Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Sounds Revolting

Big data is big news. In Spring 2015 two reports about popular music gained worldwide attention. The first came on 22 April, when Ajay Kalia posted his blog entry, ‘Music Was Better Back Then’. It was followed on 6 May by a report in the journal Royal Society Open Science. In their article, ‘The Evolution of Popular Music: USA1960-2010’, a team of academics from Queen Mary and Imperial College London used data to investigate ‘the evolution of popular taste’ and determine periods in which there had been ‘rapid change’. I have written about Kalia’s research in a previous blog entry. This second article has much in common with it. The public was drawn to the reports for similar reasons: their eye-catching and over confident use of data; the way this data can be contested; the focus upon ‘new music’.
The academic researchers believe that their data forms ‘the basis for the scientific study of musical change’. They have analysed 17,000 American chart hits from 1960 to 2010, classifying their ‘harmonic and timbral qualities’. The resulting data has then been employed to chart the rise and fall of these qualities through the time span of their study. Their conclusion is that ‘musical evolution is punctuated by revolutions’. There are three years in particular in which they posit rapid change: 1964, which saw musical developments in rock and soul, 1983, which had advances in new wave disco and hard rock, and 1991, which witnessed the break-through of hip-hop.
Although the researchers believe that ‘Those who wish to make claims about how and when popular music changed can no longer appeal to anecdote, connoisseurship and theory unadorned by data’, there are several grounds upon which their quantitative analysis of musical qualities can be challenged. The first is that it does not include enough musical data. Where, for example are lyrics within their analysis? Moreover, where is the music that lies outside of the Billboard charts? Many would suggest that musical revolutions first occur within the underground. Secondly, although the researchers have taken genre into account, they have not made any allowance for different rates of progression. While change is the hallmark of some genres, others are relatively static. In the former case, wild diversions can be the mark of stability rather than change; in the latter, mild alterations to the form can be of great significance. Thirdly, their research can be criticised for not including enough non-musical data. Genres are not about music alone, but also about the ways that music is articulated and presented. Finally, the research can be criticized for not considering a wide enough range of statistical data. Two of their peak years – 1964 and 1991 – can be explained, in part, by changes to chart rules. Billboard did not have a separate chart for black music between November and January 1965. As a consequence, there was an influx of soul music into the Hot 100 in 1964. Similarly, it was in 1991 that Billboard first used the sales information from barcodes to determine its chart positions. Hip-hop consequently gained a greater chart presence, as it was selling more records than had been previously been quantified.
The academic researchers are media savvy. They have pointedly come up with three revolutions, thus tapping into the ‘rule of three’ beloved by storytellers, politicians and joke tellers alike: if you want to make a list stand out, then give it three items. They have also come up with three curious years. 1964, the year of the Beatles invasion of America, might be the most obvious of their dates for musical upheaval, but the researchers excitedly report that the Beatles were the result, rather than the cause, of this revolution. They also stress that 1991, the year of hip-hop, represented the most revolutionary phase of all. This revelation has prompted headlines, such as CNN’s ‘Hip-Hop is More Important than the Beatles’. The musical revolutions are not, in fact, the main emphasis of the scientists’ paper. They are instead more concerned with publicizing their data methods as a whole. The team has nevertheless latched on to the fuss they have generated and have re-branded their material for more popular media. In The Conversation they boast: ‘How We Discovered the Three Revolutions of American Pop’.
The two big data reports are both concerned with age and new music. They come at their target from different angles, however. Kalia analyses new music in purely quantitative terms. For him it represents the latest releases by the latest artists. He seeks to determine the age at which we lose interest in these new forms. ‘The Evolution of Popular Music’ adds a qualitative dimension. The academics want to know the eras in which music was at its newest: were there times when it was more revolutionary than others? In doing so, they address a widespread belief, particularly amongst the old, that there is ‘a relentless decline in cultural diversity of new music’. The two surveys could be said to answer each other: one reason why older people are not interested in ‘new music’ is because it is not, in fact, new.
Things aren’t quite that simple, however. The team from Queen Mary and Imperial College retain a faith in newness. For them, ‘musical diversity has not declined’. I agree with them. As I have argued before, the music of the modern era has a distinct timbral quality and it features particular ways of singing. Does this mean, then, that Kalia is right: older people no longer have the appetite for newness?
Well, it all comes back to which meaning we want to wrestle from that word ‘new’. The word can have qualitative meanings: it can point towards things that are ‘unfamiliar or strange’. It obviously has quantitative meanings as well, but these are complex. The OED defines ‘new’ as being ‘produced, introduced, or discovered recently or now for the first time; not existing before’. It also states that the new can be ‘already existing but seen, experienced, or acquired recently or now for the first time’. In addition, new can be ‘superseding and more advanced than another or others of the same kind’. It is therefore quite possible for an old person to lose faith in the new because they feel that is already exists. On the contrary, they may turn away because they find the new too new. It is strange. They think that it’s revolting. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Sound of the Overground

