dark Star” range anywhere from 11 to 48 minutes (!) If nothing else, “Dark Star” demonstrates a kind of musical minimalism–or a maximal use of minimal materials.

I’ve spent some time listening to two versions of “Dark Star” on Spotify and YouTube. On Spotify I found a 20-minute recording from the 1972 Bickershaw festival in the UK; and on YouTube I found a 10-minute video of a show in Oregon from that same year. On both versions you can hear endlessly melodic bass wandering and rhythm guitar comping, bits on twinkling piano, tumbling and syncopated drumming, and at times soaring lead guitar. Only on the Bickershaw version does the group’s lead singer and guitarist, Jerry Garcia, get around to actually singing those verses!

Listening to this piece and watching the video I find the music has an interesting sense of active stasis that appeals to me. This stasis is perhaps mostly a function of the guitars and bass staying in that A mixolydian mode. (Detractors might call this kind of thing modal “noodling.”) Also, the medium slow tempo (about 70 bpm) remains constant and its languid pace contributes to the feeling that no one–neither the band nor its thousands of fans swaying out in the Oregon fields beyond the stage–is in any big hurry to go anywhere soon. While a lot of popular music has a goal-oriented teleology–verses bring us inexorably towards the choruses, and so on–“Dark Star” is definitely a different, more patient animal. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s so famous?

To their credit, the musicians manage to keep things fairly (though not always) interesting by constantly varying their parts. Most obvious is Garcia’s endless lead guitar soloing. But listen also to the bass which often stays in an unusually high register, almost dovetailing with Garcia’s guitar. (This is contrary to the bass guitar’s customary role of playing mostly low-pitched notes and thus build a solid “foundation” for the song.) Similarly, the rhythm guitar keeps changing its jazz comping-like riffs, and the drummer Bill Kreutzmann never ever plays any kind of steady back beat on beats 2 and 4; instead, he plays a kind of swinging rhythm. In sum, this kind of group level improvisation is almost jazz-like: it has a constant pulse, it swings, and remains resolutely modal.

Listening to different performances of “Dark Star” I heard a number of beautiful if brief moments of group synchrony and groovy musical thinking. In the clip below, you can hear such a moment from 5:59-6:35. For a mere half-minute, a deep space opens up. Maybe that’s because the bass guitar finally stays still for a moment and lets some nice low A notes ring long. Or maybe the reason is something else altogether. Whatever it is, it’s worth listening to.

On Sounding A Bigger Energy: Mumford And Sons

When I first saw Mumford and Sons on Saturday Night Live recently I wasn’t sure what to make of them–which is my fault not theirs. They seem like a throwback to an acoustic bluegrass-folk-rock sound. No synthesizers, sequencers or drum machines, just acoustic guitar and bass, piano/organ, banjo and dobro, a horn section, sing-song group vocals, and a lead singer/guitarist, Marcus Mumford who doubles as a drummer by playing a steady kick drum while standing up and fronting the band. The music is raucous and raw, harmonious and celebratory, but I wasn’t listening too closely–in part because I was staring at the TV wondering if Mumford’s shin muscles might be getting sore from playing that kick drum!

Mumford and Sons originated in the West London folk scene around 2007. Their recent album, Babel, was the fastest-selling album of the year here in the United States and in the UK. A few weeks ago, songs from Babel occupied four of the top ten most streamed songs on the music service Spotify. The music–which critics have called “pop songs couched in the language of the rustic troubadour” and “blockbuster bluegrass”–has clearly struck a chord with a lot of listeners. I spent a few days trying to overdose on Mumford and Sons in a listening experiment much like the one I carried out with country music here. The point of the experiment was just to figure out how everything works and to hear what kind of effect the music has on me.*

