Aesthetics and Gender Under Construction in Hip Hop: Azealia Banks
Gender Production in `Chasing Time´
Abstract: Studying the art of production in popular music involves the subjectivities of artists, producers, engineers, and musicians, and their involvement in the recording process, which have a major impact on the composite recording. This joint paper sets out to locate the aesthetic effects of production as a means to gaining a better understanding of how human agency functions in this context. Our focus therefore falls on the spectacle of sound, with specific focus on the aesthetics of production in Azealia Banks’s 2014 album, Broke with Expensive Taste.
By closely examining a number of tracks from this album, we consider the twists, contours, turns, and transgressions of Banks’ performances. Employing a broad perspective, we draw on theories and methods found in film studies, media studies, and cultural studies to shed light on how processes of production stage the gendered body. Of paramount importance, we argue, are the production techniques that conflate the performer. These take place against a backdrop of referents and sonic markers that are culturally relevant. In the case of Banks, the numerous features that define her unique performativity distinguish her creative endeavors. The main objective of this paper is to throw a light on this through suggesting new ways of intersecting digitized sound, performance, and music technology. The intention is to expose the significance of recording aesthetics from a musicological standpoint. Accordingly, the analytical methods we advocate attempt to probe at the audio image in order to reveal the signification of gender in relation to musical referents. It is the aesthetic effects of production that offer a platform for grasping how gendered subjectivity functions in popular music.
This article is an excerpt from my PhD thesis, posted here after a discussion on the IASPM email discussion list earlier today. I’ve added some media to make it easier to hear the songs. Stock, Aitken and Waterman were one of several case studies I undertook to compare approaches to creative collaboration in songwriting teams (another was Mona Lisa by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans). I was particularly interested in SAW’s ‘hit factory’ approach and rapid production-line methods. Most of the quotations are from The Guys Who Wrote ‘Em: Songwriting Geniuses of Rock and Pop (Egan, 2004). Thanks to Mike Stock and Phil Harding for proof-reading and comments.
4.5.4. ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, 1987
In the late 1980s the UK’s most successful songwriting and production team consisted of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman (SAW). Between 1985 and 1990 they achieved more than 100 UK top 40 hits and sold more than 40m records. Stock and Aitken were the studio-dwelling songwriting/production dyad; Waterman did not write music or lyrics but acted as ‘publicist, industry insider and talent-spotter’. All three were credited as songwriters on their recordings, and all received equal royalty shares of the publishing for the majority of the songs. The SAW team provided songs and complete backing tracks for pop artists of the era, including Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Mel and Kim, Rick Astley and Bananarama. Their success was such that long-established artists such as Donna Summer, Cliff Richard and Georgie Fame recorded their songs as singles in an attempt to capitalise on the ‘SAW sound’.
This is a blog post about 5 bars of music. As reported in Rolling Stone and The Sun recently, the melodic similarity between Sam Smith’s 2014 song Stay With Me and Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down (1989) resulted in an amicable settlement between the writers and publishers sometime in 2014, resulting in Petty and Jeff Lynne, who originally wrote I Won’t Back Down, receiving a 12.5% share of the royalties. The PRS database in the UK confirms the share (members only access).
And subjectively, the songs are pretty similar, as bloggers had been pointing out since mid-2014.
But everyone was relaxed about the settlement, and Petty issued a statement to this effect:
About the Sam Smith thing. Let me say I have never had any hard feelings toward Sam. All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement. The word lawsuit was never even said and was never my intention. And no more was to be said about it. How it got out to the press is beyond Sam or myself. Sam did the right thing and I have thought no more about this. A musical accident no more no less. In these times we live in this is hardly news. I wish Sam all the best for his ongoing career. Peace and love to all. (Petty, 2015)
Here’s the thing. Petty used the term ‘accident’, which one might interpret as meaning the copying of the melody was inadvertent. Sam Smith’s representatives claimed that the similarity was the result of a ‘coincidence’:
Here’s my own abstract and presentation from the Oslo conference. I was delighted to learn that in the audience was Jon Marius Aareskjold, a Norwegian sound engineer (and academic) who was actually involved in the production of ‘Irreplaceable’. We’ll be working together on a research paper about the track sometime in 2015.
