It’s the end of the pop song (as we know it)
So long, pop song. We thought we knew you. We were reassured by the steadiness of your plot: a brief intro, a nice verse, a great chorus, another verse, another chorus. Maybe a solo or an instrumental fade out. Sometimes a good harmony, frequently a great voice. We were confident enough that after the oddity of a bridge came the comfort of a nice chorus. We felt at home. We felt comfortable. Well, maybe too much comfortable: 2014 was the year that nearly killed the pop song as we know it. Yes, there are plenty of songs that follow the old route, but you cannot deny that things are getting stranger and stranger in the pop realm. So, here’s how the pop song changed its nature in the last few months. Is it for good? Is it for bad? Is it a trend? Will it stop? Wait and see: 2015 will provide all the answers.
Less is more You know how the saying goes: less is more. Pop authors and producers take it pretty seriously. Simplicity is the new mantra. Forget about complicated arrangements. There’s no need to lay down one instrument after another. Happy took the world with just a few elements. We love what’s essential. Everything else sounds obsolete to our ears. Except for rhythms that rule the pop song machinery.
Where’s the chorus? Think about a song of the Eighties or the Nineties. Chances are that the first thing that comes to your mind is the chorus. Now, try and sing Ariana Grande’s Problems or Katy Perry’s Dark Horse. The reason you can’t is that they’re not chorus-based songs. But they became extremely popular in 2014. The chorus isn’t necessary anymore and it’s a shocking news. Researchers who analysed more than 2,400 songs released over the last 50 years said that each repetition of the chorus increase a song’s likelihood of making it to number one. Nowadays, The Guardian says, «emphasis is placed on the bridge – the bit of the song that links the verse to the chorus – and on ravey instrumental breakdowns». That’s reason why Dark Horse sounds like «a long bridge to nowhere». Who need a big chorus when everybody’s looking for a simple meme?
Goodbye harmony What happens when you remove one of the basic three elements that govern music? The experiment is ongoing. Music has always been about melody, rhythm and harmony. Pop is no exception. But harmony is disappearing, replaced by sounds. It means that you appreciate and remember a pop song for its colors and timbres, not for the harmonic effect provided by the simultaneous use of notes and chords. The piano player Chilly Gonzales mourns the death of the old chord progression: «Today, distinct synthesizer sounds have become their own musical gestures. So the three descending notes of Iggy Azalea’s Fancy don’t amount to much on a piano or a bass guitar – but the notes are irrelevant when compared to the instantly recognizable acid analog squelch that defines this song. Most people could recognize Fancy from a single iteration of one note. The sound is the hook, the medium the message». Music like that sounds great on your computer or your iPhone, right? You don’t need sophisticated harmonies when you have a smashing sound and an exciting rhythm.
“Real” and “fake” Don’t worry if you’re not sure if a certain sound is played by a computer or an human being. We’re all together in this. We entered the land of the uncertainty. There was a time when you heard a guitar line or a drum fill and you were able to tell who was playing. It’s over. Musicians are no longer important. Producers are. Computers allow people to manipulate music in any way they imagine, and then some. Today it’s more practical and immensely cheaper to design a bass line with Logic Pro than to call a seasoned session player. An effect is the end of the soloing. That’s an established trend. Remember when Lady Gaga called Clarence Clemons to play the saxophone solo on The Edge of Glory? Everybody went nuts, they couldn’t believe their ears. A solo is a relic that dates back to the Bronze Age of pop music. The nearest thing to a solo is a five seconds riff being cut, pasted and repeated over and over till it sticks in your head.
Is that your voice? Processing voices with Auto-Tune has consequences. Last September, a few eyebrows were raised when Aretha Franklin released the first single from her new record Sings the Great Diva Classics. Her cover of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep sounded… Arethaless. The vocals were somehow lifeless and unnatural. Thing is, in 2014 the voice is an instrument like any other. And like any other instrument, it’s digitally processed. You may be a huge pop star, but you gotta serve the producers’ needs. When the Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett album came out, she said that since The Fame, The Fame Monster and Born This Way, «they’ve been auto-tuning it more, or changing the timbre. They take the vibrato out so you sound like a robot. They really control you especially in the beginning. Although it was still my songs, and I still had a lot to say about the production, the vocal was something that they really, really wanted to control. So my vocal presence has been kind of the smallest presence about me for a long time. So everything else becomes the focal point». There are still great voices out there – Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, you name them – but who controls them?
There’s no way to fade out Fade out is… fading out. Once upon a time in the fairy-tale land of pop music fading out was a way to give a song an afterlife, and to escape the need to write a proper song end. Damn the cadenzas. In our digital age, softwares give musicians, sound engineers and producers a way to build up a good finale. As Slate told us, the number of songs that fade out in the American top 10 is rapidly dropping. They were ten in 1985, there was hardly one in the last few years. According to Itaal Shur, who wrote the Santana hit song Smooth, the decline of the fade out coincides with the rise of the skip culture. It means we’re drived by the impatience to listen to the next song even before the one being played is over. Yes, the habit has been encouraged by the use of our beloved electronic devices: we’re compulsively searching through our music library for the next song to play. Once Berry Gordy Jr, the Motown label boss, said: «Don’t bore us, get to the chorus». Today is more likely «Don’t bore us, get to the next song».