Interesting and/or Important Songs in 2015
When I teach pop music classes, I want my students to learn to separate aesthetic judgments (whether a song is good or bad, whether they love it or hate it) from scholarly arguments about significance (what’s important and/or interesting about a song). Most “Best Of” lists make aesthetic judgments; that’s not a bad thing, that’s part of a music critic’s job. But I tend to think more like a scholar–because that’s my job–so I wanted to talk about some of the most interesting and important pop songs of 2015. I’ve focused mostly on the music, what makes them sonically interesting as songs. (Maybe I’ll post my favorite songs next week?)
- bottoms, “My Body”:
- With lyrics like “I hate my body” sung in a way that mimics Kathleen Hannah’s delivery, this song is a queer response to mainstream white post-feminist pop, with its “All About That Bass” and “Confident” self-love narratives. Sonically, this is also a queer response to EDM-pop and brostep. Without a huge EDM soar or brostep drop, this song sounds more like old-school disco with its mostly non-goal-oriented, cyclical unfolding. The parts of dance music that got integrated into mainstream pop were soars and drops–methods for building climaxes. Waaaay back in 1979, Richard Dyer famously contrasted rock’s thrusting “relentless push” with disco’s “release into an open-ended succession of repetitions.” In 2015, we can contrast EDM-pop’s thrusting relentless push with “My Body’s” open-ended succession of repetitions. “My Body” sounds queer for the same reason disco did in the late 70s: this “open-ended succession of repetitions” eschews the teleological eroticism of EDM-pop and brostep.
- Janet Jackson, “Shoulda Known Better”
- As I argued here: Compositionally, this song is Jam & Lewis’s take on Max Martin’s pop-drop songs like “Bad Blood” or Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.” These songs take a softened dubstep drop as the climax that leads into the two choruses at the end of the song after the bridge (a standard pop structure, bridge/chorus/chorus), and often use Lumiere’s-style “HEY!”s peppered through the song for rythmic emphasis. In other words, Martin’s songs combine elements of black dance music, hip hop, and white pop into a mix that reads as having transcended the racial differences it also posits. This positing-and-transcending racialized genre difference into unmarked “pop” is what Michael pioneered and Janet perfected in the 1980s. Martin, in other words, is copying Jam & Lewis’s schtick, updating it for the 2010s. In “Shoulda Known Better,” they take his version of their move, putting in some drops, soars, and plenty of Lumieers’-style “HEY!”s in the back half of some measures in the choruses. But, unlike Martin, they undercut the drops and soars so they don’t feel as powerful as they conventionally do. First, the soar-drop mechanism is really underplayed through the pre-bridge material, mere background work that doesn’t come to the foreground as a major musical moment of tension and release. Then, in the song’s main climax they reverse the order of soar and drop. Conventionally, a song soars up to a pause-drop, sometimes filled with a “Hey!” or a vocal melisma, or, in “Bad Blood,” the line “blood runs thin!”. That pause-drop then lands extra hard on the downbeat of the next measure. In “Shoulda Known Better,” however, the drop comes first, and then there’s a soar to nowhere. Right around the 3:00 mark, there’s the descending bass sound that constitutes the drop. This drops us on a “Hey!” on the downbeat, but this “Hey” doesn’t resolve anything, sonically; it just suspends rhythmic and timbral tension, much like a “feminine ending” suspends harmonic tension so that it resolves not on the downbeat but on an offbeat. “Shoulda Known Better”’s drop is a “feminine ending” for the EDM-pop era. It resolves on beat two of the following measure, on a “WOOO!” that clearly is the hit that resolves the rhythmic and timbral tension. (For the record, it’s easy to tell this isn’t an extra beat because the next measure after the “Hey!/WOO!” falls clearly into 4/4 with patterns of emphasis that show there was no extra beat added to the song.) After this drop, THEN there’s a soar. It’s a version of the pre-bridge soars, the trap snares brapp-brapp-brapping their way up to a crest. But we soar up to nowhere: there’s no landing, just an actual pause before we get to the coda, which yet again doesn’t gratify us with a climactic release of sonic tension. We get another variation on a verse. We then build into another chorus, with its wimpy soar-drop at the end. There’s no overcoming here, no redemption of damange and return to normalcy, only further not-quite-normalcy. (In the terms of R&M, “Shoulda Known Better”’s main drop maintains structural feminization, whereas resilient drops disarticulate feminine identity from structural feminization.)