One of the band’s most streamed songs is “I Will Wait”, track three on Babel. The song is uptempo with a 4/4 thumping groove and tightly structured as a series of verses as choruses. The verse is a I-IV-V progression over 8 measures. Nothing special here, music-wise, but it sets the song’s reassuring tone. The music soon opens up with the pre-chorus section, which is a vi-v(6)-I-IV-iii-V progression repeated twice. There are twice as many chords in this section as there are in the verse and chorus in about the same number of measures. The phrase “And I’ll kneel down” gets the first three chords as support, lending the section a sense of motion–maybe a musical representation of literally kneeling down?–and a movement towards that last V chord which will lead dramatically back to the I chord that begins the chorus. The chorus is a I-iii-V progression. That second chord is minor and adds a little melancholy to the chorus’s otherwise boisterous feel. The iii chord hits just as Mumford sings “you” at the end of the line “I will wait for you.” Simple but poignant, and the words gain power as they’re repeated.

Much of Mumford and Sons’ music alternates between whisper intimate verses and rousing, bellowing-in-a-pub choruses. “I Will Wait” makes good use of these shifting dynamics to build and release tension. There’s an urgency and intense emotionality to the song which is transmitted through the steady streams of 16-note guitar/banjo strumming and plucking that supports Mumford’s gruff singing. The music sounds old-fashioned–built as it mostly is out of this strumming, plucking, and the rousing vocal harmonies. Rhythm parts don’t come from drumming as much as from the group’s collective thrum. Mumford make use of careful arrangements too. Sometimes the instruments drop out, strumming limited to the downbeat so the vocals can shine a capella-style. The music sounds live–as if we’re all down at the pub singing and sharing our stories with one another, pouring our hearts out over beers.

There are even tiny tempo variations that reinforce Mumford’s authentically live sound. If you have Babel, listen very closely from 2:06 to 2:15. At the end of the second repetition of the chorus–right around 2:11-2:13–the tempo drags ever so slightly for a brief moment. I first noticed this a few weeks ago and couldn’t put my finger on the problem. It’s so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable, but if you tap your foot along from the first time around the chorus you might catch it. You can’t quantize this kind of thing because the whole band is playing together. And maybe it’s not something you’d want to “fix” anyway. After all, it’s little quirks like this (what the ethnomusicologist Charles Keil once called “participatory discrepancies”) that let us know that the music was recorded live. I listened to the song again as I was editing this blog post and snapped to attention at 2:13 while not aware that I was even paying attention to the time.

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So why is Mumford so popular now?

Maybe they’re popular because their live-sounding recordings set them apart from so much contemporary electronic pop. Ok, so I’m comparing apples and oranges here. But to continue the food metaphor: one of the most delicious things about this music is how different it is from most technologically-thick pop. Mumford feels live and sounds acoustic. This is a big deal in the context of the pop charts but not to Mumford’s members. Bassist Ted Dwayne is even an acoustic music purist:

“Electronic music or a DJ playing CDs doesn’t excite me. Acoustic instruments are really raw and have a much bigger energy. That is something I can understand.”

Some critics say that the authenticity of Mumford’s live and acoustic folk sound is simply context-related–that it sounds the way it does in part because so much other popular music feels synthetic rather than acoustic, groovy but not folky. As critic David Smyth observes, the band’s music “certainly feels authentic within the context of the charts, which are full of auto-tuned vocals and super-produced R&B songs.”

Finally, listening to Mumford has me thinking about musical style and how style usually changes quite gradually. It’s for this reason that the sound of the pop charts is quite homogenous–different songs by different artists (is “artist” even the appropriate word in this era of think-tank songwriting?) each having a similar feel and texture. Because of this, the sound of contemporary pop will seem like a static thing for a long while. As if in a game of Copy Or Perish, everyone uses similar sounds, similar beats, similar lyrical gestures to keep up with one another until…Someone comes along and does things differently. Maybe Mumford’s success will prompt a stylistic tipping point, or maybe not. Maybe they’re just a one-off–too much “rustic troubadour” to copy. Besides, one thing to remember about musical style is that homogeneity often coexists with fractionalization: there is a niche for every style that can make a case for itself. And in this regard at least, Mumford and Sons succeeds.

