Saturday, September 15, 2018

some thoughts on the disease of Millenial Whooping Cough in popular song, a purely theoretical challenge to New Complexity composers as to what they could do with the Millenial Whoop

There are those who have written about the Millenial Whoop before, and I think of it as Millenial Whooping Cough, a disease that has infected popular song in the last decade more generally but the last five years even more.

It is possible to write a song that is almost half-composed of Millenial Whoops.  It's not just a matter of the formally recognized Millenial Whoop itself.  Once you identify the steady oscillation between the fifth and third degree of the tonic scale of any given popular song as the Millenial Whoop it becomes apparent that you can compose a song that's by majority of melodic lines composed from this Whoop.  Two of the most memorably egregious examples of this trope are from the Lumineers.  I have heard these two songs a lot on the radio in the last two years and they are probably the best examples of what I call Millenial Whooping Cough.

ho hey

The anthemic bid starts immediately with the marching "Ho! ..... Hey!" syllables.  I have to grant that since the days of U2 there's white guy bands that insist on soaring inspirational anthems.  I have U2 albums up through The Joshua Tree so I am not against this sort of soaring inspirational pop song writing on paper.  "Where the Streets Have No Name" still holds up for me.  But the thing is, at the risk of simplyfing U2 songs across the board, Bono uses the whole scope of his range in the macrostructural aspects of any given verse or chorus.  What he has not necessarily done (at least circa the first decade of U2) is do something I hear more in recent pop songs, a mumble-core declamation of the principle subject of melodic interest followed by a more bleating/wailing transposition of the idea into a higher register, almost invariably the higher adjacent octave.  We'll ... come back to this.

Now ... The Whoop happens in the 5-3 shifting in the backing vocals in the chorus.  Now I hate this song for a variety of reasons but that Whoop is one of the more prominent reasons.  Another reason has to do with the mumble-core first verse that shifts to a more nasal, histrionic delivery in later verses an octave higher.  That's a trope that goes back to the days of Kurt Cobain, though, where mumbling the first few lines and then wailing or screaming similar lines on the same melodic gesture an octave higher is taken to be an increase in passion.

Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright © 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
ISBN 0-226-52143-5

page 346
... Just as stylistic pluralism among compositions is related to an absence of belief in long-range, linear historical processes, so eclecticism--pluralism within compositions--can be related to the weakening of interest and faith in long-range design. Thus uncertainty about the future reaches down to the realms of the aesthetic, calling into question the possibility, perhaps even the desirability, of long-range goals. One corollary of this is that syntactically structured forms and hierarchies characteristic of tonal music will be less common. Instead, forms will tend to be what I have called "statistical," and hierarchies will be continuous and emergent. Statistical structures, which are based on the action of the secondary parameters of music (for example, timbre and tempo, dynamics and register, beat and contour), depend less on privileged learning than do syntactic ones.

Beneath the surface, the National’s work is full of moves like that. But I still dislike the surface. I dislike the traces of a British accent in Berninger’s rich baritone (he’s from Cincinnati). I dislike the midrange restraint of most of the melodies and the sleepy midtempo pace, making it artificially thrilling when things pick up at all—as when drummer Bryan Devendorf kicks the march beat into double-time, two-thirds through the new album’s first single, “Sea of Love,” though Berninger carries on the same oh-so-stately procession. Most of all, I dislike the way many of the songs milk themselves, doubling down on their repetitions by getting denser and louder in later sections.

This is a common trait of many popular and acclaimed bands that turn me off. I call it Crescendo Rock—I’ve had similar misgivings about U2 and Radiohead, though I’ve aired them less because their fans go way more apoplectic. To me, the bands each sound like a group of guys who feel they’ve got something to say and demonstrate their significance by saying it over and over, getting louder and louder.

As a manifestation of what Leonard B. Meyer called a statistical approach to musical form rather than a syntactic approach "Ho Hey" is a fairly straightforward example.  The underlying "ground" stays pretty steady and what gets added are contrapuntal ornaments and registral shifts in the vocals.  In other words, it's possible to go beyond "crescendo rock" to point out that a lot of popular song is built around statistical accumulation of detail rather than syntactic manipulation of gesture and phrase.

Now one of the prevailing troubles of musicology "may" be that all of the theories that are popular in academic contexts as being relatively easy to teach favor syntactic rather than statistical developmental processes.  It is easier to talk about how gestural contrast or conflicting paradigmatic expansions (August Halm on Beethoven, for instance?) play out in a sonata form than to talk about statistical ramping in a popular song.  If an academic in musicology were to explain statistical "crescendo rock" as--go eight measures and then add another riff on top of whatever you already have then, well, why should anyone pay thousands of dollars a year in tuition for that!?  There's reasons besides "anti-intellectualism" for why people who want to get into popular musical styles might choose to forego higher education that don't have to do with some lack of love of music.

