Monday, November 26, 2012

Christmas Music and Nostalgia

The pervasive ambient Christmas soundtrack

From Flickr
By now, if not a month ago, we've broken out our Christmas playlists and radio stations (perhaps Pandora), and stores have transitioned to all-Christmas music mode. Everywhere we go, for better or for worse, we're surrounded by music of "glad tidings and great joy."

What fascinates me about this radio and ambient Christmas music is the variety in genre and age. In just a few minutes on a single station, we can hear rock, swing, gospel, jazz, choral, R&B, and broadway, from the 40s through the present, sometimes with a sprinkling of even older classical music. Also, religious music is suddenly mainstream, even sung by non-Christian singers or those who wouldn't touch religion with a long stick the rest of the year. Unlike the rest of the year, when most are not excited about the nostalgia of previous generations, Christmas is all about bringing back the music of the past.

Why the nostalgia?

So why the interest in nostalgia during Christmas? Are stations just playing a little bit of everything to please everybody? Or during Christmas, do we become interested in the history of previous generations? Is Christmas music timeless?

Perhaps, but it seems to me that younger audiences like "Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer" just as much as those who were alive when it debuted. I think it would be a mistake to call Christmas music timeless because it's apparent what decade or genre each selection is from. Even when old songs are "updated" to new styles, we can like the old one and the new one.

My theory for the Christmas nostalgia is that because we hear these songs every year, they are a part of all of our pasts. We actually do (mostly) like all of it. We realize that it's part of a previous decade or drawn from another style, but we can enjoy it anyway. We may not like particular songs, but we still recognize them, and they bring back memories of "Christmases long, long ago." The Christmas "feeling" is about nostalgia and memories of happiness and we want our music to reflect that. Just think of how Christmas songs keep referring to one another and to common symbols (mistletoe, bells, shepherds, angels, etc.). Of course, not everybody likes all the songs in this eclectic mix. But many people put up with the few they don't like for the whole package—after all, something completely different will be next.

The big break

Perhaps another reason why most people like most songs in the Christmas mix is that it's very hard to make heavy rotation. There's a lot of Christmas music that just doesn't break into the canon. Anyone remember Christmas in the Stars: the Star Wars Christmas? No? Artists produce Christmas music because if the songs makes it, the artists will make money every year. I'm thinking here about the movie About a Boy, in which Hugh Grant's character has his fortune made because his father wrote a hit Christmas song. There is such a volume of songs, past and present, competing for the airtime that if a song does make it into the Christmas canon, it's probably pretty good. There are some genres, however, that have not been invited to the radio Christmas party, perhaps because they haven't quite achieved universal appeal: hip-hop, indie, metal. Or maybe they are not "holiday" enough? I don't know.

Do you have any other theories why nostalgia is such a part of Christmas music?

Vocab: canon

Monday, November 19, 2012

The music of language and the language of music

I listen to a fair amount of music with lyrics in different languages: Irish, Scots-Gaelic, Spanish, Hindu, and Japanese, to name a few. Despite the fact that I don’t understand many of these spoken languages, I can still enjoy music in those languages.

Does music transcend the language barrier, then? Is music a universal language?

One of my undergraduate professors, Paul Broomhead, argued that music is not a universal language. He would play music to different groups of people and asked them how they felt. The answers varied greatly, especially across cultural and age spectrums, suggesting that music does not communicate the same thing to everybody even in the same culture. Music is not a universal language.

Musical style, however, is a type of language that people from different cultures can learn to understand. People who listen to a lot of electronic music, or Indonesian gamelan music, or Spanish flamenco music, to name a few, have a pretty good idea of the musical cues in each style genre, even if they can't verbalize it.


Permit me some brief examples of how musical style can be understood or misunderstood. In America, we are taught that minor mode=sad and major mode=happy. Besides this being an oversimplification even for Western music, it is patently false in Easter European folk traditions; they have plenty of very happy, minor songs. Those within the same socioeconomic can easily misunderstand a culture, too. For example, there is a whole Metal music culture (and multiple subgenres) that outsiders just don't really get (I include myself with those outsiders here).

Musical style does not necessarily match up with spoken language, either. This is why the Korean-language "Gangnam Style" is more understandable to today's Americans than Milton Babbitt's Philomel (1964), despite the fact that that latter is written (mostly) in English. Why? "Gangnam Style" is written with reference to an international popular music style, while Philomel is written with reference to the avant-garde electronic music style. It is amazing how something from a different country can still communicate, because they are using the common vocabulary of popular music. And how something written almost 50 years ago can still bamboozle people because the stylistic language behind it is new to them. I think both of these stylistic languages are very complex. But most people are bombarded with popular music constantly, and so they have learned to understand it. Those have spent the time to understand Philomel usually find it rewarding. But it might take a while to get to that point.
Babbitt's Philomel (1964).

In the end, understanding lyrics does make an impact in my value-judgment of the song. Words can make a song better or worse; I've liked songs less when I found out what the lyrics mean, but I've also liked songs more. Maybe I also feel culturally superior by liking non-English songs. But I still think it's the music that makes the most difference to liking a song.

Vocab: avant-garde, minor and major modes

Monday, November 12, 2012

Songs: fact or fiction?
Is Katy Perry (or what she sings about) real?

I say fiction. Song is a genre of music probably as old as music itself. While styles of the music have changed, the basic idea hasn't—an (usually) accompanied solo singer singing words (called lyrics). A song's expressive emphasis is usually on the lyrics, with music built to support lyric meaning. Song is an important expressive art form for many people because of the power of personalizing music and lyrics through the singer.