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* Also: listening experiments help me address musical information overload. From my perspective, we have three choices:

1. Listen to a bit of everything. I do this all the time. It’s exciting but glosses over the details.

2. Listen to nothing. If nothing else, this is a good way to cleanse the ear palette.

3. Listen to one thing over and over for a while. This allows me to notice and obsess over details and also hear the music as a model of a social world. Listening to a music over and over helps me hear the world through the feeling of this one style, this one group, this one song.

On Voice, Authenticity, And Not Being Fake

In a recent online interview excerpted in The Guardian, musician and Portishead member Geoff Barrow discusses the idea of singing with a “fake” voice. Leading the pack in Barrow’s view is the late Amy Winehouse, a white singer who sang, some people say disparagingly, like a black jazz or soul singer from an earlier era–or like someone doing an imitation of such a singer. (There is an excellent article on this topic by Daphne Brooks in The Nation.) Barrow just doesn’t buy Winehouse’s voice, saying that “her actual voice was fake. She had a real life with a fake voice”–a singer who “had become just a comic character of herself and how she sang.”

You can decide for yourself. Here is Winehouse singing her song “You Know I’m No Good”:

Out of curiosity, I read up on Winehouse on Wikipedia. I found a quote from the jazz singer Tony Bennett, who maintained that Winehouse’s voice was the real deal–not fake at all, but steeped in the jazz tradition: “she was the only singer that really sang what I call the ‘right way’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer. . . She was really a great jazz singer. A true jazz singer.”

In contrast to Winehouse, Barrow mentions a few other female singers—including PJ Harvey, Barrow’s Portishead bandmate Beth Gibbons, and Bjork–who “change their voices while remaining themselves.” Presumably what Barrow means by this is that each of these singers assume a singing voice which, while not their speaking voice per se (after all, whose singing voice is?) is nevertheless somehow true to who they are. But how can a listener make this determination?

I have always liked Bjork’s voice, mainly because it’s so unique–a flexible tool that can sing those unusual Bjorkian melodies. And come to think of it, Bjork’s singing voice is just like her speaking voice but louder and more melodic, arising organically out of the same Icelandic source. Bjork sings in a way that sounds like a heightened spoken voice–as if she’s singing-explaining some very cool things to curious elementary school kids and getting carried away. Her voice seems to be true to who she is.

Here is Bjork singing her song “Moon” (which, by the way, features some devastatingly good overdubbed background vocals):

As for that best-selling singer of recent years, the Englishwoman Adele, Barrow adds: “Strangely enough I think Adele sings in her own voice, I think it’s her trying to be a big voice and that’s her.” But again, how does Barrow come by his insight? How can a listener know Adele is “trying” to be a big voice? Maybe she just has a powerful, big voice.

Here is Adele singing her huge hit “Someone Like You.” One thing I noticed about it compared to the Bjork and Winehouse songs is how massive Adele’s recorded vocal sound is. This is due to her big voice but also to a pristine recording that really booms:

***

These are all interesting notions: What does Barrow mean by singing with a “fake voice”? How do we know when a singer’s or instrumentalist’s artistry is fake or authentically the real McCoy? And what does it mean to change one’s singing voice while remaining oneself?

First, being “fake” in musical terms usually means making use of a style or idiom or timbre that isn’t “natural” to you, isn’t authentically yours. In the case of Winehouse, her detractors feel that she wholesale appropriated her vocal sound rather than…Rather than what? Developed it in isolation, free of stylistic influence? You can see the can of worms this opens up: How do we hear the difference between someone authentically inhabiting a sound as opposed to just fakingly co-opting it in a tourist-y kind of way? Maybe with singers, their voices either ring true or not, although a lot of singing–from pop to opera–sounds affected anyway. With instrumentalists, judging authenticity is even more problematic because instrumentalists can to some degree hide behind their instrument’s sound. All this to say that it’s hard to ever really know how genuinely artists lay claim to a sound and come by their knowledge of its stylistic conventions.

Second, whether we’re talking about singers or instrumentalists, we judge fakeness or authenticity by listening and trusting our guts, and I suppose, our eyes: Does this sound make sense coming from this person? By this measure, Winehouse’s slurred slinkiness, Bjork’s wandering wide-eyed rapture, and Adele’s bellowing all ring true. Each singer inhabits her own kind of authenticity.

