Monday, September 22, 2014

Clean Bandit, classical music's influence in pop, and Japaneseness in music

Classical crossover?

Last week I mentioned new artist Megan Trainor and her slow-ish rise on the Billboard charts. This week, I’d like to talk about another new artist whose song is still climbing up near the Billboard top 10, even though it was released last January. This artist is Clean Bandit, and they are a British band whose membership grew out of a classical string quartet. Their heavily-played single is “Rather Be”, and features another British singer Jess Glynne.

When I heard “Rather Be” on the radio for the first time, the classical-sounding opening motive grabbed my attention as something you don’t hear on a top-40s station.

But, though this BBC article about Clean Bandit describes a mixing of classical music and pop, “Rather Be” is not really a classical approach to music—it’s a pop approach that utilizes classical instrumentation and texture. The music is riff-based like pop, formally constructed like a pop song, and uses a pop singer. The riff themselves, however, feature classical instrumentation and stylings (especially the piano and strings) and are heavily layered, probably influenced by classical counterpoint. I think it’s a wonderfully written and produced pop song (unlike their other main song, “Mozart’s House”, which, with its
depressingly confined string parts, doesn't really work).

Besides the classical texture with a pop sensibility, something else about “Rather Be” caught my attention. I thought the song sounded Japanese (even before I heard the word “Kyoto” in the lyrics), and so I was almost unsurprised when the music video was Japanese-themed, too. But the group and singer are British. What made music sound Japanese? I think precisely the same reasons that people want to talk about mixing classical music with pop: the mix of electronic sounds and classical, acoustic instruments. In this song’s case, especially the classical piano that sits on top of the electronic and string texture, which is common in Japanese movie and video game soundtracks.

Metal, baby?

Speaking of Japaneseness in music, I also recently found out about the band Babymetal, an attempt to mix metal music and Japanese culture. Check out "Gimme Chocolate!!" here. Unlike “Rather Be”, I’m not sure the “fusion” really works; it seems that any moment, the music is either metal or J-pop, not a mixture of the two. I enjoy the juxtaposition of the innocuous lyrics with the crazy metal distortion, though. “Megistune” is a little bit more successful in creating a fusion, using "Sakura" and traditional instruments, but still seems more like a one-time gimmick than a fertile, sustainable musical platform. We’ll have to see if the group has a future.

I do this both of these cultural hybrids is more interesting, subtle, and flattering than the appropriation of Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” video, perhaps because the others are attempts to mix the musical as well as as visual.

Vocab: riff, texture, metal, J-Pop

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