MUSIC

The Experience Economy And Death In Popular Music Innovation

A personal anecdote on Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica”

The tension is high, the intensity is immense, and the emotion is gargantuan. The heart cannot suppress the excitement any longer, but finally, when the DJ hits the bass, the drop lands. He releases the smoke and the crowds go wild — that is the experience of a music festival. It is a contrast to the concert in the 80’s and 90’s, where a concert experience encompassed an extended prolonged musical act, such as the long instrumental interludes of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.” Unlike the past, the musical trend has changed tremendously. While the current experience brings an incredible heightened sensation to the listeners, it yields a rather average by-product — a generic architectural structure that mimics nothing more than those of house and trance music. As I listen to Lady Gaga’s new album Chromatica, I cannot help but to draw some parallels among some of the songs with many of the current typical, and perhaps generic, trends of popular music. Rather than a comprehensive musical analysis, I explore briefly the formal structure of “Rain on Me” and how it echoes the prevailing trends of generic content in many pop music and its larger connotation with the current musical experience as a consequent of the experience economy.

Parallels to Current Trends

Many of the songs in the album Chromatica feature identical musical elements from many recent pop music, continuing the tradition of borrowing elements that has their antecedent in many Hip Hop, R&B, and Rap music as far back as in the 90’s and 80’s. Some notable ones include the syncopated bass electric organ riff in “Sour Candy,” which akin to the one in “Truffle Butter” (Nicki Minaj). Both patterns employ a descending riff to a tonal center, repetitious such that in my opinion, function as a hook in the music [1]. Another element that is borrowed from as far as “Vogue” (and many more music during that era) is the iconic two-bar snare hit pattern. This pattern creates a tension-release drive with the syncopated hit and rest that follows, juxtaposes an “imbalance” two-bar phrase rhythmic pulsation. The usage of two-bar pattern in many rock and pop music can be traced as far back as the dissipation of clave from Latin American music, but I will leave that for another discussion.

I would like to draw a parallel in “Rain on Me” with “Something Real” (Armin van Buuren). Despite both songs coming from rather two different genres, they both employ the exact similar formal structure — a verse, pre-chorus, a “hold”, and a chorus as the drop. You may be surprised at my choice of claiming similarity of two pieces from distinctive styles — one is a pop song while another is a house by an EDM DJ, but I will unravel the form of their first part, which suggests that they are a clone, not of each other, but a generic one that is prevalent in many pop music today.

The two table above shows the form of the first part of each song. My construction follows a typical popular music formal disposition, where a song can be disposed into a verse, pre-chorus, and chorus. I added a “hold” in between pre-chorus and chorus, as it is clear there is a brief pause before the drop hits, added to intensify the expectation of arrival of this apex. In texture and content, notice that both songs feature a highly analogous characteristics. Both songs start soft with acoustic piano. Then they increase the texture by gradually introducing percussions and bass line. The pre-chorus drives the intensity higher by gradually adding more layer, and the highlight — augmented drum and snare hits — drive the momentum towards the “hold” before the beat drops coinciding the chorus.

While their formal functions are similar, there are key differences on the content, however. For instance, “Something Real” relies on the piano melody as a hook — it is repetitive throughout the song, hence memorable, not to mention the title of the song that clings to the listener’s selective attenuation on palpable element in the music. On the other hand, in the chorus of “Rain on Me”, the song relies on the six chords progression played by the synth bass. While they both differ in content, they arrive in a similar fashion — a drop that fills the blank after a temporary void in the musical spectrum. We can conglomerate the differences of each content in a similar formal framework, that is, each follows a similar progression — each starts with a verse, a pre-chorus, and then a temporary pause before the drop arrives. That being said, they are both indifferent.

The Semantics of Pre-Chorus and Chorus in Recent Pop Music

Intuitively, even without that summarized table, anybody that listens to these two songs will find them unsurprisingly similar, perhaps because they follow the same tension-release archetype. Compare that to the ascent and climax structure that is atypical in rock and pop music. The chorus, which is usually the climax of the song, often coincides with listener’s maximum participation, often with singing memorable and lyrical text altogether. Nowadays the trend has changed; in trance and house music, rather than a climax, the drop signifies a release from the tension, where instead of singing, people dance and move with high energy, shouting in joy instead of singing.

There is a reason why this architecture has become popular and replaces sing-along lyrical chorus. The structure of trance and house fits with the semantics of human phenomenological drive and energy. Its music accentuates the framework of pre-chorus and chorus into a driving force that possesses enormous momentum and power. I draw a diagram above that shows the common semantics associated with pre-chorus and chorus. I dispose these two functions as such because they often follow a linear temporal flow of musical ascent. I also note the possibility of pre-chorus as a departure from the ground, following Jay Summach that reifies departure as a pinnacle disposition of the pre-chorus [2]. It builds a goal-directed momentum that will be carried until chorus, which, by then releases the tension of the momentum, or as a climax, which heightens the peak of the momentum and energy during the cycle.