But ... having said that, fans of popular music seem too ready to traffic in essentialist and even racist master narratives about why they feel they shouldn't have to bother with the more esoteric aspects of "traditional" music analysis, music history aka musicology.   I can say for myself that diving deeply into esoteric and challenging formal analysis of 18th century music was what gave me the conceptual tools I needed to start composing a bunch of ragtime sonatas for guitar.

I'm not even against all forms of "statistical" shaping of music in popular music.  I have U2 albums, for crying out loud.  I don't mind some "crescendo rock" in select doses but when a music critic or two complains that it sure seems like an awful lot of popular songs are sounding like "crescendo rock" and that the same tropes show up I can't blame them for that complaint.

Now as a fan of some Baroque music I would say that the chaconne or passacaglia has clearly made a comeback via popular music but that this rebirth of the endless statistically piling-on decorative variations over a ground bass or foundational riff hasn't been discussed as such ... except maybe by Alex Ross (?).  As popular as it has been in some circles to say we live in a new Gilded Age (and I guess that's got to be true for the visual arts scenes) in musical terms we may be living in a kind of neo-Baroque era.  There's a dizzying panoply of styles and forms that all make sense within their sociological and cultural contexts and an eagerness on the part of practical musicians and composers to blend them as prolifically as possible though, perhaps, without a strong interest in establishing a theoretical foundation from which to consider the conscious development of such fusions.

And ... then amid all this there's the Millenial Whoop.  As a 5 and 3 alternation goes the opening vocal line of this ... thing is all Millenial Whoop.

best day of my life

I hate these folksly chord strumming anthem type songs that have a bleating cantor and a dutiful sing-along-chorus response.  I'm not against call and response vocal music.  I was in choirs as I was growing up.  I'm totally fine with responsorial singing.  I do that every Sunday even.  But I find it frustrating to hear all these folksy would-be anthems in popular song.  You could get me to sing along in a responsorial way to something like "Chris is risen."  Sure, absolutely!  But "best day of my life" by some bro strumming a guitar?  As Lana Kane might put it, "Nope".

I've written about oblque motion in the past, and how oblique motion is a useful tool if you're a singer who isn't nearly so accomplished a singer as you are an instrumentalist (though that bar can be set low, too).

California Girls, Katy Perry
a song I hate so much for its Millenial Whooping Cough I refuse to link to it under any circumstances.  I hate the Lumineers songs even more, actually, but since I have to use some kind of example of what it is about the Whoop I hate I figure I have to deal with the most flamboyant, egregious examples of it and the Perry song, though I hate it, too, doesn't go so far as to construct the verse lines on the Whoop and entirely on the Whoop before getting to the obligatory non-word syllabic antiphonal response.  OH oh oh oh OH oh OH-oh-woah .... Oh oh oh oh OH oh Oh-oh-woah (as echo).

Oblique motion is where you have one line in a harmonic/melodic texture that stays steady while the rest of the musical structure shifts.  This could refer to a single voice that sustains a long tone while the accompaniment changes through chords (think, for instance, of the ultra-long sustained tone Jeff Buckley uses at the end of his Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" cover.  But a more abstract, and arguably more prevalent, form of oblique motion is some kind of melodic activity such as a repeated gesture or repeated tone that sustains over a steadily changing instrumental accompaniment.  For this kind of song you could go with Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" or R. E. M's "This is the End of the World As We Know It".

Which, actually ... I don't think rock journalists have put enough blame for the Millenial Whoop on bands like R. E. M.  It's easier to try to keep all the blame on pop performers rather than cast the new wider for indie rock darlings.  Michael Stipe and Kurt Cobain have added to the roster of tricks in pop songs over the last twenty-five years.  Cobain helped solidify repeating the same limited range vocal patterns four times before shifting to "riff 2", and also helped play a role in solidifying the trope of the mumble-core first verse followed by a wailing/screaming octave transposition of the same melodic gestures later in the song.  You get more melodic activity and sequential development in a Madonna song than you ever get in a Cobain song ... and I am not even really a Madonna fan.

Hearing banjos and ukuleles in pop song anthems is starting to set me off ...

Bros slinging guitars and singing inspirational songs are also starting to set me off.  I hadn't stopped to think how pervasive the John Mayer/Jason Mraz school of ballardy was going to become but I wish it could go away for a while.  I'll hear some song like "Love on the Weekend", for instance, and it just sounds better to me as "Blood on the Windshield".  Hey, "your body's a wonderland" is a memorable line and if John Donne hadn't come up with a version of that line centuries ago the Mayer version might sound more special ...

