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 The Trickle Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics II: Maroon 5’s “Move Like Jagger”

Almost everywhere you listen in mainstream American popular music today you hear bands coming to terms with electronic dance music’s most thumping contribution to 21st-century sonic entertainment: the “four-on-the-floor” bass drum pulse. This is the pulse that drove (and still drives) disco, electro, techno and house, as well as all kinds of derivatives of these pioneering electronic dance music styles. Precisely calibrated around a tempo between 120-130 beats per minute, the pulse is insistent in its insistence on moving people to dance. As long as you have a strong four-on-the-floor kick drum, you hardly need much else in the mix.  But combine a relentless beat with a catchy pop hook and you’ve got a seriously infectious musical artifact.

Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”(2011) has just this blend of four-on-the-floor and simple and contagious melody. The song is built around a repeating 8-bar sequence of two chords: b minor for four bars, and then e minor for four bars. Repeat, repeat, and repeat. The beat and melody mix works to scary perfection and not surprisingly the song has hit the top of the pop music charts in 17 countries.  Here it is:

Two comments about the sound of this song. First, listen on headphones and note the timbre of the kick drum.  It’s a real drummer playing the kick, of course, but the drum sound’s envelope and tone contour evoke the kick sound on the Roland TR-808 drum machine (a key instrument of early electro and techno). This sound referencing is not accidental: it’s what makes”Moves Like Jagger” electronic dance music, rather than pop-rock-soul music. Or if not being dance music, then certainly capable of functioning as dance music. (Is there a difference?) With the kick drum sounding crystalline and perfectly steady, the other instruments (the disco guitar, pulsating synths, and the bass on the off-beats) fall in step. Second, listen at 3:16 when Christina Aguilera enters with her cameo vocal. Here you hear something else from the DJ world: a full frequency filter sweep that makes the music sound likes its gone underwater for a time. Again, this is a deliberate referencing of a classic mixing technique from electronic dance music: the filter sweep brings us down somewhere and then returns us to the surface, revitalized, like we’ve been holding our breaths and need to gasp for air just as the chorus hits.


But “Moves Like Jagger” isn’t as convincing when it’s performed live because without the sound processing required to make a drumset sound like a drum machine or a mix sound like it’s being tweaked by a DJ, Maroon 5 is just a band playing a strange rockified electro pop. What is interesting to me is how the recorded and processed sound artifact continues as a gold standard for musicians to re-create/emulate in their performances.  Given the surgical technological tweaking that goes into making a pop music beast like “Moves Like Jagger” (which will surely continue to replicate itself in DJ mixes for years to come), it’s not always easy for a band to copy themselves onstage, note for Auto-Tuned note. Here’s a clip from Maroon 5’s recent performance on SNL, doing their best to make themselves sound like their electronic dance music selves:

In a Billboard interview, Maroon 5’s singer Adam Levine talks elliptically about “Moves Like Jagger”: “It was one of those songs that was definitely a risk. It’s a bold statement. We’ve never really released a song like that. But it’s exciting to do something different, do something new. I’m just glad that everyone likes it.”

You can read more about the trickle down of electronic dance music aesthetics here.

On The Posthuman Soul of James Blake

For many months now I’ve been hearing about this young English musician/DJ/singer James Blake.  The BBC cited him as a musician to watch in 2011 and Blake just released his first full length album, James Blake.  This self-titled recording is a striking collection of pared-down songs comprising mostly auto-tuned/processed voice, analog keyboards or piano, and the most minimal and spare electronic percussion one could have.  Here’s an interview with him on the BBC:

Here is his single, “Limit To Your Love”:

So what’s the big deal?  So many things are striking about this recording it’s hard to know where to start.  First, Blake has figured out a way to use auto-tune/digital voice processing in an emotionally moving way.  Here’s the thing: he can really sing so auto-tune isn’t used as a crutch or as a cliché sound.  Rather, it’s a timbral effect used musically, allowing Blake to wildly experiment with tuning, harmonies and extreme registers.  Auto-tune (or whatever he’s using) allows Blake to turn his singing voice into an even more subtle instrument of affect.

A second thing about Blake’s recording is its incredible sense of space. There aren’t really consistent basslines in this music, freeing the midrange for gauzy keyboards.  Percussion is little more than kick drum, cross stick, and the occasional hi hat or metallic sound (I heard a fleeting Roland 808 chime somewhere), reminding me of the micro-minimalism of Alva Noto.  This makes for austere textures in which every sound has a place to resound.  And don’t forget silence: Blake incorporates little breaks of Zen nothingness between verses (drum fills are so last century!) and so some songs end abruptly, looking over the edge of silence’s chasm.  Track 2, “The Wilhelm Scream” illustrates well this spacious texture:

Blake’s music doesn’t fit into the normal stylistic “frames” of electronic music or the pop music continuum either.  Consider, for example, the song “I Mind”, a great example of Blake’s pushing musical boundaries.  Built around a three-chord piano progression (that vaguely recalls Radiohead’s “Everything in its right place” meeting Arvo Part’s “Fratres”), the song builds over this vamp by endlessly modulating Blake’s sampled vocals, blurring the lines between live and electronic sound.  “I Mind” is a great example of Blake’s voice cloned and multiplied all over the map, giving us a whole chorus of voices that sound like a digital gospel sound from the future.  You can listen to the track at here.

