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.

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