ABSTRACT: The creation of recorded popular music has always been a collaborative process. Listeners enjoy an audio product that consists of a composition (usually with lyrics) that is arranged, performed, recorded, mixed and mastered. All of these activities combine in an object that creativity psychology would define as creative – that is, original and valuable (Boden 2004; Mackinnon 1963; Weisberg 1993). Sometimes creative contributions are fully demarcated but in practice there is often substantial overlap between roles, and individual creators frequently take on more than one role.
Drawing on the author’s research into creative behaviours in songwriting teams (Bennett 2012) and his experience as a forensic musicologist in copyright disputes, this paper discusses the challenges posed by collaborative popular music production, for copyright law and for the recorded music industry. The traditional binary allocation of creative activity across two objects (the ‘song’ and the ‘sound recording’) was developed many years ago and may no longer be truly representative of the way popular music is made. Creativity that is obviously derivative such as melodic quotation or audio sampling is a form of linear collaboration that makes authorial attribution particularly difficult, not least because of the complex interrelationship between moral and economic rights in copyright law.
Audio recordings of successful hits will be analysed to frame a discussion of the specific creative contributions that led to particular sonic outcomes; these will be contrasted with the Intellectual Property that subsists in the finished work. The paper proposes mechanisms by which the disparity between the extent of creative contribution and ownership of song copyright might be addressed.
Bennett, J., 2012. Constraint, collaboration and creativity in popular songwriting teams. In D. Collins, ed. The Act of Musical Composition: Studies in the Creative Process. Ashgate, pp. 139–169.
Boden, M., 2004. The creative mind : myths and mechanisms 2nd ed., London ;;New York: Routledge.
Mackinnon, D.W., 1963. The Identification Of Creativity. Applied Psychology, 12(1), pp.25–46.
Weisberg, R., 1993. Creativity : beyond the myth of genius, New York: W.H. Freeman.
This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 229. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Andy Watt. Click the image to download a pdf.
There are very few jobs where you promise to give away half your wages before you get to work, but this is what happens when two or more people decide to write a song together. And they do it with good reason; did you know that almost half the number of chart-topping hits in the USA since 1955 were written by more than one person? But if collaboration is clearly an effective way of writing a song, how is it done? How do two brains work together to produce something truly great?
I walked out of a gig last week. The bands were well-rehearsed and the front of house engineers were doing a good job. The venue was great and I was amongst friends, colleagues and students. But I walked out because I couldn’t stand the physical pain of being an audience member in that room any longer.
The gig in question was a showcase of songwriting talent (of which, say it ourselves, there is quite a lot at the University). For most of the performers, it was the first time these particular songs had been played in public. New lyrics, new melodies, new arrangements and new ideas for an audience to experience – and for the performers to reflect on and refine. Creativity in action. Exciting stuff.
Except that it wasn’t. There was no opportunity to experience the lovingly crafted lyric metaphors, exquisite keyboard melodies, subtle drum grooves and carefully programmed laptop soundscapes that the bands had worked so hard on in their writing and rehearsal sessions. Because a Fender guitar amp was one metre out of place.
Survival, Revival and the Negotiation of Gendered Taste in Country and Americana Music Communities
Dave Robinson, Leeds Beckett University
ABSTRACT: Defining marginal country music worlds as broadly either working-class survivalist or middle-class revivalist, I examine how counter-hegemonic representations of gender and sexuality have both infiltrated, and been co-opted by, mainstream ‘country culture’ during the early years of the twenty-first century.