Finally, as for changing one’s singing voice while remaining oneself, I’m not sure I understand what this means. Why does it matter whether or not one remains oneself as one sings or plays an instrument? Hasn’t making music always been a kind of theater anyway, a way for performers to try on different hats?

Content, Form, And Versioning A Song Everybody Knows: Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know”

Sometime not overly long ago, Gotye’s song “Somebody I Used To Know” went very viral–becoming a song meme that was (and still is) hard to escape, whose video on YouTube has been viewed an astonishing 259 million times (or by some 518 million ears!). At least two or three of those views were mine, the first of which took place a few months ago while I was waiting on some take out fish. Curiously enough, I remember that I was at the fish place that afternoon because I was so impressed by the simplicity and contagiousness of the song. Plus, it features a child’s play xylophone part as one of its musical hooks. Hook, line, and sinker–I picked up my fish while glued to my phone watching and listening to the catchy song.

Born in 1980, Gotye (Wouter De Backer) is a Belgian-Australian multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter. In July 2011 he released “Somebody I Used To Know” as the second single from his record Making Mirrors. The song has an old-fashioned twang about it, built around just a few acoustic guitar chords in d minor, with some small Theremin-like electronic flourishes, bits of flute, some bass, and that dry-as-sand staccato xylophone refrain. Gotye shares the singing duties with New Zealand singer Kimbra. But perhaps most significantly for a pop song in 2012, “Somebody I Used To Know” is without a drummer besides the guitar part slapping the strings on beats two and four. Despite having a partial rhythm section, the song unleashes itself in the chorus as Gotye pushes his voice from a mumble into vintage Sting-like high reaches of affect. That’s the main charm of the song: it’s mellow and dark for the most part, but then takes off in the choruses. The other charm of the song is its timbre. Gotye’s motley collection of instrument sounds (some of which may or may not be samples: see the KCRW performance below where a laptop is in play) have a vintage aura about them–like they have been run through the audio equivalent of the Instagram photo app. Gotye, by the way, records and releases his music himself.

Perhaps because of its instrumentation, its catchy chorus, its vocal performances, or its subject matter, “Somebody I Used To Know” slowly grew on listeners even without much radio play in Australia or anywhere else. Something about it resonated authenticity–real music as opposed to industry-created fodder. And then, thanks to few celebrity Tweets and some television appearances, Gotye’s song exploded, eventually reaching number one on the Billboard charts in not one but twenty countries. Talk about a hit song.

***

When a song becomes popular, people not only talk about it but record cover versions of it too. This is the ultimate musical compliment–it’s as if your fellow musicians recognize the endless capacity of your sturdy song to withstand alternate versions. Sometime this summer, I noticed a version of Gotye’s hit booming from the bass-heavy stereos in cars slinking around my New York neighborhood. In full nerd-sleuth mode, I would stand still as the booming car drove by, looking like my dog sniffing the air for answers, trying to register the audible differences: the tempo is faster, there’s an electronic drum part…Is this a remix? Why yes, yes it is a remix by DJ Mike D. This version packed more dance punch that Gotye’s original, thanks mostly to its added electronic drum track. But perhaps because it’s a remix, the vocals seemed a tad more out of place: happy to be along for the ride in the new machine, sure, but from a different place.

Another Gotye cover is Mike Dawes’ remarkable instrumental rendition on acoustic guitar. Using fingerstyle techniques, strumming, hammer-ons, and harmonics, Dawes effortlessly coaxes all of the melodic and harmonic details of Gotye’s original version out of his six strings. His groove is impeccable too.

