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Monday, May 10, 2004
In some ways, it almost seems pointless for me to respond to The Case Against Rock & Pop. (Link via NYLPM.) I mean, check out this passage:

My contention is that the musical language of pop and rock is extremely limited, the “literacy level” of the typical composition being fairly low on a scale of musical vocabulary and complexity. If this were language we might be thinking about a reading age of below ten years. This may, in fact, be the reason for the popularity of this music with the preteens. The “reading level” is at the level of the archetypal Sun reader. Pop and rock are the aural equivalent of a Big Mac: homogenised, standardised, pasteurised, certainly not “grown up food”, and ultimately damaging to taste and discrimination. Additionally, pop and rock music can be seen to have a number of negative social and psychological consequences.

I mean, the guy's already ripped on fast food and immaturity, as well as taking pop wholly at its word, pegging it as a cause for social ills, and written in a style that can be best described as "dry sneer #3." It's pretty clear that we just don't agree. So why even bother? Well, because it's clear, I think, that he's gotten a bunch of things wrong, and I think it'll be useful to examine what's right. Let's get started, shall we? If you don't like this sort of thing, you know what to do...

Most rock music and a great deal of pop use a fairly limited number of pentatonic scales...And when we turn to sequences of intervals, as in a melody, we find that pop and rock musicians prefer cliched, commonplace, and easy sequences of notes over the more difficult, less conventional, and innovative. The lesson seems to be that pop and rock is based on easy and conventional building blocks and that there is a real reluctance, and ability, to attempt less conventional and more difficult musical challenges.

Huh? Did he think that pop fans reading this wouldn't know what an interval is? Because if you do--and, um, I do--you have to know there's no such friggin' thing as an "innovative" interval. There are a set number of intervals, and we know what they are. There is no such thing as a new interval, just as there's no secret chord.[1] That's the toolbox we're given, and these are the options we have to work with when we're composing. We all make choices, and these are simply the ones pop songwriters make. Is he trying to suggest that there should be more microtonal scales in pop music? I mean, I agree, but aside from the fact that you do get a lot of microtones (via string-bending on guitars and detunings and moving oscillators and ring mods on keyboards) in any pop song that doesn't sound like a nursery rhyme[2], so what? Does this make Beethoven musically illiterate? No it does not. And I don't hear the pentatonic thing at all--blues songs use a pentatonic scale, but pop is pretty far from being all blues at this point, and I can point out any number of seconds and sevenths in pop songs.

Because polyphony is restricted pop and rock music demonstrates limited harmony and use of counterpoint. It is certainly true that both jazz and pop are "simpler" or less “deep” forms of music than classical by a considerably wide margin in this way as in other ways. An important rider to this point is that the emotional reaction to music or other art forms is not independent of its complexity: greater complexity and differentiation, a wider use of tonal and harmonic palette, and greater subtlety creates a wider range of emotional response to the music. And music is all about emotional response.

I'm assuming everyone's going, "Whoooooaa, hold on there" at this point. Is he serious? Pop doesn't produce a significant emotional response because there's not enough polyphony? We'll get to the second half of that equation in a second, but let's talk about the first one-and-a-half bits first. Where in the world does he get the idea that people have a paltry emotional response to pop music? I mean, has he seen the footage of Beatlemania, or Backstreet Boys concerts? Those teenage girls are almost having wee little orgasms.[3] And OK, you can make the argument that this was due less to the music and more to the context, and the visuals, but there are lots of other examples: teenagers killing themselves to metal/goth/whatever, people getting married to pop music, people passing out to gospel (surely adhering just as strictly to the requirements he's laying out as pop does), the list can go on for quite a while. Pop music produces an incredible range of emotional responses, and for better or for worse, people have almost exactly the same reaction they do to Nick Drake as they do to certain vaunted classical pieces. Complexity has fuck-all to do with it.

Complexity does, however, have a lot to do with the longevity of a piece of music. Certainly one of the reasons OK Computer is such a great album is because of its replay value, and this stems in large part from its complexity--years later, you can discover a wonderful little bit you never even noticed before, buried somewhere in the mix (think of how different some of the songs on Hail to the Thief sounded between the leaked first mix and the fully-mixed final version if you want a better conception of how much is buried in post-97 Radiohead albums), not to mention discovering new resonances packed into the music, intended for the future, that you wouldn't be listening to hear if the impetus hadn't been there originally. Certainly complexity, along with being Really Good Songs, is a large part of why classical music has endured. But criticizing pop music for lacking longevity is like criticizing pasta sauce for tasting like tomatoes; its ephemeral nature is part of its reason for existing. Pop is transitory, because transitory can be very good.

