Given today’s top-40 musical landscape, I find myself getting into disagreements with people about the merits of pop music. This week’s New Yorker features an article on the writing of pop hits (John Seabrook: “The Song Machine“) that will make serious musicians cringe & lose hope simultaneously. Basically, a small number of writer-vocalists (mostly female) and a small number of producers (mostly male) are responsible for the majority of smash hits by singers like Rihanna, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson and Nicki Minaj. They convene every once in a while to share tracks and vocal lines with each other. They go through hundreds of simple ideas in a week (all generated by software, not real instruments), and the artist is hardly ever involved in the process. In fact, Rihanna records many of her singles over the phone or from on her tour bus (the image of pop stars brainstorming in recording studios for weeks on end is rapidly fading away – the majority of revenue is generated by tours, so artists spend most of their time and energy learning dance moves, traveling, and fitting into elaborate costumes.)
To some people, this contrived process signals the demise of music, but I admire these producers and writers. It is truly a gift to know exactly what the public is going to want. The latest hits have catchy hooks in the chorus, pre-chorus, intro and outro, because audiences are becoming less patient and people change the radio station after 7 seconds if they’re not happy with what they hear. The writers who invent these hooks and the lyrics that will suit them are not trying to move people emotionally in any deep way, and they’re not trying to have a lasting impact. They want to make music that will invite future listens, and that can serve as a social currency among young people. And so, to this end, they are successful.
I am intrigued, though, by the trend that many of the most famous pop producers are Swedish (Max Martin, Dr. Luke) or Norwegian (Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Hermansen). I think that Scandinavia’s location provides a clue to unraveling this mystery*. You see, the crux of creativity is making the familiar seem unfamiliar, and vice versa. Creativity is drawing upon existing elements and making them surprising. For example, the success of film montages in the art world is founded on the fact that people enjoy searching for familiar clips, but they are also fascinated by the new way that these clips are arranged. The Scandinavian producers (esp. Eriksen, who is profiled in the article) lived in a world that was fairly dominated by Euro-pop, but they somehow gained exposure to American urban music – R & B and hip hop. They were hired by a British company to incorporate urban elements into Euro-pop to make it edgier, and to make American urban music more accessible to Europeans, by putting a catchy pop twist on it. The most famous non-rock songs of the ’90s and 2000s are hits because they succeed in achieving these goals. And it took the ear of someone who was not submerged in either musical milieu to make this happen.
Environment drives the way creativity manifests itself. With the rise of the internet and globalization, physical environment will start to mean less and less, but that’s no matter. With increased travel, and increased record-keeping, we can actively search for ways to make our art more fresh across the world and across time.*
*Likewise, the British revolution of the ’60s and ’70s probably emerged because of Britain’s unique position to interface between American R & B and European pop.
*Non-Scandinavian producers like Timbaland excel for this reason; some of his songs feature South Asian pop samples!
David Bowie is one of my favorite artists of all time, and not only because his music is stellar. His art was deeper than his songs, and his soul was darker than his pop might reveal. I was inspired to write about Bowie by a recent biographical Rolling Stone article by Mikal Gilmore (one day, I hope to read an exhaustive biography).
In the article, the theme that Gilmore focuses on is Bowie’s fight to hold on to his sanity. “Sanity” is a loaded term, but it seems that some of David Bowie’s creativity may have emerged from his fear and anxiousness about becoming schizophrenic, like his brother Terry (whom he loved dearly). Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder marked by delusions, hallucinations and paranoia, among other symptoms. It does have some genetic basis, and it is one of the most frightening conditions imaginable for most healthy people, since it causes you to actually lose touch with reality. Sure, other disorders like depression, OCD, and eating disorders might result in equal amounts of distress, and also some twisted perceptions…but trying to prove to someone that something that you see and hear is real, when it’s not, sounds like a terrifying prospect.
So in order to avoid getting lost between realities, David Bowie proceeded to invent some new realities.
With each album, he became a new person – new costumes, different kinds of songs, new storylines. Ziggy Stardust might be Bowie’s most iconic character. The album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars tells a vague story about an alien-musician who fell to earth. The content of the album is meant to comfort outsiders, as Bowie often felt like an outsider himself. David transformed himself into Ziggy onstage, and he felt comfortable taking risks because, in a way, he was outside of himself. By creating a character, and becoming that character to such a great extent, he could live a slightly different life. And this appealed to many of Bowie’s fans, especially homosexual fans. They felt oppressed, and saw a role model in this androgynous, heavily made-up star, who mimicked sexual acts onstage.
But when Bowie grew tired of the elaborate Ziggy-themed concerts, and he grew bored with the concept, he quit it. And this was the best, most cathartic part of making and performing music this way. It was an escape in itself, so you could escape it anytime. Ziggy wasn’t David when it was no longer convenient for David to be Ziggy.
This escapism appealed to young, marginalized people in the ’70s and ’80s, and the music still stands the test of time. David Bowie’s brother committed suicide, and this hurt David greatly…but he is healthy, and has been dealing with his own fear and mental health issues through music and performance. And that makes David Bowie – at least with the legacy that we ascribe to him – a good role model for creative people everywhere.
“Will the fight for sanity be the fight of our lives?” – Flaming Lips
Bjork’s latest project, Biophilia, is, without a doubt, her most ambitious one. In addition to being an album, it’s also a series of apps, live shows, and installations. One of these installations is currently at the NY Hall of Science, where Biophilia, and its music, are being used to teach children about science…and music!
Now, I’m sure that Bjork isn’t the first artist to tie the natural wonder of our world & universe into her music, but she might be one of the first to do this so purposefully, and so…specifically. According to Bjork herself, and the Hall of Science installation as summed up by The New Yorker, each song’s structure relates to some biological or physical process. For example, “Moon” has four distinct sequences (each played by a harp), signifying the phases of the moon. Its meter is 17/8 – one of the most unusual rhythms possible (check out “Moon” here). This draws (to me) the comparison to how the moon’s cycles supposedly make people crazy, or throw them off their natural rhythms (think werewolves – where would such a legend have come from if not early people blaming the moon’s cycles for the cycling moods and strangeness of their peers and families?)! And it helps the metaphor that Bjork sings so damn eerily; her fascinating voice is why I became a Bjork fan years ago.
The song “Thunderbolt” is built from arpeggios. For those who don’t know, arpeggios are broken chords: when the notes of a chord are played in sequence, instead of simultaneously, creating a sort-of dampened effect of the chord. Arpeggi are at the heart of improvisation, and occur in all genres of music. Bjork used the song “Thunderbolt” to teach children about arpeggi, which she feels are a good metaphor for the phenomenon of thunder and lightning. In an arpeggio, notes of a chord go together, but are not played together – much like thunder and lightning are paired with each other, but can never occur at the same time! I think (and I think Bjork would agree) that there are certain patterns of sound – of music – that appeal to us precisely because they occur often in nature. Symmetry is all around us, and we like art that reflects that symmetry (although our minds like getting tricked, too). Our brains wouldn’t even possess an idea of rhythm if it weren’t for evolving in a world with rhythms.
Bjork goes further and the analogies get more abstract (“Virus” is about the damaging relationship between a virus and its prey; “Dark Matter” is sung in gibberish because dark matter is inexplicable), but in concept, I think that Biophilia is wonderful. All teaching tools are best when they can connect many disciplines; by exciting people about physics and biology and music and the interconnections between them, Bjork is encouraging them to think in a different way. She is teaching them that they can gain creativity by exploiting the similarities between two distinctive fields. And obviously, I support that.