Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Why are so many good songs about bad behavior?

 "The Dixie Chicks do not advocate premeditated murder"

I realize this post does not lend itself to writing about actual music, but there's a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot and deserves a treatment: there is a lot of good music out there featuring lyrics of people behaving badly. Why is that?

First, why do I care? Because many people reject songs simply because of the lyrical content. I myself become uncomfortable listening to some music. And while I respect someone's decisions to listen or not, I think portraying bad behavior in song can be more complicated than simple glorification of actions of dubious morality.

Although I should probably try and define bad behavior, a can of worms in itself, I’ll just simply say that it’s hard to define.* In fact, that is the point of some of these songs feature bad behavior—some artists write about bad behavior precisely because other people define the behavior as bad, and the artists disagree. These artists either create their songs to argue against the dominant narrative and normalize the “bad” behavior, or more commonly (especially in hip hop) present caricatures of the bad behavior to make fun of negative stereotypes thrust upon them. While listeners are free to agree or disagree with the artist’s opinion, I think a listener should at least recognize when an artist is motivated in this way.

Besides glorification or normalization, another reason to depict bad behavior in a song is to critique the behavior as bad. Just like how stories need evil villains, sometimes artists need to depict bad behavior to successfully critique it. Songs are so short, however, we may only get the evil perspective instead of the good.

Unfortunately, the line can be fine between critique and glorification. Songs can be easily misinterpreted because of hard-to-understand poetry or obscured lyrics; a song that the listener might think is glorifying bad behavior may be critiquing it. Or it may be ambiguous. And at some point, the author’s intentions may not even matter—what’s important is how the song is used by the listeners.** Also, sometimes artists seem to be having a bit too much fun behaving badly, undermining their original motivation.

Which brings up another reason why people write bad behavior in songs: in order to vicariously be a part of the bad behavior. More than any other type of passive entertainment, music invites the listener to role play. Music is a fiction (despite rap music being used as evidence in criminal trials) that invites participation, for example dance or karaoke, and the listener can be a part of the forbidden, tempting bad behavior without actually doing anything immoral. And because of music’s ability to heighten and prolong emotion, listening to the bad behavior in song form is more powerful than just reading or talking about it.

Another reason for the depiction of bad behavior could be money—songs about good behavior don’t necessarily make as much money as songs about bad behavior. Not only is this because people enjoy exciting and tawdry things sometimes, but also because depicting good behavior does not usually produce passionate art. Good behavior can be boring, or at very least isn’t a problem that artists need to solve.

I’ve thought about another reason for depicting bad behavior in music: simply presenting the bad behavior. However, I think this option is not possible with music, because of how music can elevate what is depicted. Music is not a language of neutrality.

Once we have parsed why (or our interpretation of why) the bad behavior is depicted, then we have enough information to decide if we should reject the song or not. Or we can just feel guilty for liking a song that is definitely glorifying bad behavior.

* I'll include "explicit" language in this definition, at least.
** Anyone heard "Every Breath You Take" sung at a wedding?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Bad X-ray: failing to describe music of "Since U been gone"

Every so often, NPR does a segment that analyzes a hit pop song to see how it ticks. This week, the lens turned on Kelly Clarkson's "Since U been gone," and I think failed in a spectacular fashion. Notice that the article never features musical descriptions or mentions what the music actually sounds like. Instead, it stumbles into two major pitfalls of music criticism: band comparison and genre labeling. The article name drops Pavement, Parquet Courts, the Smashing Pumpkins, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as if those bands always sound the same in each of their songs, and if we could figure out which of their sounds we are suppose to hear in this particular song. The article genre labels this song as punk, indie, R&B, rock, emo, and pop. I know the point is that the song is a mix of many things, but these two tactics by themselves do not help the reader understand what is going on.

Chris Molanphy’s Soundcloud snippet embedded in the article (which is featured in the radio version of the article), however, actually gives a few musical specifics (I could have used more). The distorted, repetitive guitar intro is the indie-punk part, the electronic beat is the pop part, and the restraint in Clarkson’s big voice is the R&B part (which I think is a stretch, but fine). Don't get me wrong, band comparisons and genre labeling can be useful—but only when accompanied with some musical specifics to back up the broad, general brush strokes.