I argue that the disruption of traditional gender roles located in the song lyrics and lived experiences of such country icons as Hank Williams and Kitty Wells, highlights a paradox of American working-class identity that takes on new relevance amongst survivalist cultures in the post-industrial, post-9/11 United States. I also connect the ethics and aesthetics of the alt.country/Americana ‘movement’ to the post-modern anxieties of middle-class urbanites, and to the construction of a more democratic narrative of nationhood from amongst the signifiers of a ‘lost’ rural past.
At the root of copyright’s legislative reach, and practical effects, is the matter of ‘copying’ itself – often referring to what may legitimately (morally or legally) be done with an apparently completed piece. Yet making music, and acquiring the skills to do so, is shot through with acts of copying, from straightforwardly learning a basic riff to the network of socially inflected influences in composition and multifarious technological means of manipulation, particularly in popular music, where criteria for entry to the field are relatively lightly codified. Likewise, as well disrupting longstanding distribution methods, digital technology has blurred the relationship between production, consumption and the ‘finished product’.
Musicians are central to an industry rhetoric in support of copyright protection that often relies upon conceptions of discrete works established in a pre-digital era. This paper explores popular musical practices themselves in the face of a rapidly evolving palette of creative possibilities. How do musicians regard digital techniques—like sampling—and their outputs against other long established forms of copying? At what point do they consider the implications of copyright for their practice?
Richard begins with a discussion of a personal experience of seeing Mona Lisa recently at The Louvre, and uses this as a springboard to reflect on the difficulty in separating a work from its mythology. He then discusses the ‘Text’ and the ‘Context’ with reference to Tagg.
Leonard Bernstein’s view of Elvis is cited – he described the latter as ‘the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century’ and reflected on his influence on musical grammar. This leads the paper to a discussion of craft and art, and the relationship between creative constraints and an ideas-driven agenda. Such constraints, Richard suggests, can include technically poor musical skills (Sleaford Mods and Ian Curtis are cited as examples), and with these constraints some songwriters can thrive if they have an ‘ideas-driven agenda’.
Dynamic Popular Music – The First Stages of a New Art Form
Keith Hennigan, Trinity College Dublin
Keith begins with an entertainingly ‘sci-fi’ way of looking at musical creativity – that is, speculating about the opportunity to make different choices at various stages in the composition’s development (and in its playback timeline). Dynamic Music is categorised (after Collins) as ‘Interactive’ (where the music changes in response to the user) and ‘Adaptive’ (where the user interacts with an additional element that in turn affects the music). Keith adds ‘Generative’ to the taxonomy in order to include music that changes due to internal systems [JB note – he comments that he was prevented for tech reasons from doing a live iPhone demo but I infer he was going to show us something like this – http://www.generativemusic.com/].
I’m en route to the UK & Ireland IASPM conference in Cork. I was at the International one in Spain last year – the branch and International IASPM conferences leapfrog each other every other year, so for 2014 we’re back in our respective countries. I’ve submitted an abstract for the 2015 conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil (about chord loops in the Eurovision Song Contest – regular readers will know this is an interest). Waiting to hear if it gets through peer review.
So here’s my abstract for the forthcoming conference. This is part of a panel about similar themes — other presenters are Holly Holmes (Chester), Dan McKinna (BIMM) and Marcus O’Dair (Middlesex).
As always I’ll live-blog from the conference where possible.
Where is creativity? Locating intellectual property in collaborative songwriting and production processes
(Joe Bennett, Bath Spa University)
Songs lie at the centre of popular music’s Intellectual Property framework. They represent the starting point for the industry’s two most important creative products: the live performance or the recorded audio artefact. In the early 20th century, US and European copyright conventions were established whereby two separate objects could be ‘owned’: the song and the sound recording, the latter being a derivative work of the former. This state of affairs, where ‘song’ and ‘track’ are separate copyrights, remains at the industry’s administrative core, and has led to awareness among creators of the economic benefits of ‘keeping a slice of the publishing’.