When an old pop lover looks at the state of pop today the reaction is often one of despair. The music isn’t doing what they want it to. There is a venerable army of protestors who say that modern music is not modern. Simon Reynolds shouts loudest amongst writers, having devoted nearly 500 pages to the subject in Retromania. But there is also Jaron Lanier, who asks: ‘Where is the new music? Everything is retro, retro, retro’. And David Stubbs, who sees music ‘debilitated by its state of thrall to its increasingly distant yet seemingly inescapable past’. Older musicians are also concerned. Tracey Thorn has claimed that ‘pop music is exhausted’. Even Noel Gallagher, who many view as the harbinger of the retro age, has moaned that there is no longer ‘anything genuinely new’ happening in music any more.
            This isn’t the only concern. Older analysts are also worried about the sound of modern music. Simon Reynolds complains about the ‘super-compressed, MP3-ready, almost pre-degraded’ tonality of pop; recordings that are ‘engineered to cut through on iPods, smartphones and computer speakers’. He is also concerned that the ‘glistening and majestic’ recordings of Aerial Pink, which are made to sound like the chart hits of 30 years ago, won’t ‘make the tiniest dent on today’s radioscape’. There is particular anguish over the state of pop singing. Mark Ellen has despaired about the ‘hollow vocal fireworks’ popularised by X Factor and its ilk. Tracey Thorn believes that this type of singing, although supposedly about self-expression, ends up being far from ‘individualistic’. She’s not alone in thinking that soul has become soulless. David Hepworth pithily describes the modern style as ‘lungs of a whale, tears of a crocodile’. Greil Marcus goes further. BeyoncĂ©’s take on gospel, he says, is ‘a form of blasphemy.
            Pop has many musical characteristics, but most people would place vocals and timbre as being among the most important. Today’s pop has a distinct sound, one that is determined by a broadcasting ethos and a compressed musical file. There is also a particular style of singing that defines the present time. It has even brought with it new performance conventions: audiences clap in the middle of vocal acrobatics in a way they would never have done before. Modern pop might not be modernist in its intent, but it’s not overwhelmingly retro either. For the most part it is doing what pop has always done: being here now

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Collaborators

I have written an article titled, ‘A Great Friggin’ Swindle? Sex Pistols, School Kids and 1979’, which is due to appear in Popular Music and Society towards the end of this year. 1979 was the year of the Sex Pistols’ greatest chart success. They had their biggest selling single in the UK (‘Something Else’ / ‘Friggin’ in the Riggin’) as well as three top 40 albums. It was also the year of their demise. Johnny Rotten had left in 1978, but effected the end of the group by taking his old manager, Malcolm McLaren, to court in February 1979. This was also the month in which Sid Vicious died.
            Rotten and McLaren fell out badly. In the song ‘Low Life’, Rotten refers to McLaren as an ‘egomaniac traitor’. In the film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, McLaren calls Rotten a ‘collaborator’. In his view, Rotten had stopped fighting the record industry and had become part of the system. He was being courted by Richard Branson of Virgin Records and was accepting his advances.
            In 1979 ‘collaborator’ could only have been taken as a term of abuse. Although punk sneered at hippie values (‘we mean it, man’), it too retained a distrust of ‘the man’, particularly when he was working for a record company. In the song ‘EMI’ Rotten claims an authenticity straight from the rock textbook. He boasts that the Sex Pistols are ‘for real’ and denigrates the record company for thinking the band were just ‘faking’ or ‘money making’. He later wrote, ‘big business is very wise/I’m crossing over into enterprise’, a lyric that should not be taken at face value: Rotten critiqued the idea of ‘careering’.
            Fast-forward to today and everyone is collaborating. Hits Songs Deconstructed have published an e-book that provides a statistical analysis of the songs that reached the top 10 in America last year. Their conclusion is that ‘Above all, 2014 was about collaboration’. 59 songs made the top ten, but out of these only 12% were written by solo writers. The rest were written be teams: 20% by two writers; 19% by three writers; 8% by four writers; 5% by five writers; 10% by six writers; 5% by seven writers; and 7% by ten or more writers. What’s more, these teams work in different combinations. Max Martin, who had a composing hand in eight top 10 hits (including four number ones), worked on different songs with Dr Luke (who had four top ten hits as a writer, two of which were written with Martin, two with other composers), Cirkut (four top ten hits; two with Martin, two without), Savan Kotecha (four top ten hits, all composed with Martin), Katy Perry (three top ten hits; two with Martin, one without), Shellback (three top ten hits; two with Martin, one without), Iggy Azalea (three top ten hits; one with Martin, two without), Taylor Swift (two top ten hits, both with Martin), Sarah Hudson (two top ten hits; one with Martin, one without), and Nicki Minaj (two top ten hits; one with Martin, one without). Writers such as Ed Sheeran, Benny Blanco, Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith – each of whom had three top ten hits – cast their own collaborative nets.
            It’s tempting to say that we are discussing different sorts of collaboration here: McLaren and Rotten were talking about collaborating with the record industry, while these modern songwriters are collaborating with each other. The writers are nevertheless supporting the industry’s aims. As I have written elsewhere, collaboration gives the record companies power. It can best be organised by them – they are the matchmakers and they are the gatekeepers - or at least that’s what they claim. IFPI, the trade body that represents ‘the recording industry worldwide’, produced another of its promotional Investing in Music reports in 2014. These documents make the case for the continuing importance of record companies, stressing that artists need their support if they want to make it big. Record companies offer finance and they offer ‘a network of connections’. They can introduce you to the ‘best producers, sound engineers and session musicians in the business’; they can alert ‘other players in the industry, from songwriters to record producers’ that you have made the grade. You need to collaborate with them if you want to collaborate with others.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Pop Modernism

