Tagg and Pop Music Analysis

I was recently pointed to Philip Tagg’s article “Analysing Popular Music” at the Media and Music Studies website.  It’s scholarly and long if you’re not a giant music geek, but there were a couple crafty insights I thought worth sharing.

Tagg notes that the serious study of popular music is not inherently incongruous; the ubiquity of pop in industrialized cultures makes it a very important subject.

“One does not need to be a don to understand that there are objective developments in nineteenth- and twentieth-century music history which demand that changes be made, not leas in academic circles.

These developments can be summarised as follows: (1) a vast increase in the share music takes in the money and time budgets of citizens in the industrialised world; (2) shifts in class structure leading to the advent of socioculturally definable groups, such as young people in student or unemployment limbo between childhood and adulthood, and their need for collective identity; (3) technological advances leading to the development of recording techniques capable (for the first time in history) of accurately storing and allowing for mass distribution of non-written musics; (3) transistorisation, microelectronics and all that such advances mean to the mass dissemination of music; (5) the development of new musical functions in the audiovisual media (for example, films, TV, video, advertising); (6) the `non-communication’ crisis in modern Western art music and the stagnation of official art music in historical moulds; (7) the development of a loud, permanent, mechanical lo-fi soundscape (Schafer 1974, 1977) and its `reflection’ (Riethmüller 1976) in electrified music with regular pulse (Bradley 1980); (8) the general acceptance of certain Euro- and Afro-American genres as constituting a lingua franca of musical expression in a large number of contexts within industrialised society; (9) the gradual, historically inevitable replacement of intellectuals schooled solely in the art music tradition by others exposed to the same tradition but at the same time brought up on Presley, the Beatles and the Stones.

To those of us who during the fifties and sixties played both Scarlatti and soul, did palaeography and Palestrina crosswords as well as working in steelworks, and who walked across quads on our way to the `Palais’ or the pop club, the serious study of popular music is not a matter of intellectuals turning hip or of mods and rockers going academic. It is a question of (a) getting together two equally important parts of experience, the intellectual and emotional, inside our own heads and (b) being able as music teachers to face pupils whose musical outlook has been crippled by those who present `serious music’ as if it could never be `fun’ and `fun music’ as though it could never have any serious implications.

Thus the need for the serious study of popular music is obvious…

The other snappy thing Tagg does is describe all music as part of a triangle, with its poles representing Folk music, Art music, and Popular music.  There’s a chart (which I can’t reproduce graphically here) marking out some basic properties of each type.

Folk music is primarily produced by amateurs, stored and distributed by oral transmission, occurs in nomadic/agrarian societies, is not accompanied by written theory or aesthetics, and authorship is usually anonymous.  Art music is produced by professionals, stored and distributed by written musical notation, occurs in industrialized societies, is supported by a written theory or aesthetics, and authorship is non-anonymous.  Popular music is produced by pros (though this is changing), stored and distributed by recordings, occurs in industrial societies, does not have a written theory or aesthetics, and authorship is generally known.

Tagg then argues that because of its different characteristics, popular music cannot be analyzed by the traditional tools of musicology; he outlines a holistic approach he thinks might work and gives an example of its application (Abba’s “Fernando”).  Because pop is inherently wrapped up in economics and selling a product, the usual aesthetic criteria are further diminished in applicability.  Pop has different goals than art music, or folk music.

The triangle diagram helped me see my own music squarely (!) in the pop camp; no matter how artsy I might get, I’m not making art music.  Consequently, I feel a little more free to pursue great pop, knowing that’s what I’m after.

You’ll hear it when Five Star Crush gets out of West End next week.  -h


My post this weekend will be delayed; I’m travelling all of yesterday and today.

You might take a look at www.myspace.com/cashmoremusic in the meantime to see who I’ll be playing with on Thurs August 10, 7 pm, 700 E 110th St, KC MO – outside. If you’re in KC, you should come! I’ll be playing mostly “Ventura” stuff with other things thrown in as I feel. -h

New SR, Band Names, 2-man Songwriting

Email prompted more discussion this week; I’ll take the questions one-by-one…

Mad props on Sally Ride. Does it sound like the first record, or has the sound kind of evolved since then? You and Cory both write songs and then compare them, right? Or else is that what Ventura is? How do you two differentiate between all the different groups you’ve been in? Is it all kinda Shackerish but just different names, or can you definitley tell how stuff changes between each band moniker?