***

Something that comes to mind as I think through the popularity of Gotye’s song is the friction between an artist’s original statement (the “content” as it were) and its absorption into the public music sphere (the alternate “forms” as it were, such as cover versions and remixes, etc.). Simply put, when a piece of music widely connects with many, many people, it suggests not so much the machinations of the music industry at work (though industry is always at work) but of the labor of an artist–and in Gotye’s case, quite an independent artist–who has said something singular in a way that resonates honestly. And even when it’s possible to digitally mix and match anything with anything, like add an electronic beat to a Gotye song or do an instrumental cover version, this isn’t the same thing as making that original statement–saying something singular that resonates for many folks and gets ball rolling. That for me, is why songs like “Somebody I Used To Know” are significant: they remind us that there’s always room at the top for thoughtful and new quirky creative stuff.

Musical Appropriation Or Just A Shoe That Fits? : Dirty Loops’ Pop Reversioning

“Hey, we’re on to so much knowledge and the music industry won’t let us use it in a creative way.”
— Aaron, drummer for Dirty Loops

“Could you please make a cover of every song in existence?”
– Dirty Loops YouTube viewer comment

There’s a lot that’s interesting going on when you watch and listen to Dirty Loops, a trio from Sweden, blaze trough their über-funky cover versions of pop songs by Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Adele, and others.

First, you’re surprised to see, well, three very young-looking Swedish guys making such a funky and soulful sound that draws so heavily on the harmonic conventions of jazz and gospel. Plus, the keyboardist also sounds like Stevie Wonder. But I’m setting myself up here. I was going to say that as far as stylistic appropriation goes, Dirty Loops pulls off a virtuosic feat. This might be unfair though because why should we say that Dirty Loops are appropriating anything? Don’t their clear musical skills suggest a kind of ownership of the musical idioms and eras they’re working in? Does it matter if those idioms– like the jazz-funk fusion on display in Dirty Loops’ pop song covers–have been around since the 1970s? And does it matter that the members of Dirty Loops were not even born until well after the heyday of these musics? I think the group’s airtight playing makes such questions moot.

A second interesting thing going on when you listen to Dirty Loops is that you get to revisit some very well-known pop songs that have been transformed through re-harmonizing and intricately syncopated arrangements. Part of the pleasure here is hearing how light pop hits like Bieber’s “Baby” can be transformed to yield so many riffs, off-beat unison hits, big spacey jazz chords, spirited Wonder-esque vocal runs, Jaco Pastorious-esque bass solos, and drum clinic drum fills. But as you listen with not a little astonishment at Dirty Loops’ instrumental virtuosity, you also wonder if it’s really true that the tune is most important thing in music (the quality of the tune is what makes a song valuable), or whether what matters is what the musicians do with/to the tune (the quality of the musicianship is what makes a performance of a tune valuable). In the case of Dirty Loops, I’m not sure I know the answer.

On The Trickle-Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics IV: Usher And Diplo’s “Climax”

“We are in a place now where fans don’t have conviction to one sound.”

- Diplo

This song caught my ear the first time I heard it: I recognized Usher’s R&B falsetto singing, of course, but what really got me was the sparse electronic backing track comprised of little more than a sequenced bassline, kick, snare, hi hat, plus bits of piano and a string arrangement by Nico Muhly.

The backing track is by Diplo, a globe-trotting DJ/producer/cultural broker who is also a respectfully inspired seeker and popularizer of dance musics from around the world. Diplo, by the way, produced the excellent documentary Favela On Blast, an inside look at the culture of electronic music making and dance parties situated in the favelas in the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro. (You can read more about the documentary here.)

What makes Usher and Diplo’s song “Climax” compelling to me is how it makes the most of so little. First, the song’s 138BPM tempo does double duty, suggesting a fast speed with its quick ticking hi hats while keeping a half and quarter time feel with a snare drum that hits once a measure and a kick drum on the downbeat once every two measures. Second, the song’s sequenced baseline is simultaneously its chord progression. The baseline/chord progression pulses away at an eighth-note speed while subtly morphing in timbre via its frequency cut-off setting. Diplo talks about the origins of the song:

“The production actually started as a house thing with a chord progression that I wrote, but with some time in the studio alone I was making a sort of ‘wildfire’ beat out of it. The idea of pushing cut-off on a synth used so much in progressive house music but pulling back. I was making something like a minimal techno record with Atlanta strip clubs in mind.”

