The Qualities of Pop Music

In my other two pieces looking at Pop music (“Pop versus Classical” and “What is Pop“) I’ve touched upon what makes a Pop tune and why it might elicit the required response from the listener. If I were to take the ideas presented in those entries I might be able to define a “Good” Pop tune by ensuring that it abides by the rules stipulated, namely:

  • Obedience to an expected form or concept
  • Technical proficiency
  • Originality of composition

In this instance, the expected form or concept is that of a Pop record. In “Pop versus Classical” I suggested that good Pop music is based musically or lyrically around a concept that the target audience can relate to. If the music in question was highlighting the plight of 19th Century manual workers during the Swing Riots it would cease to be Pop and move toward niche or alternative (possibly Folk?) genres. The subject matter should be current and relevant.

Technical proficiency is required to distance the performer from the audience. We go to see an exceptional performer partly because it’s something that we ourselves can’t do. As the two parties (performer and audience) come closer with regard to competence in the task, it becomes less of a performance and more of a meeting. It’s worth having a look at The Sex Pistols on stage. Sid could barely play the Bass at all so he had to overcompensate with antics. His particular talent was a hugely documented self destruction.

Compare this with Van Halen’s Eruption moment (1) (2) or his solo in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. Jaws dropped around the world as this was something that hadn’t been heard before in this context. Technical proficiency in the extreme.

Eddie Van Halen’s tapping technique brings us nicely to the third requirement, originality. When Mike Oldfield released Tubular Bells in 1973 the music press and listening public didn’t really know what to make of it yet it was clearly a Rock album. Classical influences, Folk, Traditional and was has become “New Age” were all thrown in the pot and the result was so astonishing that John Peel played the whole album on his radio show. Oldfield had been playing with several Hippy or Alternative bands (Gong, Soft Machine, etc. but none of them offered anything new. Caravan had seemingly reached the pinnacle of the genre with “The Land of Grey and Pink” and many artists tried to copy their success as well as the successes of Pink Floyd et al. Stagnation ensued for the imitators and a great divide was created which eventually led to a dissatisfaction with the Pop scene by the record-buying public and gave birth to Punk.

Three Good tracks:

The Smiths: This Charming Man

Musical proficiency is clearly in evidence here as is the originality of the content but where The Smiths really shone was their ability to proclaim and elucidate the thoughts and feelings of an entire generation of Pop fans. Morrissey was saying what they all felt.

Fat Boy Slim: Acid 8000

No lyrics in this one but they weren’t needed. The squelchy analogue bass synth sounds along with the trademark Big Beat from a Roland TR-808 resonated with every Dance music fan in the late 90’s. Revolution music for Generation X.

Gorillaz: Feel Good Inc.

Originality is in abundance here in the form of a new sound created from old sounds and performed by a band that didn’t really exist. Created by Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn, Gorillaz produced four very competent albums that kept the sound and concept up to date and relevant with a beautiful concoction of images and music.

Three Poor Tracks:

Scouting For Girls: She’s So Lovely

With this track the band seem to have gone out of their way to make it as uneventful as possible. The main riff (in C, nice and easy, none of those horrid black notes) simply moves up in fourths while sticking to a safe 4/4 time signature. The lyrics are banal in the extreme except when they turn to obvious sexism, then get repeated ad nauseam. This speaks to no-one except MOR radio station executives. So bad it makes me angry.

Take That: Love Ain’t Here Anymore

Quite apart from their massive commercial success, Take That never went out of their way to break new ground and this track typifies the approach. Designed to sell lots of records to impressionable young girls, it really is the most cynical parody of music. Faux-emotional lyrics, slow tempo, three verses, three choruses, middle-eight then Stand Up for the Key Change.

The Fugees: No Woman, No Cry

The Fugees broke an unwritten rule with this track. Certain things in life are sacred and should never be sullied. One of those things is “anything written by Bob Marley”. This was an unnecessary cash-in by a band that could do a lot better and should have known better. It’s not a tribute, it’s a travesty.


(1) Eddie Van Halen didn’t invent the Tapping technique, he simply perfected it using modern equipment and refined it for a modern audience.

(2) There’s one guitar playing this piece, not a synthesizer or sequencer.

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One thought on “The Qualities of Pop Music

  1. Pingback: Considering Chance and Serial music | Music From The Present To The Past

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