Pop modernism operates as a lobbying body within popular music. It is not the mainstream, but can enter the mainstream at periods of peak activity. For some, it is pop’s preferred state. It embraces the spirit of modernism outlined by Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New, expecting ‘cultural turmoil’ to foretell ‘social tumult’. Here, ‘music heralds’, fulfilling the purpose that Jacques Attali outlined for it:
Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future.
Pop modernism first surfaced in the late 1960s, as rock music attempted to splinter from pop. Although it inherited characteristics from fine art philosophies of modernism, it rested primarily upon ‘low theory’, as Simon Frith terms it, theory that was
developed out of day-to-day practices of pop itself . . . confused, inconsistent, full of hyperbole and silence, but still theory, and theory which is compelled by necessity to draw key terms and assumptions from high theory, from the more systematic accounts of art, commerce, pleasure and class that are available.
From the higher theorising of art, pop modernism has taken ideas of onward progress, originality, formal experimentation and technological fascination, a belief that you should reject ‘the current state of things in favour of the new’. It has also inherited an occasional snobbishness, a belief that progressive art should stand above ‘the realms of mass culture and everyday life’. Rock ideology, for example, included a rejection of the singles charts, as its ‘artists’ put their faith in albums instead. Speaking in 1967, Eric Clapton believed:
Singles are an anachronism. To get any good music in a space of two or three minutes requires working to a formula and that part of the pop scene really leaves me cold. I hate all that rushing around trying to get a hit.
There were technologies and institutions that helped rock artists to achieve these ends. Vinyl albums operated in a different manner to vinyl singles, both as objects and in the way that they functioned in the marketplace. Radio also helped to uphold the rock/pop split. In America the former genre was found on FM stations, while the latter remained on AM. In Britain, meanwhile, rock was the preserve of ‘specialist’ shows, broadcast in the evening hours. The two forms of music were also written about in different forms of print media, and there were different conventions when it came to playing live. It was not possible, however, for rock music to make a complete break from pop music. Unlike modernist fine art, rock music had been born within mass culture. Moreover, it was not always desirable to stay removed from the singles charts. Financially, rock artists needed to release singles in order to promote their albums. Artistically, some of them welcomed the challenge of bringing diversity to the charts. Marc Bolan declared, ‘me getting into the Top Twenty – as a musician alongside the pop stars – opens up a great thing’.
            A modernist spirit has been present in popular music at several times since the late 1960s. It has not been consistent, however. There have been particular periods when pop has become more openly questing, and there have been times in which the conditions have been ripe for this impulse to be maximised. Technology has been one driver for pop’s expansion. Synthesisers, sequencers and samplers have each helped to push the music forwards, as have new recording formats, notably the 12” single. Drugs have been another prompt. LSD and MDMA are among those to offer enhanced horizons. Pop modernism can arise when the interplay between the major labels and the independent sector is in productive tension. Separate sales charts for alternative music and dance genres have helped to foster scenes; dedicated radio support has also been essential. 
            Many of those who complain about a decline of innovation in popular music have been involved in pop’s modernist spurts. Simon Reynolds is a prime example. He has stated:
When I started taking more than a passing interest in pop, as a teenager in the post-punk seventies, I immediately ingested a strong dose of modernism: the belief that art has some kind of evolutionary destiny, a teleology that manifests itself through genius artists and masterpieces that are monuments to the future. It was there already in rock, thanks to The Beatles, psychedelia and progressive rock, but post-punk drastically amped up the belief in constant change and endless innovation. Although by the early eighties modernism was thoroughly eclipsed within art and architecture, and postmodernism was seeping into popular music, this spirit of modernist pop carried on with rave and the experimental fringe of rock.
Pop modernists such as Reynolds hark back to the vital periods of their youth; they are nostalgic, as Svetlana Boym puts it, ‘for a prenostalgic state of being’. They yearn for an era when neither they nor the music they loved were retrospective. One of the prompts for this nostalgia is that it feels as though we should be experiencing radical musical innovation: we are living through a period of major technological and infrastructural change. However, we do not appear to have many new styles of music. Contrary to Jacques Attali, it is not music itself that is heralding a new economic order; it is instead the economic organization of music that is operating in advance of other markets.