So what about this “wildfire” beat? “Wildfire”, it turns out, is the name of a track by UK electronic musician SBTRKT (pronounced “subtract”). Not only does Diplo’s “Climax” have pretty much the same tempo and rhythmic profile as “Wildfire”, but it’s in the same key too. Ah the ecstasy of influence! Still, “Climax” is a powerful track that makes maximal use of minimal means, yet another example of the trickle-down of electronic dance music aesthetics into the pop music cauldron.

Here is SBTRKT’s “Wildfire”:

And here is Diplo and Usher’s “Climax”:

On Pop Music Production Geneologies: Ester Dean’s Compositional Process

In his recent New Yorker article “The Song Machine”, John Seabrook explores the songwriting process behind contemporary pop music. Today’s Top Forty hit, says Seabrook, “is almost always machine made: lush sonic landscapes of beats, loops, and synths in which all the sounds have square edges and shiny surfaces, the voices are Auto-tuned for pitch, and there are no mistakes” (50). Much of this electronic pop is sung by woman such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna. And it sells a ton too. Rihanna, for instance, has sold upwards of 120 million digital singles.

But what makes pop–even electronic, Auto-Tuned pop–pop are its catchy hooks. Enter Ester Dean, a singer-songwriter with a deep talent for writing snap-crackle melodies. Dean collaborates with producers (such as the Norwegian duo known as Stargate) who write instrumental tracks for her to sing over. The collaborations have led to numerous hit songs made famous by others including Rihanna’s “What’s My Name” (which I have written about here) and “Rude Boy”, and Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” (which I have written about here).

Dean’s compositional process is to intuitively groove with the song, initially singing nonsense vocables–which may well explain the hook in Rihanna’s “What’s My Name”: “Oh, na-na, what’s my name?“–that mesh well with the rhythm of the track. From there, she fleshes out words that make lyrical sense. What’s interesting about Dean’s process is that it effectively captures her initial viscerally rhythmic response to a track and then systematically builds upon this energy. As Seabrook describes Dean’s particular (and lucrative) skill:

“Somehow she is able to absorb the beat and the sound of the track, and to come out with its melodic essence. The words are more like vocalized beats than like lyrics, and they don’t communicate meaning so much as feeling and attitude…”(49).

Below are clips of both Dean and Rihanna singing Dean’s song “What’s My Name”:

You can read Seabrook’s article here.

On Recorded Music’s Last Gasp: More On Evanescent Materials In Solid Containers


Walking the aisles of a neighborhood drugstore I came upon a strange sight: a small, sad rack of CDs. From top to bottom were eight different releases I could identify (see pic above), including works by Santana, Aerosmith, Hall and Oats, Sade, Earth, Wind & Fire, Elvis, Bob Dylan, AC-DC, and a Michael Jackson compilation (which didn’t make it into my photo). All of these CDs–the Sade and AC-DC notwithstanding–were greatest hits and priced at a reasonable 9.99 each. As it goes, the selection on the drugstore rack is a fair representation of mainstream American popular music mostly (minus Elvis and Dylan) from the 1970s and 80s. All of the artists have sold many millions or tens of millions of recordings and their music continues to live on the radio and in television commercials where it earns royalties. (Case in point: last year there was a Walmart Black Friday commercial that used the first two pounding and anthemic measures of AC-DC’s “Back In Black” which must have cost a fortune to license.)

The selection of music also illustrates what happens to music the artifact: it ends up somewhere, far from the time and place of its creation, far from its original context of meaning and popularity, far from all the invisible social and cultural codes and discourses and heavy promotion that made it work so well as a sonic glue that brought people together and feel so special back in the day–whether we’re talking about Sade’s “Smooth Operator”, EW&Fire’s “Shining Star”, or Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean.” And even as the musical artifact languishes on drugstore racks, the sounds of these artists are kept alive on oldies radio or on Walmart commercials. When we hear the music we feel stuff in different degrees and ways depending on our age and stage. The music cues times past and sometimes even vague memories.