Besides the lack of musical description, I also think the article does a disservice in not mentioning the possible influence of Avril Lavigne. I'm not saying that Lavigne (and the Matrix) were the first to mix pop and punk, but she did, and I think we can draw a pretty solid line from them to Max Martin and Clarkson. Lavigne co-wrote the opening and title track of the album on which "Since U been gone" was released, Breakaway. The song "Breakaway" was originally planned for Lavigne's first album, Let Go (2002), and produced in advance of Clarkson's album. I think that Clarkson and/or her production team did a fair amount of listening to Lavigne's album in the interim. The relatively bare first verse of "Since U been gone" is followed by an electric guitar-fueled explosion with a powerful, bratty, punk-style, multi-tracked female lead—this formula was also featured on many tracks from Lavigne's freshman album, especially "Unwanted" and "Losing Grip." Some of the same brash, dissonant guitar effects are also present in both to herald the big chorus. Now, "Since U been gone" arguably has overall better production, better pop panache than those two songs from Lavigne, with a remarkable building in the complexity of the music from the beginning to end. But the similarities are there for all to hear. Can I prove this connection? No. But I think the musical elements and circumstantial evidence is much stronger for this connection than, for example, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Post on MMM: Card’s Songmaster: the Power of Songs and Negative Emotions in Mormon Music

My weekly post comes a little early this week, and you can find it on the Modern Mormon Men blog. The post is kind of a book review of Orson Scott Card's novel Songmaster, a book in which music plays an vital role. I also use the book's message about music as a jumping off point to talk about emotions in music, specifically negative emotions connected with music, and what that might mean for the music of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons, of which Card is a member. You can leave comments about the post here below.

Enjoy, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Science: musicians use their brain better

File this one under music advocacy. TED-Ed produced a snazzy video that presents a summary of neuroscientists’ studies on the brains of musicians. The results? Simply listening to music uses a significant portion of the brain, but playing music also involves fine motor skills, meaning this activity uses even more of the brain. Also, musicians have better “executive function” meaning they plan and strategize better, and pay greater attention to detail. Also, musicians store memories more efficiently. The video makes the claim that the brain training acquired playing musical instruments can be applied to other activities. While I hope this is true, this seems the least substantiated claim. Certainly, video games meant to train brains really only train your brains to do that video game. But playing an instrument may be better.

So why are we cutting music programs from schools? (Also, for the neuroscientists, what about singers?)

Enjoy (5 minutes):

Monday, November 17, 2014

Video game music: why the big deal?

I just put this picture here and you’re already hearing some music in your head, aren’t you?

For some people video game music is a big deal. Not only do the thousands of people pay hundreds of dollars to hear a symphony orchestra play video game music live, but also there are many more (not just in Japan) who find enough pleasure in video game music to want to experience the music outside of gameplay, sometimes years after the original game releases. For example, there are online fan communities that recompose, rearrange, and share video game music. And not just amateurs are joining the fray; the professional field is growing, too—many composers, finding it hard to break into a movie music industry controlled by a few composers, are instead scoring video games.

I should mention here that not all video game music is created equal. Just like movie, popular, and art music, there is good music and bad music. Strangely, there is consensus that the best video game music comes from a period when it was simple, limited to 8- and 16-bit game systems, a claim I will attempt to address in a future blog post. The best video game music sometimes has continued to generate interest after the game itself has stopped generating revenue.

So, why is good video game music such a big deal, at least to groups of loyal fans? I’ve got some speculations below. The first three could apply to movie music, too; the last two apply more directly to games.

Video game music:

  1. Connects with emotions - Music can heighten the emotions that the video games are trying to convey, whether sad or happy, dramatic or infantile, serenity or even chaos and freneticness (much more effective in video games than movies).
  2. Associates itself with positive experiences - People enjoy playing video games, and so when they hear the music again, they associate positive feelings with the music.
  3. Builds community - While there are certainly exceptions, a video game experience is often a solo experience. Even with multiplayer games, gamers are often in a room by themselves interacting with the game in their individual way. But everyone playing experiences the music, so the music can serve as shorthand for communal game experience.
  4. Is repetitive - Because video games are often a long form of entertainment (games usually are at least several times longer than their movie counterparts), the music is often very repetitive. Certainly, modern Wagnerian-inspired movie music will have reoccurring themes, but when a gamer is playing a 30-100 hour video game, they will hear the themes many more times. Because of this, gamers have the music engrained in their memories, especially if the melodies are catchy.
  5. Signals interaction - Music is a often a crucial part of the interaction of video games, especially longer games with a story. Music can signal shifts in the story, mood, or interaction method (such as signaling combat or puzzles). Music can also help gamers be somewhat stimulated when they are doing a boring task, which happens occasionally in longer games. Because of this interactive element, people tend to pay attention to music in video games more than they might when watching a movie.
So, video game music is an important part of the experience, and especially good or effective music stays with gamers for long after they’ve put the game down. Just a final experience to reiterate my point: once I played a video game for which the music was broken. I knew that it was a well-reviewed and well-liked video game, but I had a hard time getting into it. I know the lack of music played a big role in my feelings for the game.

Why do you think video game music is a big deal?

Vocab: theme, melody