By Julian De Ocampo ’13
Pop music is the study of music as a science.
Think about it for a second – it’s the art of formulas, the quest to methodically discover the perfect keys and chords to achieve the desired result. It is a controlled experiment using precision to distill emotion.
“All art aspires to the condition of Top 40 bubblegum pop,” venerable indie-pop musician Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields once wrote in his essay “The Formulist Manifesto.” “We the formulists (with a sigh of relief) renounce the deluded striving of moderns for self-expression through novelty. We accept all foregoing and contemporary expression as a set of templates.”
Merritt rode this mantra into critical acclaim during the late 90s, when the blithe, self-aware pop of The Magnetic Fields found its way into car stereos and Walkmans of the country.
And while it is easy to dismiss contemporary pop music under this criteria – it is derivative, it is shallow, it is formulaic – it is also possible to analyze and interpret the application of the formula as the highest form of art.
This column, “The Art of Pop,” is an attempt to track the progress of the ever-changing record industry as it soldiers forward, tinkering with the formulas that fill our car stereos until it creates populist gold.
Each month, I will examine the top five songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart through the lens of a critic, thoughtfully analyzing the songs that nearly everybody has an opinion on.
5. “Some Nights” – fun.
6 out of 10
Surging with bombast, this song nearly throws all good taste out the window with its made-for-Broadway vocal harmonies, overblown finishing guitar solo and tacky spoken word and auto tune breakdowns.
But once the dust settles, a daring (if not garish) pop song is left standing in the rubble.
fun. are the latest in a string of bands plucked by major labels and morphed into trendy yet accessible symbols of streamlined indie aesthetics.
But look past the big budget music video, the horn-rimmed glasses and the prerequisite rock credentials, and you’re left with a fairly decent if not overstuffed bunch of drama geeks.
In other words, they’re harmless: oozing with style to spare, but no substance to match.
4. “One More Night” – Maroon 5
3 out of 10
It is with fitting irony that the album from which this prosaic attempt at cross-over reggae pop is culled from is named “Overexposed.”
As of late, Maroon 5 have claimed their title as most overexposed band of contemporary times. Too many lifeless singles in too short of a time have created an oversaturation of the market.
“One More Night” ambles along with a predictably standard reggae rhythm that is severely crippled by Adam Levine’s relentlessly repetitive melodies and stale vocal inflections.
At least “Moves Like Jagger” had that hook; this song and the equally mind-numbing “Pay phone” are the worst type of pop song – utterly boring.
3. “Lights” – Ellie Goulding
8.5 out of 10
The past year has been particularly kind to female British artists like Ellie Goulding.
With Adele’s personal crooning on one end of the spectrum and Jessie J’s artificial commercial aspirations on the other, Goulding falls somewhere in the middle and consequentially seems to be the most balanced and talented British songstress on the pop charts.
“Lights” is most reminiscent of La Roux’s 2009 single “Bulletproof,” a delightful electro-pop song that was unabashedly danceable without feeling corporate.
Goulding’s voice seems restrained, but paradoxically betrays a nakedness hidden just underneath. Similarly, the rest of the track is restrained enough to never feel overbearing, but immense enough to feel like a blockbuster electronic smash.
2. “Whistle” – Flo Rida
2.5 out of 10
Oh, whistling, how I loved you.
I thought it was awesome when Peter Bjorn and John used you on “Young Folks” all those years ago. Then “Pumped Up Kicks” came out and I didn’t mind you being on the radio.
Then “Moves Like Jagger” happened, and I started to grow worried. Whistling was cute, quirky even, but I wasn’t sure if I liked the direction it was going.
Well, here it is, everyone: the death knell of whistling.
Flo Rida, easily one of my most despised contemporary artists, has managed to ruin the very act of whistling through “Whistle,” a breezy, sexually-charged made-for-summer jam that holds fails lyrically, but passes musically.
The guitars and rhythm are too cheerful too truly hate, but the crude lyrics of this song are the most thinly veiled innuendos since Katy Perry’s “Peacock” and enforce the idea that Flo Rida’s greatest feat is managing to continually insult the intelligence of the average American.
1. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”—Taylor Swift
6.5 out of 10
Let’s face it, if there’s one demographic that pop music is made to pander to, it’s teenagers.
But for every song that successfully conveys the free spirited freewheeling of adolescence (e.g. “Teenage Dream”), you have a number of songs threatening to cross the threshold into whiny preciousness.
Taylor Swift’s latest single all too often jumps into the latter category, but it jumps so wholeheartedly that the result is a single too sugary to dismiss completely.
The valley girl diction, spoken-word bridge and made-for-radio guitars may be too much for some, but Swift also supplies enough personality and charm to redeem a single that would be rendered limp at the hands of, say, Avril Lavigne.
Stacked up against her previous catalogue, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is too childish and inconsequential to stand out. Nonetheless, Swift remains a formidable pop princess even when she drops the country shtick and tackles corporate pop.