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Monday, May 01, 2006

Creativity introduces novelty into the content of the many

A few other thoughts about novelty songs, a bit more more broad-view this time. Note: includes Ghostface content.

What exactly is the "normalization" process that turns novelty songs, which are explicitly comedic, into "straight" pop, which is generally tragic or epic? In the podcast, I touched on two explanations. One is that of maturation, demonstrated both by the transition from Spike Jones' childlike mouth noises and bangs to the restrained sexuality of Aaliyah and by the more literal growing-up we hear of the child's voice in Lil Markie -> Daniel Smith -> Jack White; kids are silly and weird in part because they like things that are silly, but also because they have not fully socialized and are a bit more willing to let their strangeness out to those close to them, and so as we normalize and become older and become more fit for public consumption, so does novelty become pop: it grows up, but it still retains that inherant, particular strangeness, which differentiates it from everything else and thus provides a hook.

The other was that of ambiguation, if that's actually a word. What most people call novelty songs are songs that are blatant about being different from non-novelty songs, whether it's the clear silliness of "Cocktails for Two" or the vocals on "Diary." The best test for whether or not something fits the conventional definition of a novelty song is if you can remove the novelty parts and still have a song left. You can take out the baby noise on "Are You That Somebody?" or add more instruments to "My Doorbell" and still have roughly the same song, but you can't do that with the Jones or the Markie. More than anything else, this has to do with the lyrics, since, after all, few pop songs are particularly ambiguous musically. Instead of being literal about the connection between the music and the words, there's more a channeling, as both the White Stripes and Danielson songs are much more concerned about expressing the feeling of a particular age than talking about being that age. This is pop's universality at play: by making things more ambiguous, you broaden your appeal.

But it's also fair to say that the novelty to pop transition is also one of increased professionalism. Aaliyah's voice is so good and the production is so sonically perfect that she probably could sing about being aborted and still have it work in a much different way than the Lil' Markie does. A key aspect of novelty songs' weirdness is that they do things differently from how you'd expect them to, and indeed, it's precisely the unprofessionalism in "Cocktails for Two" that is the novelty, that great comic eruption of noises and shouts, the cool restraint of the crooner loosed into cartoonish mayhem. Pop demands professionalism, both in conception and execution, which is what makes the Danielson Famile indie rather than pop. Professionalism is the unity here, combining strangeness and the ambiguously familiar by smoothing out the edges, touching up the trim, making it sound like something you've heard before even if you haven't.

Taken together, this is the way I think novelty models and creates pop. Pop's story is one of continual consumption and assimilation, and people talk about there being some sort of pop "formula," but I used the word "mystical" up there at the top for a reason: it's almost impossible to apply a formula successfully, because combining the strange and the normal in a way that doesn't abandon either is incredibly difficult; if you try and do it with a formula, you get something that sounds formulaic (which no great pop song ever is, at heart), and if you focus on the novelty, you get, well, novelty. Not all successful pop songs are novelty songs, except in very limited ways (none of U2's recent hits are novelty songs unless you've never heard U2 before), but it's the way novelty is incorporated that grants the aura of unfamiliarity to those that are. (Traditional novelty songs are new but familiar, in that they're pretty obvious about their oddity.) How do you make the repeated sound of a baby cooing not sound jarring and out-of-place? How do you make piano, unconventional drumming, and high male vocals lyrically and melodically harkening back to the 40s sound like something you should play on the radio? There may be answers to each of those questions individually, and they are actually just the kind of questions I like thinking about, but I think it's nearly impossible to generalize any particular techniques to a general philosophy. It's just very useful to look at novelty when you're looking at pop.

A great place to see that in the here-and-now is on a track from the new Ghostface album: "Whip You With a Strap," which has novelty in fucking spades: starts out with a siren, then builds itself around a sample of a soul singer from the 70s saying "take my across her lap / she used to whip me with a strap / when I was bad" and the the vocalist starts talking about getting beat when he was a kid and how kids these days are spoiled. Take just that description and there's no way it could be anything other than novelty, whether unintentionally like Lil' Markie or otherwise. But it works. Partially it does so for the reasons above: he's not talking in the voice of a child and indeed is explicitly speaking from a position of experience, the tale he's telling is complex and detailed, and it's all tied together with a familiar, professional style: take out the lyrics on the hook and it's a regular ol' rap song.

That Ghostface is able to do this so successfully and so easily for something that's not even going to be a single (probably) points toward an explanation for why hip-hop has the amazing cultural energy it does right now: it's the best right not at turning novelty into pop. This is hardly surprising. The first hip-hop record, after all, was regarded as a novelty song, and not without reason: it was a bunch of dudes talking bullshit over a disco record, and while this kind of thing is hadly unprecedented in terms of the crap they put out on vinyl, in its place and time, it simply didn't sound like legitimate pop. Hip-hop's more partisan historians are careful to present its origins as rooted in social injustice and subcultural eruptions and all like that, but then there's the new LL Cool J song, which somehow manages to do the "sound like how the band makes you feel, not like the band itself" thing despite actually sampling Afrika Bambaataa; perhaps this is because it does duplicate the feeling of Bambaataa while actually sounding sorta like "Funky Cold Medina." And if this all doesn't sound like novelty to you...

All genres that take temporary posession of pop begin as novelty; it's just been to hip-hop's advantage that it depends on novelty for its continued existence, with samples and voices as fuel for that particular fire, and now that it's gotten so professional about its sounds, ironically enough it can actually assimilate things much more easily. As any number of producers have demonstrated of late, you can put the right drum sounds behind anything and make it sound like a track. And while this can be formulaic, it's also liberating, since much of pop's history is the search for more efficient ways to unite the strange and the familiar. We all notice the weirdness of pop songs, but we don't seem eager to unite them in the way we'd see the other elements as part of a whole. But there is a unification behind all those noises and samples and weird voices, and it's called novelty.

(title's from the quote here, by the by, which synchs up amazingly well, considering that it's about, uh, math)