Music can make us feel things that are new to us–it presents us with new ways of feeling by modelling that feeling through its sounds. (I never cease to wonder how this is achieved.)  At the same time, as we listen we draw on every music we’ve ever heard to help us map the coordinates of this new affecting space.  James Blake’s album is powerful because it really does lead us into new spaces of feeling where we keep grasping for prior musical references but soon give up and start focusing on the contours of this new space.  While electronic music is the vehicle, it doesn’t define the feeling conveyed–a remarkable achievement considering how pre-determined electronic music can sound.  No, this is much more fluid territory.  Blake’s world conjures up desire meeting cold empty spaces, his processed voice like someone trapped in a hard drive.  But there is an adventurous sense of play here as well–the mark of someone who knows their craft–and the music never strictly repeats.  Like feelings, it keeps changing.

On The American Singing Voice: American Idol, Glee and The Sing-Off

If you’ve been paying attention to popular TV shows you might have noticed how important the singing voice is to the North American popular culture moment we’re in.  Three shows in particular highlight the singing voice: American Idol (Fox), Glee (Fox), and The Sing-Off (NBC).  All of these shows remind us how powerful the singing voice is as a site for representing and constructing personal identity, social group cohesion, and a means of generating emotion, desire and affect out of the aether.

The mother of all singing competitions, American Idol, has been running for 10 years now, chronicling the discovery and manufacture of aspiring American pop singers.  On American Idol, the singing voice stands in boldest relief in the early days of each season, as singers audition a cappella for the judges.  Here we hear the unvarnished voices rendering parts of famous songs without the support of a backing band.  We hear voices trying to render a musical style–a rock voice, a gospel voice–through phrasing and dynamics and timbre (or tone “color”), this last quality being somewhat out of the singer’s total control.  In his book Image-Music-Text (1977), French literary critic Roland Barthes speaks of the “grain” of the voice to describe its particular quality and more:

“The ‘grain’ of the voice is not–or is not merely–its timbre; the significance it opens cannot better be defined, indeed, than by the very friction between the music and something else, which something else is the particular language (and unwise the message)” (185).

One the best ways to understand what makes a good singer is to hear a really bad one, or even just an average one.  The voice is such an infinitely flexible musical tool that when we hear it used in a compromised, less than optimal way, it reveals–or at least points towards–those intangibles that make for a great singing voice.  The differences are usually more than simple matters of intonation (Randy Jackson: “Uh, That was a little pitchy for me…”).  There is rhythmic phrasing, for instance, something not easy to do with only one’s own internal clock to go by.  And there is always that mysterious quality–Barthes’ “grain” of the voice?–which may in fact be the result of a whole bunch of qualities put together: the quality that lets us determine after a moment or two whether or not we’re moved enough to care.  Is this an authentic and true singing voice?

Put a bunch of singing voices together a Capella (sans backing band) and you have the premise of The Sing-Off, an American singing competition which made its debut in 2009.  Glee clubs date back to the Harrow School in England in the 1870s and have been mainstays on some American college campuses since around that time.  “Glee” refers not to the generally “happy” sound of these singing groups, but rather to the glee, an English part song popular from 1650 until about 1900 in England.

Because there is no band on The Sing-Off, some of the singers must fulfill an instrumental role–singing a bass part, beatboxing a drum kit, and so forth.  Here, musical blending is key, but so is the arrangement–that is, the ways in which the singers decide to render their song and divvy up the parts and divide their harmonies (not to mention the orchestration of the harmonies themselves: there are a lot of ways to voice a chord!).  In the midst of an electronic music-based popular music industry, the singing on The Sing-Off invigorates because it is so live, so acoustic, and so dependent on the performers listening closely to one another.

But if synthetic is your thing, look no further than Glee, a musical drama that also began in 2009.  In the Glee world, every singing voice is pristine, auto-tune perfect, and otherwise enhanced.  The Glee singers also benefit from a real world impossibility: whenever they sing in the classroom or onstage, a lush band sound magically arises behind them.  This is high-tech karaoke at its most highly mediated: you watch real singer-actors lip-syncing to their own pre-recorded vocal tracks of show tunes and contemporary hits.  The auto-tune and other sonic enhancements have reached the point of rendering the singers close to cyborgs in their perfection: not a note is out of place, befitting the airless milieu of the fictional high school where the show takes place.

The Glee recipe has revived many older pop songs, and Glee versions of them are released on the Apple iTunes store the week they’re featured in an episode. Thus, in an age of ever decreasing music sales, Glee recordings have sold many millions.  This is not just a function of mass marketing (though it is certainly that too), but rather a pandering to our collective memory/nostalgia for songs that have receded into the past (even if that past is a few months ago).  In this regard, Glee, The Sing-Off, and American Idol all have something in common by being elaborate apparatuses for reviving and giving new life to old music.

On The Beyond Digital Morocco Project

Over the past few weeks I discussed two examples of sound collecting in West Africa.  The first was the Digging 4 Gold project, the second was the Music From Saharan Cellphones project.  While these projects are not without their problems–foremost among which is the question of whether or not any of recorded musicians will ever be compensated for their work–they do go some way to circulate sounds from one part of our big world to other parts.  Clearly, new ways to “release” music are evolving all the time.

Over at DJ Jace Clayton’s mudd up! blog, we learn about an interesting fieldwork project that is slated to happen this summer.  Clayton and a small crew are headed to Marrakesh, Morocco, to explore how “creative adaptations of global digital technologies. . . are helping to transform youth culture and suggesting powerful alternatives to Western concepts of digital literacy.  One focus will be the use of technologies such as Auto-Tune in Berber folk music.  The goal of the Beyond Digital: Morocco project is to engage in a month-long art project with Marrakesh youth through teaching, collaboration, and documentation.

It will be interesting to watch what happens with this project as it looks like it could be a dialogue between musicians rather than just a taking of music . . .

You can watch a video about the project here.