- Eric Prydz, “Opus” (Four Tet Remix)
- Just when maximalist soars and drops are going out of style, this articulates the soar technique ad absurdam, stretching the soar out as far as it can possibly go. In the video here, the soar starts at 2:36, where we have a mid-pitched synth arpeggiating on some eighth notes. The tempo speeds up slowly, and then the arpeggiation shifts to sixteenth notes. Then we get a lower monotone sixteenth note voice below that, and the accent starts slipping around as the tempo gets faster and faster. At 6ish minutes we get some counterpoint arpeggios, and at 6:40 there are some half notes sustained in the background that get louder and louder to further build the soar. Then, around 7:40, we get some swooshing synths and some eighth note bass drum to crest us up to the peak of the soar at just past 7:44. That’s a five minute long soar. Also, this song is another example of EDM that sounds like Baroque instrumental music (LaTour’s “People Are Still Having Sex,” Pet Shop Boys explicit take on Handel-via-Nymann in “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct,” etc etc).
- Justin Bieber (and Skrillex, and sometimes Diplo): “Where Are U Now?”; “What Do You Mean?”; “Sorry”
- These songs rehabbed Bieber and Skrillex’s sound in the post-maximal EDM pop world. They’re hits because they combine a lot of trends across pop’s various tributary genres. There’s trap percussion and vocalizations (“skrrrrrt!”), bits of tropical house, understated drops, chipmunked vocals, breathy, honest diva vocals (Ellie Goulding, Lorde), an audible click track, lots of sonic space between elements/voices/etc, Lumieers’s-style “Hey!”s, you name it, these songs got it, in some toned-down version. Because they’re presenting a coherent statement of a “new” contemporary pop aesthetic, I would guess that these songs will have a huge sonic influence on the future of pop music in the US and UK. And I also think they’ll be important in shaping the future of the pop industry. They’re the best-performing songs available on streaming services (i.e., that are not Adele’s or Taylor Swift’s singles from this year.), and “Sorry” has managed to beat “Hello” in the UK singles chart for three straight weeks. I think the contrast between Adele’s purchase-only strategy and Bieber’s more liberal distribution strategy will probably be important to the future of pop music tech and economics.
- Bruno Mars & Mark Ronson, Uptown Funk
- Technically released in late 2014, this James Brown ripoff is probably the most the most cloned song this year. Just to name a few, there’s Macklemore’s “Downtown” (which, for the life of me, I still can’t figure out how the verses and choruses fit together), Fleur East’s “Sax,” Ariana Grande’s “Focus.”