But I'm trying to stick to the Whoop for this post.  Singer-songwriter guys should ideally be kept as a separate topic, another case of my not being against the abstract idea of one person playing guitar (and how could a classical guitarist be against that in the abstract, after all?) but finding myself frustrated with a current in popular song.

I've written this before but my annoyance at the proverbial high and low is how entrenched each ghetto seems to be and while people are out there who pay lip service to the idea of no genres or styles the reality is that each stylistic trench seems to be getting dug deeper and deeper by its respective partisans.

American musicology seems to be no help for this problem because the pissing contests seem to pervade the field.  If some folks were to set out to establish a theoretical basis by which the boundaries could be collapsed or elided that would be neat.  We're talking about equal tempered instruments here so the delusion that there's "no overlap" between musical traditions and styles that all use equal tempered instruments in our time seems dubious and dishonest.  We can do this, we can work out ways to restore a dynamic/dialectic/synergistic relationship between musical "high" and "low" if we drop essentialist paradigms and do the work of what can be tedious analysis.  I say we do that because if Scriabin and Stevie Wonder use symmetrical scales or shifting chromatic mediant pivot chain progressions that tells us that the "classical" and "popular" traditions have more overlap than partisans for just one or the other would like to believe.  My deep dive into early 19th century guitar sonatas showed me that the overlap between Italian, Bohemian and Spanish guitar sonatas in their thematic catalog and ragtime was strong enough that I was able to start recomposing guitar sonatas from the 19th century as ragtimes on the one hand and, in the last few years, to start recomposing ragtimes as a the basis for sonata forms.  So I know for a fact this fusionist experimentation can be done.

What does that have to do with the Millenial Whoop?  Well, I would propose in an admittedly polemical way that the Millenial Whoop and similar tics are what you get when the popular style is subjected not just to a formulaic consolidation but when the aforementioned "trenches" get dug deeper.  The Millenial Whoop is an example fo a "trench" that is dug further in in a way that appeals to those already committed to X as "real" music and a counterpart on the "other side" of the divides, a la "classical music" might be those who are into ... I dunno ... the New Complexity?  I'm not against microtonality at all.  I love the string quartets of Ben Johnston!  I am also digging the string quartets of Alois Haba and some of the piano works of Wyschnegradsky.  But the New Complexity ... eh ... I respect that they feel they are exploring new and vital things but since my passion is for thinking, composing and, when applicable, theorizing about a way to restore the synergy of art music and pop music interaction they're doing some respectable work in a direction that doesn't personally interest me.  I'm not going to be some John Borstlap who declares that it's not music!  I like too muxh Xenaksi to go in that direction.  :)

But I am, obviously, venting my spleen about the Millenial Whoop as a symptom of what I regard as a disease in popular song that does not take as given that popular song is in any way bad.

If I had to try to describe why I think the Millenial Whooping Cough is a disease of popular music I may just skip the theoretical stuff and go for the jugular, there's a lot of lazily written pop songs out there that go for the fastest and laziest way to "inspire" by drawing on a raft of tropes that might come from liturgical musical traditions that have been mutated past crooning love songs and torch songs into a kind of meta-inspirational chicken-soup for the soul pop song tripe that takes inspiration as a direct appeal to the heart as though the left hemisphere never existed.  Yeah, I'm writing this as someone who's been on an Adorno binge over the last four years (and a Leonard B. Meyer binge).  I can reject Adorno's take on the obsolescence of the tonal idiom without ignoring that his criticisms of popular song can have "some" merit.

There's a similar failure on the "high" side of the divide where simply avoiding the cliches of popular song or tonal music is taken to be daring or groundbreaking despite the fat that those post-tonal/serialist domains of composition have their own fairly readily identifiable cliches.  Even Adorno could point out that the great masters of the concert music tradition could traffic in the most obvious cliches throughout their work.  The thing was not just that someone like a Haydn could use cliches but what did Haydn do with the cliches?

It's not that the idea that can be identified as the Millenial Whoop is inherently "bad", it's that the gesture is so readily put to the laziest possible uses.   Maybe the way to put it is that too much of the use for the Whoop is an operant conditioning appeal to "the feels" without a challenge to think.  The opposite erroneous tendency may permeate those musics that set themselves against popular song when, ideally, popular song and art music should keep learning from each other in ways that even an Adorno could grant was able to happen in a lively synergistic dynamic up through to the 18th century.

So ... what could Brian Ferneyhough do with the Millenial Whoop?

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