“As new musical publics took shape and old ones were transformed, and as they entered into rivalry and dialogue, what we seem to discover is a musical language becoming denser and richer.”
– Michael Chanan, From Handel To Hendrix (Verso, 1999, p. 135)
From the first few seconds of the new Coldplay song “Adventure of a Lifetime” you know something is up–not just something with the band’s expected usual concise tunefulness but with their subtle integration of an electronic/sampled music aesthetic that is increasingly giving their music an EDM sheen. The song opens with its hook–a descending electronic guitar arpeggiating thing that repeats for three and a half bars before adding a variation quirk at its end of phrase. Already my critical spider senses are tingling: Is this, you know, a live guitar riff or a loop recorded by the band? (Does it matter?) In the eight bars in which the guitar repeats for the song’s intro you also hear bits of vocals but they too seem chopped up and processed to sound just beyond intelligible but seriously catchy. It sounds like computer handiwork that has turned a vocal snippet into an instrumentalizing line. (This was also the case in a recent Justin Bieber-Diplo-Skrillex collaboration. Their song “Where Are U Now?” features an instrumental hook fashioned out of processed vocals.) During the second four measures of the intro a keyboard pad chord slides underneath to provide us with the song’s three relentlessly repeating chords–i, IV, v–that will guide our listening over the next four minutes. All this to say that top flight modern pop wastes not a millisecond setting up calibrated grooves for our attention.
When the full band kicks in the EDM signposts multiply: the just under 120 bpm tempo, the four on the floor kick drum beat, the jangly syncopated percussion, the thick hand claps on the “and” of every other beats 3 and 4, the disco bass riff and Nile Rodgers-worthy rhythm guitar, the frequency sweeping pre-chorus synth swell, and just below the surface of the mix, a keyboard part whose ostinato is similar to the one that anchored another of the band’s danceable anthems, “Sky Full Of Stars.” (Read me about it here.)
“Adventure of a Lifetime” is instantly catchy but one aspect of the song that may not be apparent on a cursory listen is its essential modularity. It’s as if all of its elements–from the brief vocal melodies to the bassline, beat, and rhythm guitar–were conceived as loops for software. Pop genre conventions make this a four-minute song, but if you imagine the music broken up into its component parts it seems equally suitable as bits readymade for an epic dance floor mix.
Why make music this way? The simple answer is that such a move in tempo and style (Wikipedia calls the song “disco rock”) opens the music up to the broadest possible audience. “Sky Full Of Stars” remember, has like 120 million YouTube views and a similar global trajectory could be in store for this song. The more complex reason for groovifying rock is that as musical style conventions shift musicians simply shift with them–sometimes unconsciously, sometimes not. In the case of “Adventure of a Lifetime” Coldplay collaborated with the Norwegian production team Stargate who are programmer-songwriters known for their futuristic brand of synth R&B. Maybe this is just the tip of the iceberg of how rock music will eventually dismantle itself: by joining the pulse of other musical styles.
Part of the point of these posts I’ve written on the trickle down of electronic dance music aesthetics is to map some of the audible stylistic shifts in popular music over the past few years. I enjoy noticing these shifts because they get me thinking about where music in general–popular music, global music, vernacular music–might be going. Great grooves have the potential to earn serious dollars, of course, but I can imagine other shifts happening for other reasons too. The pop music landscape is a flexible terrain that adapts to our tastes as much as it models them; with music you just never know where it will go. Maybe one day everyone will ditch digital and go totally acoustic. (The hipster stance: “I only listen to live acoustic music…”) Maybe I-IV-V songs will suddenly blossom into crazy complexity. Maybe jazz chords will become the rage again. In the meantime songs like “Adventure of a Lifetime” are like these little crystal balls given to us as we try to hear the future.