- Chemical Brothers, “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” (Skream Remix) & The Prodigy, “Roadblock” (Paula Temple Remix)
- Like Skrillex, Skream is developing his post-dubstep sound. In fact, everybody who’s been around a while is trying to figure out what to do now that dubstep happened and is basically over. 90s artists like the Chems and The Prodigy (and also this year, KMFDM) are figuring out how to move forward now that sounds that were hardcore when they made them 20 years ago aren’t just mainstream, but passe, while at the same time dealing with a currently trendy 90s retromania among younger artists. That’s complicated aesthetic territory to negotiate. The Prodigy’s original still sounds fairly “transformers-having-sex” meets some d&b breakbeats, almost like an old Skrillex record. Temple takes a pretty big departure from The Prodigy’s original, introducing lots of new sounds, timbres, and rhythms. This is among the most brutal and technically exquisite of the brutal techno tracks she’s released recently. She uses rhythmic dissonance and among different voices and timbral intensification to develop the track. She even puts in a soar and drop (3:40-4:06ish)! But especially with the polymetric rhythms and that distorted bass synth that sounds straight out of Youth Code’s remix of Front Line Assembly’s “Echogenetic,” this sounds like industrial techno, not EDM. When dubstep maximalism is out of style and and jungle maximalism is retro, Temple’s sort of techno-influenced maximalism might be a way to think about what hardcore maximalism sounds like nowadays (which again is different even than the revamped digital hardcore of ATR’s new album). Skreem’s remix is more focused on the original Chems track: identifies the key elements of the song and intensifies them, makes them more prominent. In particular, Skream takes the sound that marks the peak of the original’s climax, that high-pitched piccolo-style synth, and makes it a constant presence in this mix, drawing it into long, sustained phrases. His heartbeat-style bass at the beginning recalls the counter-rhythm in the toms at the end of the chorus soaring into the drop. This remix is important because it makes us think more carefully about some of the original’s more subtle but nevertheless important compositional elements. It also helps establish Skreem’s musicianship–he’s not just a good dubstep artist, he knows how to listen to and break down any kind of music. The Prodigy, Chems, Skreem, and Temple have all been making music for quite a while, but for reasons that likely include the intersection of gender, genre, and mainstream breakthrough, it’s only the first three who are overtly trying to change their sound.
- Usher (feat. Juicy J), “I Don’t Mind”
- (Ok, another late 2014 song that was still on the radio in 2015.) This is the respectability politics answer to Juicy’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance.” Besides the obvious reference to “Bandz” by having Juicy as the featured rapper, this song also references a key sonic element of “Bandz” and songs like it: the ass-clap synth. This synth is ususally used in a four-on-the-floor way to mimic the strippers’ booty clapping and twerking. But in “I Don’t Mind,” that patch is only used on 2 and 4, a much more standard R&B rhythm. “I Don’t Mind” is all about the contrast between Usher’s narrator, who doesn’t mind that his girlfriend is a stripper as long as she’s monogamous–like, he’ll tolerate this thing that most guys might feel insecure about. It’s all about his narrator being superior to lower-class men like Juicy J’s character, who appears to like the fact that his girlfriend is a stripper.
- Decon/Recon, “DR1-2”
- While I’ve been talking mostly about the composition of songs, this song is interesting because of the means of its production. Decon/Recon is a queer feminist collective based in Berlin, and they’re committed to queer feminist politics. But it comes out not in the content of their music (which is pretty abstract and formalist) so much as in their compositional practices. As they explain: “ It converges artists’ samples in an open archive which is reassembled in four different tracks by the artists themselves…The Releases’ paratextual structure will play the same game. All artists shall be credited on the cover without authorial connections with the title of their own tracks exposing the listener, reader, dancer in to taking active part in the whole process.” Without clear authorial attribution, it’s impossible to hear a sound as an expression of a particular gendered or sexual identity. It’s also hard to reduce the artist’s music to her biography, which is also a common way women artists are discredited as artists. Instead of treating gender and sexuality as matters of identity, Decon/Recon focuses on gender and sexuality as power relationships, as a matter of structure and organization. So, by organizing the ways artists relate to sound, to one another, and to audiences, Decon/Recon deconstructs heteropatriarchal structures and reconstructs possibly more queer, feminist ones. In 2015, most “feminist” music focuses on feminism as an identity; we expect women pop stars to perform their feminism through proclamations of positive body image, confidence, and overt identification as a feminist. This focus on propositional/reprsentational content and on identity comes from the influence of liberal feminism on mainstream Anglo-American feminism.
- Rihanna, BBHMM
- I’ve rambled on and on and on about what makes this song interesting. I’ll focus just on the sounds here. This is clearly Rih’s Yeezus song, resembling “I Am A God” in a lot of ways. But what’s most interesting about the composition of the song is the way the coda resolves the rhythmic and metric instability of the main verse/chorus body. In the verses and choruses, Rihanna’s phrases often begin on the second beat of the measure, and there’s an overall woozy feel to the song–it’s hard to tell where the downbeat is. But in the coda, it’s easy to tell where the downbeat is. As compositionally important as the coda is, it was generally not played on radio, probably because it didn’t have many vocals.