But OK: if complexity (or, er, just counterpoint) doesn't dictate the range of emotional responses possible from a song, what does? Well, two things:

  • Content (a/k/a being Really Good Songs)
  • Context

    Content is, as I said, whether or not you like the song or not. There are certain things you can do that will pretty much objectively make a song better- or worse-liked (a good drummer, screeching metallic sounds high in the mix, funny lyrics, a title incorporating the phrase "intestinal maggots"), but by and large this is pretty subjective. Ultimately, however, certain songs do seem to be something close to universally loved, or at least liked, and so this certainly suggests a certain key set of tropes you can analyze and play with. Complexity is a small part of it, but a good melody, a good beat, good lyrics, a good sound, and interesting texture are probably more important.

    But if we're talking about emotional response, you can't ignore the context in which something is heard. Certain songs evoke a major emotional response in a particular individual merely because, for instance, it was playing on the radio at a significant time in their lives--first kiss, etc.[4] Others, perhaps, because someone close to them loved them. For something else, maybe it's because people in your social circle were all really excited about it, and so you became excited about it, too. Or maybe you were just were in a situation in your life that it worked for you. But it doesn't really matter in the particulars, because it's all totally, utterly subjective. You're more likely to have a strong emotional response to something that you respond to contextually rather than because of its complexity.

    And that's it--substance and context. Fact of the matter is, emotional response isn't something you can really analyze systematically--you might want to take note of the first word in that phrase there, emotion, which I always thought was kind of the opposite of rationality, but what do I know--it's just something that happens. We don't have to be concerned with emotion when you're talking about music, I suppose, but since he brought it up, the fact of the matter is that pop music wins, and if it didn't win, it wouldn't be so ascendant. The means of distribution and production[5] are such now that if people really wanted to hear Terry Riley pieces all the time (nothing against Terry, he just sprung to mind), they can and would. But they don't. They listen to pop music. People like pop music more--they like it a hell of a lot, and that's still an incredible achievement, to my way of thinking.

    Related to the above, counterpoint is the simultaneous combination of two or more melodies to make musical sense, one melody being spoken of as the counterpoint of or in counterpoint to another. Double counterpoint is when two melodies, one above the other, can exchange position; similarly triple, quadruple, etc. counterpoint, where three, four or more melodies can take up any positions relative to each other. Independence of melody is of two kinds, melodic and rhythmic...As we can easily hear, polyphony and counterpoint is largely absent from pop and rock music and these share with much folk music a lack of harmonic and melodic complexity and the use of a very early, less complex, and more archaic set of compositional principles, based on monophony or homophony rather than polyphony.

    The Beach Boys! And all the bands that ripped off the Beach Boys! Who have been around for 40 years! How about Destiny's Child, or half of R&B? What pop/rock is this guy listening to[6], Fast Food Rockers and the Stooges? Jesus. I'd like some examples, please.

    Despite its apparent and claimed modernity, pop and rock uses the musical tools and the musical language of the nineteenth century or even earlier - see point number 3, above.. When we peel away “the big beat” we find a limited and simplistic use of the musical language of a past century. There is almost no use of the advances in musical language and vocabulary that have occurred since the late nineteenth century. It therefore seems not an unfair verdict on pop and rock music that they have not invented or created anything fundamentally new. They have borrowed rhythms and formulae from jazz; they have borrowed from white and black American folk music; they have taken many harmonies and instrumental colourings from Western art music. What has been borrowed has been reduced to a mechanical process.