The new Sally Ride (It’s A Trap – a collaboration between Cory and I with Uncle Charlie and Hank) is a real evolution. Sixteen years between Don’t Let Them Take Us… ALIVE! (when Cory and I were 8 years old!) and now. So it sounds like Sally Ride, but it sounds different too. The songs still tell stories with dark and ironic twists, but this time some politics is mixed up with the relationship stuff. Tempos tend towards that same 70-to-80 b.p.m. bounce that I think has just a tinge of funk. There’s a big increase in our use of weird scale degrees and chromatic figures in both the guitar and the melodies, and it’s all in standard tuning (instead of drop-D). I think the new songs are catchier, with hookier choruses. The songs are more varied, and they work pretty well acoustic, which I didn’t expect. Probably the most obvious difference is that we’re programming drums from a snythesizer. Maybe it’s like the Postal Service + …ALIVE! x Hail to the Thief.

As far as my songwriting, and Cory’s… I’m always writing eight different things. When I’m writing something that I want Cory to help with (which I’m doing more and more) I tell him about it, show him what I’ve done so far, and then maybe he will have or write a song or three to go with it. I also give him guitar ideas that I’m stuck on (no melody) and often he’ll write a killer melody. “Coast & Plains” from Ventura is exactly that. The score for Ventura is something like howie:7, Cory:1, together:4. It’s A Trap is headed towards howie:7, Cory:2, together:1. Of course we arrange and embellish each other’s stuff, but I’m taking “write” in terms of chords/melody/lyrics. Ventura is just the project that so far has pushed the farthest into collaborative territory. It’s an exciting direction for both of us, and I think we’ll keep moving into it. It will probably be put out by “echoes + Beach-Puppy” or something, because it definitely feels like an echoes thing to me but I want Cory to be recognized.

Lastly, differentiating between bands. It’s not all Shackerish to me. Shacker is something specific; the three or four of us playing Cory’s folk-tinged power pop (or pop-tinged folk). Names are boxes that help listeners know what to expect; if It’s A Trap were by Shacker, it would be confusing for everyone, including me. You might like the acoustic “Fully OK” and hate “A Come-On,” and it would be strange if it were the same band sounding so different. So from Sally Ride, you sort of get paranoid alt-rock anthems. From echoes, snappy punk-inspired songwriting with unexpected twists & turns. Axeface/BP is pretty straight modern folk. I just really enjoy playing among different styles and sounds, not being tied into any one thing but a free agent looking for interesting music and words. Different albums or bands have different approaches and themes, and I think naming things appropriately helps people understand it.


PS – We were linked from here this week; Japan!

Top 50 "Conservative" Rock Songs

The National Review, a conservative magazine, published a list of the “Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs” earlier this spring.  You can get the list via this post at the Lincoln Journal Star’s Ground Zero blog.

“The magazine says it based its selections on ‘a broad criteria: the songs had to be well-liked and express classically conservative ideas such as skepticism of government or support for traditional values.’

The Review used a completely surface-level reading of these tunes in order to co-opt them for their conservative agenda.  It reminds me of Ronald Reagan using Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as a campaign anthem; Reagan liked the chorus, never mind that the verses were all about the struggles of working-class Americans.

Their # 1, The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” isn’t about government at all.  Pete Townshend talks at length on his VH1 Storytellers episode about how this song is about “losing yourself – that thing we used to to a lot of in the ’60’s” through “a football game, a great party, or making love to somebody” and not letting uptight squares like the National Review talk you out of having those experiences.

The Review obviously misses the irony of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” at # 5.  The same on “Wonderful” by Everclear at # 43.  Conservatives tend not to understand subtleties like “irony,” preferring to force the world into black-or-white.  That worldview doesn’t jive so much with rock music, or art in general.

This list is just example # 4, 592, 371 of conservatives staking claim on typically progressive pop culture for their own agenda.  It’s transparent, and it doesn’t work; the National Review and its readers make lists while classic liberals/Enlightenment-types/progressives/Greens/etc. make ROCK MUSIC.  I’ll take that difference and see it play in the media any day.


In FuriousSound studio news, I’m mastering Robot, Creep Closer!‘s debut album for Lone Prairie Records this weekend.  I’ve also demoed nine songs for Sally Ride’s upcoming It’s A Trap, and am working on drums.  In a way, this relates to the main post, because the new SR will include songs about the NSA domestic-spying program, net neutrality, David S. Addington, and Ohio 2004.  -h

The Flash


Sometime, write about some of the ways that songs “come to you.”  As someone who has never had that “flash” for word/song/art etc. I marvel at the “nothing to something” process – and I know that at some point the WORK element kicks in to formally shape the project.

– email to howie, 5 July

My songwriting is always a blend of intuitive “flash” and conscious craft.  The best tend to happen when the initial idea is shaped quickly into final-draft form; these seem to be the most integrated to me (but that may come from my own experience, and not be shared with listeners).