The rack of CDs also reminds me of the workings of the popular music industry itself. We didn’t begin to see its tissue and sinew revealed until peer-to-peer digital downloading became a big deal in the late 1990s. This free sharing of music led to a widespread realization that the music industry had been manufacturing all this material stuff–78s, LPs, cassettes, CDs–but now MP3s and the Internet had crashed the money-making party by doing away with music’s former material containers. That’s what makes the rack of CDs so pitiful: it reminds us that we don’t really need music on a piece of plastic anymore, only hard drives to store our collections. Or wait, not even that: there’s cloud computing now. Maybe in this way music is at last returning to the ether where it belongs. Anyways, music was always promiscuous–it always wanted to be free.

***

In 1999, I attended a conference in San Francisco called “MB-5: The Future Of Music.” Among the speakers was John Perry Barlow, former lyricist of The Grateful Dead who had recently published in Wired magazine a manifesto about intellectual property in the digital age called “The Economy Of Ideas.” The article turned out to be prescient in anticipating issues that continue to animate the production and circulation of creative work online. The main issue for Barlow concerned the nature of information. Information, he says, “wants to be free”–it always seeks movement and fluidity–despite our attempts to control and regulate it through regimes of copyright and material packaging. In the pre-Internet era, Barlow observes, “the bottle was protected, not the wine.” But the Internet changed that:

“Now, as information enters cyberspace, the native home of Mind, these bottles are vanishing. With the advent of digitization, it is now possible to replace all previous information storage forms with one metabottle: complex and highly liquid patterns of ones and zeros. Even the physical/digital bottles to which we’ve become accustomed– floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and other discrete, shrink-wrappable bit-packages–will disappear as all computers jack-in to the global Net. While the Internet may never include every CPU on the planet, it is more than doubling every year and can be expected to become the principal medium of information conveyance, and perhaps eventually, the only one.”

At the MB-5 conference, other speakers predicted that in the future we would pay for our music as a monthly fee–like a utility bill.  Fast forward to 2012: surprisingly, despite the popularity of the Apple iTunes store and the I-can-own-any-one-song-for-99 cents business model, the music-as-utility future is already here in the form of services like Spotify. For ten dollars a month you have millions of pieces of music to listen to whenever and wherever you wish. Sounds pretty good to me (if only I could listen to millions of pieces of music per month).

So, where are we today? One wonderful thing about music free of its material containers is that it moves about so easily. And despite all the naysaying about the reduced sonic quality of MP3s, it turns out that most of us don’t really mind. It turns out that our interest in music these days is not all about sound resolution or fetishizing the musical object. It’s about being able to choose freely and juxtapose and listen to all eras and styles at once. If most of us are confined to the locales of where we live, then at least we can be cosmopolitan in our musical lives, finding alternate ways of experiencing the world through sounds from elsewhere available in an instant. Any young person who has grown up knowing only a Internet-connected world pretty much lives their music listening life according to this logic. Case in point: when I taught music to 9th graders I was always amazed at the wild variety of music on their digital devices–composers and bands from all eras and styles and cultures crammed up against one another in one glorious Musical Present. Like YouTube. And it didn’t matter where the music came from or how it was once packaged or marketed to a listening demographic. Maybe it was heard on a commercial (AC-DC on a Walmart ad perhaps?) or sampled on someone else’s song or discovered via YouTube surfing. The only thing that matters today, it seems, is whether or not the sounds speak to you in some way.

But back to that rack of CDs. Not only has the music industry long bottled music as 78s, LPs, cassettes and CDs that we must get our hands on and own. It has also long used bands to brand and bottle musical style for us to align our tastes and identities with. But if information, as Barlow says, truly wants to be free, then perhaps so does musical style and our tastes and ways of self-identifying with musical style. Instead of buying this musical product rather than that one, we have the option of learning to identify with all music. I realize that this is a naively idealistic and relativistic critical stance. But it’s also what reveals the choice between Michael Jackson, Elvis, or AC-DC and the other “classic” artists available for sale in the drugstore as so dismal. To be a truly free listener is to be reminded of how much music is out there that we haven’t yet met and said hello to.

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