    Let's grant that no music is actually particularly new, since it's all inversions and thefts from predecessors and outside sources[7], so this isn't really a valid basis for comparison. That said, the whole point of pop music is its newness, or, at least, its amazing ability to recountenance the appearance of newness for successive generations. In contrast to the conscious, very visible tradition of classical music (or, at least, from the time of its standardization in the 17th century until the 19th century, and 200 years isn't that big of a deal, really), pop music always appears as something freshly discovered and new. That it's not is an open secret of sorts: the thing is, people just discovering pop aren't likely to access the resources that discuss this open secret. If this were pop's eternal function, it would certainly be as shallow as it's being portrayed, but two important things must be remembered. First off, this novelty serves as a starting point, never a destination, and I feel comfortable arguing that pop has generated at least, if not more, lifelong loves of music as has anything in the past. Secondly, because newness is seen as one of the points of the genre, it doesn't matter that they aren't actually doing anything new[8], since no one is actually doing anything new without inventing a new instrument, it matters that they think they are, because the explosion of ideas and styles this produces serves as on-the-fly music theory, giving us more options for creation and more tools of analysis.

    And of course he feels the need to break out the ol' "mechanical process" canard, but really, how is this any different from orchestration? How is this any different from the formulas-and-charts of music theory? Isn't that just as mechanized? For everyone that wants to read pop's surface and see it as something entirely mass-produced, the fact remains that at the heart of every single track is a voice and a creator or two, really human beings working pretty much like Mozart did, just under different economic realities. It pains people to realize this, I know, but the people who make those songs are musicians, composers, no different in spirit or process than anyone else we're familiar with.

    As for the idea that pop doesn't incorporate any ideas from 20th-c. music--well, I can make the familiar arguments. There's Timbaland's rhythmically and melodically off-center composition. There's sampling and its relationship to musique concrete. There's the raga form in 60s music. There's the influence of electronic music pioneers on genre-crossers like Aphex Twin or pick-a-Warp-artist. There's the Beatles sonic experimentation. There's, again, Radiohead. But these arguments have been made before and are at their heart, I think, essentially defensive about pop music. That's not what I'm going to say. What I'm going to say is this: the last two decades of progress in art music would not have been possible without the preceding, and subsequent, influence of modern pop music.

    Why? Because of minimalism. That's been the main innovation, as far as I know, and where would you get this from besides pop music? (OK, Indian music, but go with me here.) What he's saying is that pop music is one beat and one key. Uh, "In C" anyone? The main difference is that what art music uses to flesh out this formula is largely the tradition of classical music, whereas pop borrows from, as he says, jazz, the blues, gospel, and country[9]. Otherwise, the only difference is a steady beat, which, far from being a reduction, seems to me an innovation in the context of Western music. And that's an argument I would make about a lot of pop music: vary the tempo, throw in a few key changes, loop a few songs together and you've got a classical piece. Why not do that? Because it would suck.

    The vast majority of the music is in 4/4 time. Thus, other time signatures, the common 3/4 and others such as 12/8, 6/8, 7/8, 7/16 etc. are not part of the vocabulary...Structurally, the music is extremely simple. There are generally no musical progressions. A song is in one key with a main part and perhaps a chorus. There is no movement between keys, little complexity of structure or musical organisation, little sense of progression. The limitations discussed above, together with the shortness and simplicity of the musical phrases militate against any level of complexity of organisation of the musical material. As a contrast, it was common for classical composers from the late 18th century to move between a number of keys in a small number of bars, and they used complex musical forms such as Sonata Form and Fugue.

    Dude. We tried this already. It's called prog. Want to hear lots of key changes and weird time signatures? Prog away. I've come to realize that people I have a lot of respect for really like prog, or at least used to, so I won't dismiss it wholesale, but I am saying that we've done it, and the option is there. Sure, just as I wouldn't say that jambands' attempts at improvisations and time signature fuckery really hold much of a candle to jazz, I wouldn't say that Yes really makes much of a dent in Haydn's rep, but I do honestly think that we could have taken this farther if we wanted to (more than enough conservatory-trained folks are in rock bands now for this to have happened). The fact that we didn't is less because we couldn't and more because it wouldn't sound very good. It's as silly to complain about the lack of a hook in a three-minute movement of a string quartet as it is to complain about a lack of time signature-breaking, key-changing 45-minute pop songs. It's just not what they do. And that's OK.

    Much pop and rock music is based on a very simple form, typically a thirty-two bar sequence...(alternatively, as in some rock music, there is a lack of organisation or form and the musical material is unstructured, incoherent, unorganised, and ultimately just meaningless noise.)...This all adds up to “assembly line” composition. This is formula music written for a certain audience and the creator of this music either has no freedom because in order to sell this music it must meet the standards or fashion of the day, or they do not wish to extend themselves beyond the formula because of limited horizons, a lack of ability, or laziness.

