Pop Music Analysis

Every now and then Amanda and I will do a “Pop Music Analysis,” where we critically look at what’s working on the charts. It’s always a bit surprising and sometimes disappointing. Our musical acquaintance Michael Gungor did one recently and I loved what he came up with. I think you will too…

This last week, I found some extra time on my hands and decided to do a little music homework. As I’m sure is true for most of you as well, I generally listen to things that I like–things that inspire me or make me feel something. So this week I thought I might change things up a bit and listen to what most other people are listening to as an attempt to understand both culture and myself a little better. Since I don’t own very much pop in my music collection, I downloaded a bunch of the top selling songs on iTunes and put my learning cap on.

I knew the top pop songs would probably not be brilliant works of art… I knew that they probably wouldn’t be the masterpieces of our day. But I wasn’t fully prepared for what I’d find there. I found a formula that is very repeatable. Want to know how to write a pop song? Here you go, go make a million dollars:

1. Find THE right synth patch on your Motif keyboard. It’s pretty much the exact same patch in every hit pop song. It’s also the same patch that they’ve been using since I was in 8th grade.

2. Arrange this patch in a series of four chords at a tempo somewhere between 90-130 bpm. Preferably, two of the chords should be major, and two should be minor, but any four diatonic chords should do alright as long as you repeat these four chords over and over and over.

3. Find a few effects on your Motif keyboard. You know, the reverse cymbal swell, the big whoosh, car horns…etc and place these sounds before the first of the four chords occasionally.

4. On. The. Floor.

5. Avoid electric guitars for the most part, but if you must use them, thin the tone out to the point where it sounds like a Motif keyboard patch.

6. Come up with a few little catchy melodies. One for the chorus, which generally starts the song, then one for the verse if it’s not rapped, and one for the bridge, if you want to have a bridge. This part is really the only part that takes any creative initiative on your part, so you may want to spend at least 15 minutes on this section. Autotune these melodies.

7. For lyrical content, try to keep it to one of the following categories: sex, clubs, buttocks, genitals, breaking up or alcohol. Also, clichés from about 5-10 years ago seem to do well, as do cheesy and obscure sexual innuendos that you know are sexual, but are not sure exactly what they might mean… i.e. “I’ll melt your Popsicle.”

8. Avoid using proper English whenever possible.

9. Rapping on the verses or at least having someone occasionally speak a few semi-incoherent phrases lower in the mix is very helpful. This is called the “hype track” I believe. If you are a white girl, it can be very helpful to have a black man repeat whatever you sing like one or two beats later.

10. Find attractive females to take their clothes off in your music video.

There you go!

For your further enlightenment, I have attached a minor textual analysis of the third verse of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”, which is currently the 5th best selling song on all of iTunes right now. If you think about it, of all of the masterpieces ever recorded… Composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven… Artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, or the Beatles… No way. The genius. Katy Perry.

First of all, look at how she spells “California Gurls.” You might have expected the more common spelling of g-i-r-l-s. But that is so cliché. Why do you think the owners of the gas station chain “Kum and Go” decided to go with that spelling rather than a boring and typical “Come and Go”? Because it sounds the same! But it’s spelled differently?! Do you get it? This is very sophisticated stuff.

Here is the first stanza of the third verse of California Gurls:

Toned, tanned, Fit and ready
Turn it up ’cause it’s gettin’ heavy
Wild, wild Westcoast
These are the girls I love the most
I mean the ones, I mean like she’s the one
Kiss her, Touch her, Squeeze her buns

I’m not sure who wrote these lyrics, but certainly he or she is a lyrical genius. Did you notice the way that he or she rhymed “buns” with “the one.” It almost sounds like the same word, it’s such a good rhyme.

Also, did you notice the play on words in the line “wild, wild westcoast”? There is a phrase that normally is stated as “wild, wild west.” But the lyricist added the unexpected word “coast” at the end of the phrase. Katy Perry songs do with lyrics what Van Gogh did with paint.

The girl’s a freak, She drives a Jeep
and lives on the beach
I’m okay, I won’t play
I love the Bay, Just like I love L.A.

Look at the rhymes! I for one cannot even think of any more words that rhyme with “okay”. I wonder if the author used a rhyme dictionary. How could one person know so many rhymes? I am not sure about the logical direction of the lyric here, but this is art and who needs logic when you have so many rhyming words?!

The third verse ends with a bang (double pun intended), and doesn’t even need my textual analysis!

All the boys Bangin’ out
All that ass Hangin’ out
Bikinis, zucchinis, martinis
No weenies Just the king
And the queen-ie
Katy my lady
You’re lookin’here baby
(Uh huh)
I’m all up on you
Cause you represent me, California
(Ohhh yeahh)

Ok, I said it didn’t need my textual analysis, but I’ll offer just a quick word. Did you notice the clever double entendres? The lyricist was speaking about male genitals, but didn’t have to use the clumsy medical terms. Instead, by referring to phallic- shaped food items, he or she communicated tastefully and clearly.

Ok, back to my slightly less sarcastic tone of writing. What is wrong with people? I don’t understand it. Every human being that listens to these songs has this brilliant gift of a mind that can understand the complexity of music and language. Interpreting sounds into meaning and finding order in the notes and rhythms… This is a spectacular human ability that no other creatures on Earth have. But this is what is most popular among human beings?

What is wrong with us? Any ideas?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Zahara
    Oct 16, 2010 @ 15:47:07

    Two words: sex sells. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.

    I enjoyed reading this post. This type of stuff is being produced with money as the ultimate goal, not masterpiece. Why do so many people shop at big box stores and buy cheap, disposable, plastic crap? Because it’s there and it’s affordable, never mind how the planet and it’s people suffered to get it there. I think the better options (local, handmade, artistic, long-lasting, created with heart) are not even in the awareness of alot of people, never mind the price range. Same with songs.
    These songs are being marketed to young people to whom sex is a new and exciting world, and I think they like to see it partially hidden, (zucchini? that’s a riot). Lots of young people probably feel that they have to hide their interest in their own budding sexuality from authority. These songs can say it for them. It’s like an inside joke, a fantasy? This song is a weird cross between blatant and hidden meaning. Kids should be encouraged to write their own songs, but school art budgets are disappearing, and so they turn to this. A loaded subject and I’m trying to keep it short.
    Nonetheless, I agree with you, and I think this song is dumb, but it wasn’t meant for me.


  2. Zahara
    Oct 16, 2010 @ 15:48:45

    Imagine what beautiful music would emerge if all kids were encouraged to write their own songs?


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