Wednesday, February 21, 2007

On pop, pure and simple

The morning after attending a concert featuring Grizzly Bear, I grabbed a copy of The Stranger, one of Seattle's weekly alternative newspapers, and turned to a feature on the band. Describing the band's sound, the author writes, "Peel back all the postmodern bells and whistles and what you'll find is pop music, pure and simple." "What nonsense!" I thought to myself. (What? Oh. Fine. I admit "What nonsense" is an unlikely thought-phrase, but who can really remember the specifics of thought-phrases?)

My problem was not with the "bells and whistles" cliche (glockespiel and whistling (in harmony) were highlights of the previous night's performance), but with the far more problematic "pop, pure and simple" cliche. (The Stanger's web subhead for the piece reads, "Grizzly Bear's Wild, Hard-to-Tag Pop." The writer of the piece, however, seemed to have no problem placing an incorrect tag on it.) His mistake, beyond laziness, is conflating a cultural idea ("pop," apparently in its simplest and purest form) with musical ones (melody and harmony).

Now, I own an 800-page tome called The Faber Book of Pop, which attempts to create a somewhat definitive theory of pop by compiling essays and reporting from the last five decades. So definining "pop" isn't easy. But for our purposes, let's break it down to basics.

"Pop" derives from the word "popular." The meaning has changed somewhat in relation to music. In the early part of the 20th century, popular music meant music that was played on the radio. Eventually, rock music was played on the radio and became popular. Popular music featured simple, memorable melodies, short, repetitive musical phrases, conventional song strucutes (verse-chorus-bridge, for example), and rhythmic patterns with three or four beats per measure. (Yes, Pink Floyd's "Money" is in 7/4, but that's one of those "exceptions that prove the rule.") The Beatles, the most popular group of the last century, and The Beach Boys, the most overrated group of the last century, both incorporated vocal harmonies into their highly successful sounds, forever entrenching that element into the "pop" sound.

In today's music industry, not everything designed according to these principles of pop music makes it onto the radio, even if it's extremely catchy (for some indie-pop bands, radio play would be a hindrance to their credibility, but that is a subject for another time). Nevertheless, if a critic wishes to use the word "pop" to describe a band's sound (even though it is a probably far too general label to convey much meaning), then the music he is describing should contain the above elements.

Grizzly Bear make much use of melody and harmony in their music, along with orchestration from non-traditional rock instruments, which makes post-mustache Beatles and Brian Wilson-in-bed Beach Boys fair comparisons. It does not make them a pop act. Grizzly Bear's songs are often broken up into different sections, or movements, rather than traditional song structures. These movements often take place in unusal time signatures. And while their melodies are strong, they are often long-winded. All of this makes their music much more closely related to classical, or better yet, prog-rock.

Of course, prog-rock isn't very hip these days. On the other hand, music that is unapologetically pop, without actually being popular, is uber-credible. And the writer of The Stranger article obviously had an agenda to make Grizzly Bear appear hip and credible. Why else would he be writing an article promoting their concert?

This type of unthoughtful language usage is a plague in music writing today. It stems from judgements about music that have very little to do with notes and arrangements and everything to do with the cultural values of the young and cool. It's the reason why music being made today still gets labelled as "post-punk." (This makes even less sense than calling Grizzly Bear a pop act. In a sense, all music being made today is "post-punk," since punk arrived in the 1970s and we are now in the 2000s.) We need to get our facts straight, even when we're writing opinion. Pure and simple.

Grizzly Bear - Lullabye


Blogger Leaf said...

I think maybe you're too harsh.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Marco Ursi said...

I'm tired of people who, by the nature of their position in the media, are granted "expert" status and then don't deliver an expert opinion. This writer just had to take the fall for all of them.

3:14 PM  

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