The flash comes in three different ways I can think of, one more than the others.  Most frequently, I’m doing something regular – reading, dishes, email, working – and I become aware of a bit of music that’s been bubbling through my mind for awhile.  It could sound like anything, from guitar or piano to orchestra.  I run to the nearest instrument and start playing along, humming, figuring it out.  Sometimes I get it almost exactly, other times I can’t seem to parse my own imagination so I try to pull something that catches my ear out of it anyway.

This also can happen from a sort of dream state, either right before I fall asleep or when I wake up (flash type # 2).  Thirdly, once in awhile when I’m playing guitar, I’ll be noodling around with no aim and happen on a series of notes or chords that strike my attention, and that will become the raw material for a song.

When I’m working with a new flash, I first try to put off my conscious, crafting self and allow the flash to do its thing and play over me.  That’s hard because my nature is to jump right in and shape it immediately, instead of letting it find its own shape.  The whole intuitive side of songwriting is opposite of most of the rest of my personality, which makes it kind of mysterious, fun, and fragile.

The flash yields anything from a couple guitar ideas with no melody to several different instrumental sections (3-5) with some melodic phrases attached (rarely any lyrics).  The “craft” then is to take those raw ideas, and turn them into songs.  For any given song, it can take a day, or months and months.  Lyrics usually start from a single “flash” phrase that pops out of me while I’m humming a melody, and are built around that.  Arrangements of the various parts are determined by the lyrics, trying to make the whole thing tell a consistent story – I try to be pretty open to unorthodox arrangements, stretching verses, cutting choruses, having six different parts in a song, as long as it all works together.

“Nothing to something” is true to my experience.  The flash, paradoxically, does and does not come from “me” – it’s not magic or metaphysical, but from a subconscious place that can feel like “other.”  And after shaping it (think of a potter), it becomes something – a song.  I’m kind of in awe if I think about it; it feels like a gift – not that my particular songs are a gift to anyone – but that we humans are so complex that such things can happen to us, and we can participate in them.  Maybe we are such things as writing songs (or baking cookies, or teaching children, or any of the other miracles we perform daily without even noticing).  -h

Half-Price Books (records, really!)

Half-Price Books is my new best friend for music.  The Westport location yielded some MJ and Built to Spill in April, and a couple weeks ago I stormed the one on Metcalf in a spare hour.  See what I found.
The Afghan WhigsGentlemen.  I’ve worked backwards in the Whigs’ discography, from 1965 to Black Love and now to Gentlemen.  Younger, the band is angrier, more succinct, more brash, and that leads to just a hint of that early-career awkwardness that is only cool for bands you really like.  I really like them.
GomezOut West.  The Brits’ double-disc live document, done last year on Dave Matthews’ ATO label on the heels of Split the Difference.  Only two of those tunes pop up, so I am happy to hear lots of old songs and a natural-sounding mix.  For fans only, but Gomez’ earlier In Our Gun is one of my personal top 10 records ever.
U2War.  Their third, from 1983, including “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “40,” and “New Year’s Day.”  New favorite is “Like A Song…”
The CarsComplete Greatest Hits.  I’ve been meaning to pick up a Cars comp for a long time, and when I found this one on Rhino Records (trustworthy reissue label) I went for it.  Great summer stuff, what can you say?  You probably know more Cars songs than you realize.
Matthew SweetGirlfriend.  I know it’s an alt-rock classic, and has every right to be.  I remember hearing “Girlfriend” on 101.9 “the Edge” out of Lincoln.
Michael JacksonOff the Wall.  Thereby completing my collection of Jackson’s real work post-5: this, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous.  It’s like a more even Thriller; the dance tracks don’t hit quite so hard, and the schmaltz is considerably less schmaltzy.  4 1/2 out of 5.
And from the $1 bin (!)…
ONMake Believe.  The songs on this record sound more like B-sides from Ken Andrews’ other project, Year of the Rabbit.  They each have one cool harmonic trick, but in no way compare to ON’s stellar debut Shifting Skin.  The thick, shiny guitars and excessive compression (you can hear the kick pumping it every time = aggravating and unpleasant!) highlight Ken’s trademark production clarity, but are complete mood killers.
Landing GearBreak-up Songs For Relationships That Never Happened.  Minneapolis rockers have a gentle 80’s influence and really solid pop-rock songwriting chops.  A steal for a lone bone, I thought seriously about paying full price for it when it came out locally last year.
The Soundtrack of our LivesBehind the Music.  I remembered this from KDNE days.  These Swedes raid rock’s closet and emerge with a varied garage rock record.  Some songs are mostly acoustic guitar or organ, which is cool; they cover broad territory and have decent hooks, definitely worth a buck.
Slum VillageFantastic, vol. 2.  If you like Jay Dee or A Tribe Called Quest, this is pretty good stuff you would want even pay full price for.  Mellow beats with a ton of snap snare and steady rhymes.