The Sound Grapes make when they're Sour

I hate pop music. No, correction. I hate pop musicians. I hate rock musicians. I hate urban musicians... basically I hate everyone who writes music in a form that I find endlessly fascinating and yet continuously beyond my reach.

As a classical composer I have studied numerous other composers, styles and forms of music. Many of these "classical" forms I understand and can emulate, from high-classical to the avant-gard pan-tonal forms of the 20th century. However, the current styles of music heard on the pop radio stations continues to elude me!

People tell me "Pop music is c&#p!" but if it's so bad how come it's 1) so popular and 2) impossible for me to capture the nuances of it within my own music??? I love listening pop music --all styles and artists; I just can't write it. People say pop music won't last, but we still remember "Blue Swede Shoes", "Tuxedo Junction" and "The Entertainer" which are now over 60, 80 and 100 years old. Maybe they're not on the pop stations anymore, but they are remembered. Lady Gaga is more than just good marketing. Shakira, Beyonce and Alica Keys are extremely talented. Their music will be remembered because it's more than just simple chords and repetitive rhythms.

I studied dance music styles as an undergraduate and amazed at how the other students could so adeptly capture the various modern styles. It also was extremely interesting how layered modern music is. We don't pay attention to the various layers because of the overly simply repetitive rhythms and harmonic progression. But, beneath all that simplicity are constant changing sound textures and effects. Brilliant, brilliant music! (sometimes).

While I have experimented with musique-accousmatique, the skill modern record producers display on modern music is mystifying. Perhaps I need to just give up on trying every understand how to write pop music and see if I can make something from the sound of squishing sour grapes.


GCComposer said…
This is a very interesting post. As a composer myself, and one who evolved from a role as an amateur songwriter for a rock band, I must admit that I haven't thought of this subject from this perspective. I suspect you are right about the quality of some pop music. I wonder though if the reason it eludes you is that in some cases it might be based more on equipment than technique or skill. (I don't mean that in a belittling way, clear there's technique and skill in using equipment.) Maybe using the equipment and teasing out the layers, etc. that it can generate is something that must be learned in the same way that Sonata Form and the application of augment 6th chords must be learned.

In any case, it's a goal of mine to help come up with ways to reinvigorate non-pop (i.e. "classical") music, and this post has helped get me thinking in a different way. Thanks for that!

Ernest Ambrus said…
Greetings from upstate NY. I found your blog through Kyle Gann's blog. I just wanted to comment a little on something you wrote in the above post.

"People tell me "Pop music is c&#p!" but if it's so bad how come it's 1) so popular"

I can't imagine what popularity has to do with quality. I can think of thousands of acts that, for one reason or another, are fairly unique within a subgenre of popular music, be it drone metal, or 'math rock' or something, and practically no one knows they exist.

On the other hand, we've seen the rise of Lady Gaga, or another cookie cutter, who for all intents and purposes, can't find a single producer to write a song for her where the verse naturally leads into the chorus. Of these examples, only Lady Gaga is making money, because it is what popular music is designed for, profit, not expertise, or imagination. Because popular music aims for the wallet, instead of taste, and critical thinking, it needs to appeal to the widest variety of audience, forsaking everything that would essentially make it something unique, and full of quality.

I can watch the Grammies every year, and if I'm lucky, I can find a couple of innovative acts, people that push the threshold of popular music, but they're few and far between.

Don't get me wrong, I love popular music, but aside from a handful of artists, pop music does nothing for me. I stick to the underground where I think quality, and innovation reside, until the mainstream appropriates it and neutralizes it. As a twenty two year old musician, I gave up making popular music partly because of the limitations of the form, and all of the crap that goes along with it. I'm much better off. To each his own, though.

Thank you for reading this. I hope I haven't insulted you.
Chip Michael said…
Thanks for the Comments GC and Ernest (no, I'm not insulted).

GC: I agree with your comment about equipment, except that all of the students in the Dance Music Class were working with the same version of Reason - and their music more closely captured the genres they were working in than mine did. Some of this may be growing up with the music. I did a pretty good job of writing an 80's Anthem rock piece... but that was my generation.

Ernest: I agree that much of pop music is cookie cutter and thus one huge problem with it. As you say, they are aiming at the wallet and seldom does anything good come from that. I think what I'm railing against is the people who blanket pop music with a single brush saying it's all c&#p! Every now and then something pops out that is really interesting.

I don't really listen to pop music music; I struggle to know who's current in that field of music. Whereas I listen to classical music often and am pretty versed in whose hot in the classical field.

What I'd like to see (hear) is composers like yourself, twenty-somethings who take some of what's hot in the pop world and bring it into the classical world to create something genuinely new. Actually, what I'd like to happen is BE that composer that creates something new (and maybe I will be). But in order to do this we have to be open to all that's out there - and that includes pop music.
Grant said…
I'd say that the experience of growing up with the music is hugely important. Without the form, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, etc. to learn, where else would one get the education to be able to do it other than through experience. Just think how much pop music you'd have to absorb to "equal" a conservatory education.

Maybe a first step in creating something new that incorporates pop music is to reverse engineer the "rules" of pop music to "match" the "rules" of classical music. That way you'd have two idioms that can talk to each other, rather that square pegs and round holes.

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