Musical theatre hasn't been relevant in popular music for about as long as I've been alive. And as a devotee of musical theatre music, that means I haven't been relevant either. So what does a monkey do when he finds himself teaching a revue full of pop music? ANALYZE!
MONKEY BUSINESS by Tony Asaro (Composer/Librettist)
After last week's lefty political tirade which followed on the heels of my disturbing medical post, I figured this week's Monkey Business should be lighter fare. So this week, we're going to talk about infectious pop music.
The past 2 weeks I worked at GLEE Camp. No, it's not affiliated with the show. This was a joint venture of a local theatre company and a local community center. In 8 days, the 37 kids who signed up (mostly 3rd through 6th grade) learned vocals and choreography for 12 songs and performed a 45 minute performance twice for their friends and family.
I co-taught vocals, and there were 3 choreographers, a director, an assistant director, an assistant choreographer, and two community center counselors. It's a lot of energy and effort for pop songs. GLEE Camp ain't no joke.
The set list was as follows:
- Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger"
- "Call Me Maybe" (of course)
- One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful"
- Gotye's "Somebody that I Used to Know"
- "The Rainbow Connection"
- Selena Gomez' "Who Says?"
- Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are"
- The Dixie Chicks' version of "Landslide"
- Jessie J's "Price Tag"
- Jason Mraz' "I'm Yours"
- Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful"
- And Katy Perry's "Firework" as a finale
While I detest bubble gum pop, I was determined to have fun, "and," I thought, "maybe I'll learn something about pop music that could influence my own."
"Landslide" and "Rainbow Connection" are classic songs, so they don't really figure into this analysis. But in studying the other 10 songs on the list, I have made a few observations about contemporary pop music:
Pop music vocals seem to live around or below the bottom of the staff during the verses. During the chorus, they usually jump an octave and a fourth up. Right in the break. Occasionally you'll get an ambitious higher note, but usually you just touch on it and descend to the belty break note. This is true for female vocals (the Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Selena Gomez, Carly Rae Jepsen) and the male vocals, (Gotye, One Direction, Bruno Mars.)
2) Nonsense syllables are alive and well
Nonsense syllables are still in full effect. Selena Gomez and One Direction have their "Na Na Na"s. "Ah" no longer exists, though. It's been replaced by "Uh", or in the case of Katy Perry's "Firework", it's "Ungh, Ungh, Ungh" as she shoots across the "Skungh, Ungh, Ungh".
3) Music theory ignored. (This one gets a little tecnical.)
Ti no longer goes to Do. Now, Do goes to Do, at least in the vocal line. It is commonplace to sing the tonic note over a V chord as a pick up to itself: the tonic note over the I chord. Not a Vsus chord, mind you. A V chord. In the Kelly Clarkson song, it's even a V6 chord, with the leading tone in the bass!!! So basically you're singing Do over a chord with Ti and Re. The effect? A crunchy tone cluster? A harsh dissonance? Nope. No one even notices. My guess is that the timbres of the studio produced "instruments" are such that the vocals don't actually need to jive with the chords underneath.
4) Song Form
Song form has not changed much. Again, excluding "Landslide" and "Rainbow Connection"--both of those songs are from stellar songwriters of yesteryear--the songs above are all some variation of Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus. "Firework" and "Who Says?" have pre-choruses. Gotye has a double verse up front. Xtina breaks it down with a riff section. But basically, it's Verse/Chorus.
Good prosody is seemingly optional.
Piano scores for most of the upbeat songs on the list have constant 8th notes in the right hand (solo, without a bass line) to begin the song. Bass and percussion enter 2 bars later usually.
7) Chord Progressions
4 chords. Only four chords. Sometimes miraculously less than 4 chords, as in the Gotye. And they can be standard 4 chord progressions--like 50's sock hop style. In fact, One Direction's song sounds just like Grease's "Summer Nights'" when played on the piano.
8) Lyric content
Songs almost make sense nowadays. The lyrics are generally not obscure, but they don't usually follow logical thought progressions.
I threw a wish in the well.
Don't ask me, I'll never tell.
I looked to you as it fell,
And now you're in my way.
So basically, a moment after she says she'll never tell him about her wish, she tells him about her wish.
As for subject matter, songs about limply challenging conventional notions of beauty and songs about standing up for oneself proudly seem to dominate. Even without Adele on out set list, there is a lot of "You dumped me, but I'm awesome" or "I'm awesome, EFF you/You're awesome, EFF everyone else." Americans think very highly of themselves.
Goofy instruments with solo lines improve your chances of having a hit. Gotye's xylophone and "Call Me Maybe"'s distinctive synth string counter melody over the choruus give the songs an extra doubly-sharp barb to jab into your brain.
Perfect rhyming is anathema. It would be out of place in a pop song. The crispness of a perfect rhyme would be an odd pairing with the loose diction and nasal pronunciations. There's a lot of "baby/crazy", and "stronger/taller". There's some identity. "Make up/Cover up" which of course rhymes with "enou-uh-ough". All rules are bent beyond recognition in "Firework" with the "Skungh, Ungh, Ungh" moment mentioned above.
Because vocals are tracked, writers no longer need to account for breathing. The pop stars can sing one phrase at a time into the mic, and the engineers will sew them together, literally on top of themselves. Live singing is a thing of the past, so you don't even have to worry about concerts.
And the most interesting thing I learned about pop music from these songs: even with all of these negatives stacked against them, they still wormed their way into my brain. I still wake up singing them in my head. I shower singing them out loud. I have to admit, they're pretty hard to hate, even when I want to hate them so badly. Even when I know there are so many better songs out there that deserve my mental space. They're Doritos. They're 50 Shades of Gray. They're Mob Wives.
"Call Me Maybe" is the best/worst of the bunch. Every fiber of my being wants to dance to it AND punch it in the face. Or dress in women's underwear and lip sync to it on Chatroulette.
TONY ASARO is a composer/librettist currently working on various musical theatre and opera projects including the award winning Our Country. To learn more about Tony's writing, please visit unrelentingmonkey.com. NEVER STOP SWINGING!