Notice how my analysis scrutinizes the instrumentation as the key content that distinguishes the verse, pre-chorus, and chorus. Snare and drum are the fundamental backbone of popular music, together with harmony of course, but these instruments dutifully grasp the attention of listeners, whether explicit or implicit. As purported by John Covach, “rock listeners tend to rake their tempo and metric bearings from the drums and bass” [3], and we can say the same thing with pop music too. This claim is also supported by David Temperley, whom perceived meter based on the accompanying instrument in the rock music [4]. While I do not intend to analyze and theorize meter of “Rain on Me”, I inferred their observations as salient phenomenological entrainment references for the majority of listeners. Simply speaking, the snare and the bass are two of the most salient timbres. This rationale is in agreement with Butler’s perspective of timbre in EDM, whom purports that the bass is the loudest and the most resonant element [5].

The gradual change of the texture, which is weak at the beginning, but grows stronger towards the end, corresponds to the steady growth of the momentum, where at the end (i.e., the drop), there is an active participation from listeners and musicians altogether, physical or emotional, whether as a participatory singing in rock music, or as a dance in the club.

While this prototype does not necessarily apply to all of the pop music, the prevalence of this semiotic structure in many of them, and specifically “Rain on Me” suggests that this is the new norm. The timbral and rhythmical juxtaposition proposes a new formal reading that is different from of the ones we often associated with text. Instead of singing the lyrics, we conform the verse, pre-chorus, and chorus as much strongly associated with the instrumentation.

My initial optimism sheds light to a door of endless musical possibility, with different kinds of texture, density, and technique. But why so many of the songs released these days sound generic? I believe the economics of experience leads the march.

The Experience Economy Leading to Influx of Generic Music

Believe it or not, music festivals is a profitable business. In 2017, Coachella reportedly accumulated $144 million in ticket sales [6]. People are willing to spend a lot of money for a VIP ticket, perhaps at 100 times more than the price for a seat at the opera. This phenomenon reflects the shift in consumer behaviour, an economic phenomenon so-called “The Experience Economy,” where Joseph Pine and James Gilmore stated that people are willing to pay in exchange for an experience rather than a tangible product.

This connotation of experience can never be any more valid than now — people go to festivals to capture memories in social media — a value immeasurable by money but by number of followers, response, recognition, and fame in digital fashion.

Perhaps the experience of going to a concert can explain the necessity to mass-generate a lot of house and trance-centric musical style, with the drop culminating the ultimate concert experience, along with the entire hands up in the air and the body jumps in ecstasy, joy, and euphoria among a sea of concert-goers, a union of human celebrating the bass drop. But this is nothing new — pop and rock and roll concert have long use chorus as a climax, where everyone participates by singing, clapping, or in some kind of way. The function is the same, but the mode of getting there is totally different. The function — reaching the chorus, can take many path, but in house or trance music, it strictly follows the pre-chorus, hold, and chorus formula, one that is rather generic and passable.

This phenomenon may explain why “Rain on Me” sounds nothing more than another music that is overlaid over a template of generic trance music. It may be a way that appeals to the masses, perhaps, the only way — to the concert-goers, the experience-seekers, and music-as-noise listeners. It is a form of music that adapts to the current economic and social landscape, but would popular music be able to evolve and innovate from this architecture? Or better, can it break from this realm of mass production? What would the music look like in 10 years from now? Would the experience and the aesthetics of music change? Would the music still be sincere, or it remain merely as another ephemeral product for the masses?

Footnote

[1] Gary Burns, “A Typology of ‘Hooks’ in Popular Records.” Popular Music 6, no. 1 (1987): 1 –20.

[2] Jay Summach, “The Structure, Function, and Genesis of Pre Chorus.” Music Theory Online 17, no. 3 (2011), http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.11.17.3/mto.11.17.3.summach.html.

[3] John Covach, “Progressive Rock, ‘Close to the Edge,’ and the Boundaries of Style,” Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis, ed. John Covach and Graeme Boone, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997): 11.

[4] David Temperley, “Syncopation in Rock: A Perceptual Perspective,” Popular Music 18, no. 1 (1999): 26.

[5] Mark Butler, Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).

[6] “The Happiness You Can Buy,” Vox October 15 2018: https://www.vox.com/ad/17980066/experience-economy-retail-consumers.

References

Doll, Christopher. “Rockin’ Out: Expressive Modulation in Verse-Chorus Form.” Music Theory Online 17, no. 3 (2011). http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.11.17.3/mto.11.17.3.doll.html.

Everett, Walter. Expression in Pop-Rock Music: A Collection of Critical and Analytical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.

— — — . The Foundation of Rock -From Blue Suede Shoes to Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Spicer, Mark. “(Ac)culumative Form in Pop-Rock Music.” Twentieth-Century Music 1, no. 1 (2004): 29 –64.

Summach, Jay. “Syncopation in Rock: A Perceptual Perspective.” Popular Music 18, no. 1 (1999): 19–40.

Traut, Don. “Recurring Accent Pattern as Hooks in Mainstream 1980s Music.”Popular Music 24, no. 1 (2005): 57 –77.

Data Scientist with interests in applicable solutions in retail and consumer industry.

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