Friday, October 11, 2013

All The Things You Didn't Know About Pop Music

The music business is shady. Anyone in it will generally warn you to stay out of it. As previously documented on this blog, the music business is exactly that: a business. Through scientific research, illegal agreements with radio stations, and pop music generators like Bonnie McKee and Max Martin, the sickly sweet melodies of modern music continue to grow more formulaic, predictable, annoying, and worst of all...catchy. We shall explain...

Songwriting Part I

First of all, not all musicians write their own stuff (duh). There are plenty of hit songs that were written by a mystery wordsmith behind the scenes somewhere, which we'll get to in a moment. There are also tons of songs out there written by popular artists and performed by totally different popular artists, which somewhat changes the way you'll think about the song. For instance: Beyonce's "Irreplaceable", a "Girl Power!" song about a ticked off woman who's telling her guy how worthless he is, was actually written by Ne-Yo, and the male version lyrics are even more brutal. Here's just one quick comparison between first the female chorus and then the male equivalent:

You must not know 'bout me, you must not know 'bout me,
I could have another you in a minute, matter fact he'll be here in a minute
You must not know 'bout me, you must not know 'bout me
I could have another you by tomorrow,
So don't you ever for a second get to thinkin' you're irreplaceable.

And Ne-Yo's original version:

You must not know 'bout me, you must think I'm playing
I could have another you in an hour, matter fact she's upstairs in the shower
You must not know 'bout me, you must think I'm playing
I could find another you on the corner,
so don't you ever for a second get to thinkin' you're irreplaceable.

So songwriting credit often isn't given where it's due, and sometimes changes the entire tone, meaning, and overall appeal of a song. Any guesses as to who wrote Kelly Clarkson's hit "Breakaway"?

It was Avril Lavigne. And we're pretty sure Avril wasn't intending 
on it ending up on the soundtrack to "Princess Diaries 2".

Songwriting Part II: Some People Have It Figured Out

Meet Bonnie Mckee-

Winner of this decade's Gwen Stefani Award for consistently keeping her hair 
the same fake color for years at a time.

You've likely never heard of Bonnie Mckee before. In fact, if we were to ask who you thought had more number one singles between Bonnie up there and Katy Perry, you'd probably pick Katy if not for the obvious build-up we're giving you right now. Actually it's a bit of a trick question, because all five of Katy Perry's #1 hits are Bonnie Mckee songs. Bonnie has notched a song on the top of the charts eight freaking times, writing basically every Katy Perry song you've ever heard along with Taio Cruz's "Dynamite", Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me", and Rita Ora's "How We Do (Party)". 

And those are just her #1 hits. She's written for basically every relevant female pop-star in this decade, and everything in the following video is her making:

Bonnie Mckee: hit song writer, talented singer, plays piano in utterly ridiculous shoes.

Is it just us, or does it seem like it would be much more entertaining to see Bonnie in concert than Katy Perry? Not really the issue at hand, just something to ponder.

Could just be that Hayley Williams has made us all suckers for orange hair.

And you know what? There's a worse offender out there; his name is Max Martin, and every stupid song that never should have become a hit that totally did anyway is his doing. How can this be? How can just a few people be behind so many of the most bafflingly popular songs ever penned? The answer lies in something else you might have noticed from that video...

Every Pop Song Is The Same Song

Go ahead and try to count how many songs Bonnie covers in that mashup video up there. Sorta difficult to tell when one ends and the next begins, no? That's Because Ms. Mckee knows the formula to a successful pop song, and whether or not she's aware of the psychology behind it, her songs are basically audible crack. No, seriously. Follow that link and you'll read about how listening to "catchy" pop songs sends your brain its most favorite drug, Dopamine. About fifteen seconds before a song's chorus begins, you subconsciously sense the build-up and your brain gets all excited about how hard it's about to be rocked, releasing a dose of the feel-good Dopamine and providing an actual biological link to the other two things typically linked with teenagers and bad music- Dopamine's the same thing that makes sex and drugs so popular with your brain.

Yeah, right. Like we would know. 
We spend all our time writing.

Your mind takes a second hit of Dopamine when the chorus you were so eagerly anticipating actually plays, which is why you'll notice that right this second you can't think of the verses to "I Kissed A Girl" or "California Girls", even though the chorus to both of those songs will come to mind almost immediately. 

The secret formula for creating an instant hit without fail would be an extremely profitable one to discover, and since the music business really likes money it's totally already been discovered. The human brain likes a very particular set of tones and beats, and songwriters have that particular Pop music "sound" mastered. Since this same successful pop pattern is just copied and pasted over and over again to sell records, the variety of sounds in today's most popular music have been watered down to the point where there is almost no distinction between one hit song and the next, as illustrated by this science-y looking graph:

That little teeny cluster we're currently in represents a total lack of diversity in today's pop songs, (if you want more fun charts, click here for science).

Not only are the audible sounds becoming recyclable, but the message of each pop song is almost non-existant. What statement is being made in "Teenage Dream"? What story is "I Gotta Feelin" trying to tell us? That song literally sings the days of the week. Pop songwriting is the complete antithesis of everything a truly great song should be. John Lennon's "Imagine" doesn't have just a teensy bit more substance to it than modern pop; the two are entirely different art forms. But people don't want to think about changing the world in the car on the drive home from work, they want to be woo girls.

The take-home message here is that the labels and songwriters have this down to a science. Hits are destined to be hits before they're even released, and the talent and musical ability previously necessary to create a massively popular song are no longer required. All the winners are already decided, regardless of skill or public opinion. What we're saying is if music were the olympics, pop music would be the WWE.

Pop Music.

Real music takes skill in order to be noticed and appreciated, and often it isn't even appreciated then. Pop music is pumped into your life at all hours of the day by people who have all the right connections to put it in just the right context. Hear a song on the radio, and you'll almost subconsciously assume the musician you're hearing has obviously done something to get to where they are, else why would they be on your car radio?

Because The Radio Is Kind Of Evil

Look, we can't go into the delicate intricacies of licensing deals and royalties and where all the money comes from and where it goes, so we're going to have to summarize and just hit the big stuff here:

Major labels have radio in their pocket. They pay radio stations to play their songs a set number of times per week in order to generate first more perceived popularity ("I hear this song all the time, it must be IN") followed by actual (yet still inexplicable and baseless) popularity. The song gets heard, records are sold, the label makes more money, and then has more money to keep up the scheme for the next hit. The guys with the money make even more money.

That's a trend we're all pretty much sick of hearing about, isn't it? 

You know this happens though- remember that time you couldn't listen to the radio for thirty minutes without hearing Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feelin"? The airwaves were over-saturated with that song to the point where most people were sick of it, but that didn't stop it from staying #1 in the country for seventeen weeks.

Songwriters with a hit formula, biological responses to catchy tunes, radio in the hands of the people who make the music, what do we make of all this? This all ultimately results in a musical landscape dominated by wealthy attention whores rather than talented musicians, and that's just sad.

Oh look it's Hayley! Yeah, we're not sad anymore.

So seriously, what do we do about this? Easy: we all stick it to the man by listening to good music. There's plenty out there. Ask a friend you know that you trust with this sort of thing. Finding new music to listen to is every bit as satisfying as finding a new favorite book, and just like literature, sometimes you have to go back a little bit to find the really good stuff. Don't give up on discovering awesome music just because the radio has nothing good to offer.


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