Many songs are obviously fictional, such as Sting's "Bourbon Street," about a vampire (inspired by Anne Rice's Interview with Vampire). But what about his "Every Breath You Take," about a stalker? Or "Don't Stand So Close to Me," about a high school student's inappropriate love interest in her teacher? Was Sting singing from experience?

The answer is no on all counts. He just made them up. But that doesn't stop people, including Sting, from promoting personal connections to his songs. It's common today for the audience to assume that the singer is telling about their own experience. This is especially true since the rise of the singer-songwriter in the 1970s, but even before that, many people associated Frank Sinatra with the songs he sung, though he wrote none of them. This association of the singer with the song's content is so ingrained in us that we assume that songs are autobiographical until told otherwise. The truth is that most singers are just actors filling presenting a fiction. I would argue that all songwriting is fiction, even if the songwriter does write a patently autobiographical song (actually a very rare case).

Here's why I think all songwriting is fiction-writing:
  1. Music does not accompany real life. Usually.
  2. Even if an artist writes from their own experience, the constraints of the song medium mean compressing stories and feelings into a tight form. This inevitably leads to some "artistic liberties"--words or feelings paraphrased in text or music, using known symbols (music and textual) to convey information, or simplification for purposes of space or time. What ends up in the song is really an exaggerated or highly modified version of thoughts or events. Think of Mike Birbiglia staring in the movie about himself, Sleepwalk with Me. Sure, the movie is about him, and he stars in it, but the constraints and hyperreality of the movie genre mean it's far from real life.
  3. Unlike written work, where only the words intermediate between the author and the reader, songs needs an interpreter, someone to sing them. Sometimes the singer is the same as the songwriter, but often it's not. Especially with popular artists, their performance persona and real personality are two different things. This  distinction is fairly clear with Lady Gaga, but not for Katy Perry. But Katy Perry and everyone else also leverages their song fictions to take advantage of their personas (Katy Perry is not her real name, by the way). If the person singing the songs is fictitious, then the songs are fictitious, too. The current queen of song fiction leveraging is Taylor Swift, who passively and actively invites her listeners to consider herself as the subject of her songs. Although Taylor Swift generally claims that all the songs come from personal experience, it's more complicated than that. She's mentioned that specific songs were written about friends. But even her own experiences are idealized or exaggerated or fantasized by enshrining them in a song, if not by the words, than by the added music. Also, Taylor Swift the person is not Taylor Swift the performer, despite how many people believe differently. The bottom line is that song singers, even real ones, are actors.
In conclusion, I feel that our culture should move away from assuming that singers' songs are autobiographical. The Irish traditional culture is more like this, to the point that singing an opposite-gendered song doesn't phase anyone. Everyone knows that singers are not expressing their experience; they are just actors playing a part in a small multimedia play.

Although this shouldn't diminish the power of song. Fiction is awesome. I just think people should be aware of the fiction.

Do you often assume that singers are expressing their personal experience and feelings, or not? Why do you think people do that?

Vocab: song, lyrics

Monday, November 5, 2012

Taylor Swift's Red


Stop me if you've heard this one, but Taylor Swift's Red sold 1.2 million albums in its first week, making it the best first week for an album since 2002. It has already sold twice as many total albums in 2012 than the next best-selling album. As many of you know, I've been a Taylor Swift fan ever since I listened to Fearless and her debut album together back in 2008, and this album lived up to my expectations.

Here's some thoughts:
  1. Popular artists have a tightrope to walk with their new albums: they can't do something too different or everyone will complain. But they can't just repeat what they did last time, or even more people will complain. I think Red succeeds in straddling the line between. One way that Taylor does this in Red is by bringing on co-writers to freshen things up. 7 of the 16 songs have co-writers listed. The big hit "We are Never Getting Back Together" is co-written with Max Martin, the Swedish song-writing genius responsible for a surprising number of girl power pop hits.
  2. At 65 minutes and 16 songs, the amount of music on this CD is impressive, especially considering Speak Now came out only two years ago. And while I don't think all the songs are the same quality, none of them are poor.
  3. I disagree with many that Taylor Swift's lyrics are suddenly mature and sexual. Those who state that have been reading her fan sites, not listening closely to her previous albums, and reading too much into this album.
  4. If you're like more people and consider Speak Now to be break-up album, Red seems to be the post-breakup album.
I prefer the animation version to the one-take.

But this blog is about music, which most reviewers seem to be ignoring, except for caveats that this album is more pop than her others. I agree that the album is more pop, though there's still some country stylings present. Not that the style matters to me, as long as I think the music is effective.

So here's why I think Taylor Swift's writes effective music:
  1. Melody: she builds her songs out of "hooks" that are memorable and hummable, and has several per song.
  2. Control of repetition: she repeats her hooks, but not enough that they get boring. She knows when to move to a different section and she's good at varying the melodies on the section return, so that the music is slightly different or has added textures. Which brings me to:
  3. Instrumentation and texture: She varies the musical texture and timbre of hers songs. For example, she's good at singing with different voice colors for different moods, and even in the same song. She's not afraid to be loud and thick or sparse and soft, even in the same song. She also varies the types of instruments, using banjo, mandolin, electronic effects, and more. One critique on this album: while I enjoy the complex over-dubbed backup singing on Red, sometimes it obscures the words.
While her rhythm and harmony usage is not bad, on the other hand, these musical features do not set her music apart.

One final note: most of Taylor Swift's songs are invitations to ride on her emotions. What I think she's best at is bringing out (or bringing back) strong emotions from the past or present. I'd say that is what makes her music so popular. But it takes both music and lyrics to achieve that effect.

Next week: Songwriting as fiction-writing (or not), which will continue my Taylor Swift discussion.

Vocab: timbre