    ("Meaningless noise"! Awesome! But I thought he wanted rock to imitate 20th-c. music?)

    To say that a pop song is bad because it adheres to a formula is just as stupid as saying this about sonata form, or a sonnet. Within those bounds there are infinite possibilities for variation, and this is actually the heart of what pop music does. The form is far less important than the variation. Would you criticize someone writing a sonata for adhering to a formula aimed at sonata audiences? Well, I suppose you might, but it'd still be stupid.

    Look, the fact is that the only three reasons he can see for not deviating from the pop formula are ignorance, inability, or laziness shows that he doesn't understand this at all. Because he doesn't consider the possibility that they do it because it produces Really Good Songs. Who knows why, but just as we seized on counterpoint and string quartets and violins as being things that produce pleasing music, we've seized on it and ran with it. To say that you shouldn't do it even though, year after year, people use that form to make great, incredibly pleasurable songs is just stupid.

    Theodore Adorno recognised that popular music is based on repetition rather than liking and appreciating good music. The main pleasure is in recognising a hit record and buying it at the same time as everyone else, producing the illusion of immediacy and intimacy. Adorno’s view is clear: that the pop music fan is a victim because the industry liquidates the individual, creating an attitude of surrender and resignation (passive consumption) and a stupidity in listening...Popular music becomes increasingly narrow-minded and conforms to a narrow uniformity, it is soapified, literalised, commodified, and globalised. There is a fetishism of right-wing, individualistic, capitalistic, and narcissistic preoccupations, despite the surface impression of dissent and rebellion (which might, more accurately, be seen as adolescent-style narcissism). This is music denatured: homogenised, pasteurised, and sterilised. It is the new fascism.

    Now, at this point, I'm tempted to simply say, "Oh, he likes Adorno. Of course," and leave it at that, because for me, well, that would suffice. But I know that it would be too easy, and besides, it's unfair to Adorno. I think people tend to read their own prejudices into him a lot, and if you don't like low culture, well, there's certainly a lot of ideas there that would seem true to you. But I think that Adorno was less judging and more simply describing a situation he saw, and his ideas are more complex than his followers seem to give him credit for. But regardless, a critique of the idea that the prevalence of pop music is somehow antithetical to freedom is probably beyond the scope of this post.[10]

    Look, I love a lot of classical music. But I also love pop music, and I don't think the two are incompatible. Far from it. Certainly classical music can arguably be more rewarding, since we have the tools to analyze it and appreciate it. But the same will be the case for pop music in a few years, I think, as soon as we learn how to appreciate it, and to understand it in its proper context. What matters is the content, not the form, and the content is one of the most malleable musical devices ever constructed. Moreover, what's been done with it is breathtaking. But more on this later.

    What this whole 10,000 words of "The Case Against Rock & Pop" comes down to, it would seem, is not an objective demonstration of why pop is inferior to classical and, moreover, dangerous to society. Instead, it amounts merely to "I don't like pop music." And that's about all it's worth.

    [1] Although wouldn't it be cool if there were!
    [2] OK, arguably this is more of an early 20th-c. passing notes thing like Messiaen or Stravinsky or something, but still, not exactly 12th-c. chants.
    [3] Presumably the first and last time I will ever use this sentence.
    [4] And of course, sometimes it's significant to lots of people because they see this happen to someone, i.e. "In Your Eyes" with Lloyd Dobbler and whatsherface, which is sorta weird but sorta cool.
    [5] I'm so sorry. He's getting to me.
    [6] I'm especially curious given that when he does talk about one, The Beatles, he gives their producer's name--twice!--as "George Malcom." Who now?
    [7] Just as one example, a lot of the art music made after 1960 seems in debt to Indian music in one way or another.
    [8] Or are they?
    [9] Well, I guess I added a few.
    [10] Although let me offer a quick comment on this sentence: "I suppose this might also explain why some people prefer Mills and Boon and other genres of literature that do not challenge, rather than the great classics that might well disturb one's world view and create uncomfortable emotions." This seems to sum up what he's trying to get at with the Adorno stuff, but you can make a pretty good guess what I think of the idea that great art is fundamentally and wholly subversive.