I recently read a Globe and Mail piece by writer Russell Smith called Why Is Pop Music Stuck on The Same Old Song. The gist of it is that the song is boring and there are so many more interesting possibilities in some other kind of musical form, mainly forms associated with Classical Music.
Before I go any further, let me say that I am a big fan of Smith’s fiction, columns and like him a lot as a person. I do, however, have some differences with him about this.
I’m not exactly sure what he means by songs here. Does he mean only what they play on commercial radio or just popular music generally, which is to say the popular music of our time, which would include everything except what most call classical music. So this would be pop, rock, country music, alternative music, hard rock, R&B, metal and, I guess even hip hop. Music that one might find on the Billboard charts maybe?
To start, he mischaracterizes the pop song. He claims they are all, “100 %” in 4/4,” which of course is not true. It would have been fine to say they are usually are. Just in my own recent experience, I just finished producing a very pretty song written and recorded (more or less) specifically for the radio that is in 6/8. I also recently produced a country album that had at least two songs in 3/4. A couple of classic rock standards that immediately come to mind, Joe Cocker’s A Little Help From My Friends and Pink Floyd’s Money are 6/8 and 7/4 respectively. And that’s not getting into R&B and commercial prog rock.
He also describes the pop song in terms of the Standard Song Structure, which is to say a song with a verse and a chorus and possibly a bridge. Again this is usually the case though certainly not always. In the early days of rock and roll, structures like the 12 bar blues, which was used in the lions share of rock and roll and rockabilly tunes, and the AABA song structure, popular with the Beatles and many others, were just as common as the standard structure. Recent examples of the AABA include Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day and Every Breath You Take by The Police. And a lot 0f popular music doesn’t strictly follow any typical structure though it usually has some form of repetition.
Ah but I’m nit picking, perhaps he was just overstating for effect. What I really want to say is the song survives because it works. It has form the same way a novel, a movie, a play and most narrative types of art have form. Form allows people to follow your story, your song, your movie. It prevents them from being confused, it keeps them interested enough to see how it ends. Experimental forms of fiction are excruciating and so are most experimental music forms.
Novels, which I believe I just read a defense of by Russell, have conventions like plot and narrative, rising action, climax, resolution, character development as do screenplays and teleplays. (Forgive me for simplifying). These devices make novels, movies and television programs easy to follow, easy to lose yourself in and prevent you from becoming disoriented and/or bored while experiencing them. This is a good thing. Even a movie like Pulp Fiction, which messes with the timeline, can still be described in a linear fashion.
When I think about a well written song, I consider similar conventions. The intro to a great song would be like the intro to a great book or movie that would draw you in, grab your attention or seduce you in some way. Then we would start at a low idea of intensity which would be the verse where the narrative of the song would start. The action would rise as the intensity of the music climbs in the pre-chorus and then the chorus would be similar to the climax of the movie where the the theme and the essence of the song would be revealed. This would also be the dynamic high point of the song or at least of the cycle of verse/prechorus/chorus. The difference between a song and a story is that this rising action would repeat itself with every cycle of verse, pre chorus and chorus. Visually, instead of one big wave that gets slowly higher to a climax and then falls off like you’d have in a novel, we have more like multiple waves rising and falling with each verse, pre chorus and chorus. By the end of the song, the story would be told, the character would learn something about him or herself and there would be a sense of resolution both lyrically and musically. (Again, forgive the simplification).
So if form has value in other types of writing, it stands to reason that it does in songs. This is not to say that there aren’t possibilities for popular music that lie outside of considered song forms. Baba O’Reily by The Who is a song that doesn’t follow any of the above mentioned song forms not does something more current like Lay Down In The Tall Grass by Timber Timbre, which has sections we could find a name for and has repeating chord patterns but not what one might identify as a verse and a chorus.
Smith then gives some examples of plotless films and non novel novels that I’ve never heard of and no one outside of a Masters English course has either. I call those, exceptions that prove the rule.
Another of his objections to the song is that it is sung by the human voice. He talks about music forms that don’t having singing, instrumentals we can call them. He mentions soundscapes, and I would add, large amounts of what we call Electronic Dance Music. There is lots of this kind of music, lots more than there is plotless movies or non novel novels. This music has value as music to dance to, to get high to, to use as background music at parties, while trying to score or while studying. But the thing about songs with singing is that the voice is the most evocative instrument. When you hear a song that has singing and lyrics, you are more likely to pay attention. And songs with singing can still be completely compelling even if the singer isn’t that, ‘good’. Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Tom Waits all have very idiosyncratic instruments but all elicit a variety of emotions in their fans. Songs resonate with people because they relate to them, they speak to them, they REMEMBER them. Words and music together have power that neither have separately. I have looked at lyrics on a blank page and thought, okay. Then I’ve heard them sung and thought, wow. This can often be because of the way the line is delivered, the anger or sensuality or sadness the voice brings to the line. Or it can be because I love the sound of the singers voice and, as the cliche goes, they could sing the phone book and make it sound good.
Often people want to hear something new, new music. But new music is rarely new music. In western music, we are all dealing with the same finite pallet of notes. Usually, new music means music created by new technology. But that’s another post.
Anyway, Russell, forgive me if I’ve misinterpreted your column. But the song is great, worthwhile and will endure whether we like it or not.