However, in real-world songwriting and production situations it is not always easy to ascertain who contributed to ‘writing the song’ and who acted as an arranger, performer or producer. Inferring creative contributions from the audio artefact itself is fraught with methodological challenges; from a listener’s point of view, there is no experiential distinction between song and track. Drawing on the theoretical work of Moore, McIntyre and Csikszentmihalyi2, together with interviews with professional songwriters and the author’s own experience as a songwriter and expert witness forensic musicologist, this paper argues that the artificial administrative distinction between ‘song’ and ‘track’ is simultaneously a constraint upon creators and a silent driver of creative practice itself.
2 Allan F Moore, Song Means : Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song (Ashgate, 2012); Phillip McIntyre, “The Domain of Songwriters: Towards Defining the Term ‘Song,’” Perfect Beat: The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture 5, no. 3 (2001): 100–111; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Society, Culture, and Person: A Systems View of Creativity,” in The Nature of Creativity : Contemporary Psychological Perspectives, ed. Robert Sternberg (Cambridge University Press, 1988), 325– 339.
[this article originally appeared in The Conversation, August 2014. Words: Joe Bennett.]
The top selling music album in the USA is currently Guardians Of The Galaxy: Awesome Mix Volume 1 – and has been for three weeks. Those who have seen the film will know that the track listing is based on a fictional mixtape made by main character Peter Quill’s dying mother, and given to him when he was a boy (shortly before his abduction by cannibal outlaw pirate aliens). Mrs Quill’s music tastes consisted mostly of classic pop from the 1970s, and the songs play an important part in the story.
Back in the real world of 2014 pop music, cross-media promotion clearly gives the album an advantage over other top spot contenders such as Now 51, The Gaslight Anthem and 5 Seconds of Summer. Even so, people won’t buy music unless it’s good; clearly, thousands of 21st century moviegoers have realised that four decades ago a lot of mainstream pop music was, well, awesome.
The “dadrock” era of the late 60s and early 70s casts a very long shadow over popular music’s cultural history, and it’s difficult to deny that some of these recordings have stood the test of time.
In this period rock and pop music listening was, famously, the primary leisure activity (along with sex and drugs) of the postwar baby-boomers. If you were born in the spring of 1955 you would have been 17 when Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Popular music was the ideal cheap mass-distribution retail recreation product. Unlike movies, where (pre-VHS or DVD) you had to pay every time, a single vinyl purchase would give you an infinite number of listens to your favourite song. So vinyl sales increased.
Because people were buying so much music in the ‘70s, this allowed artists and songwriters to take artistic and commercial risks. Listen to the ridiculous “ooga-chaka” intro and verse in Hooked on a Feeling – 12 bars of completely unaccompanied vocals. Or immerse yourself in the epic back story to Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” and follow Ziggy Stardust’s ascendancy from quasi-religious alien to rock star. Would either of these be likely contenders for the top ten singles chart of 2014?
But all this creative freedom was constrained by technology. The early 70s saw the transition from 4-track, through 8-track, and eventually up to 16-track recording, so artists could not overdub instruments indefinitely. Synthesisers could only play one note at a time. Digital sampling had not yet been invented, the earliest sequencers could play only a few notes, and drum machines were limited to preset rhythms. So almost every part of the arrangement was played live by humans in real time.
This is important because it shows how different playing music in a band is to editing music on a screen. In a 1970s studio, if a musician made a mistake there were only two options – re-record the part, or leave it in. And studio time was expensive, so everyone had an incentive to get it right. These conditions drove strong musicianship, intensive rehearsal and (thanks to the large industry markup on retail vinyl) big rewards for those songwriters, vocalists, producers and instrumentalists who could produce great sounds within these constraints.
When a human musician is playing an instrumental part, he or she is responding, moment to moment, to the rest of the song arrangement. In the first four bars of The Five Stairsteps’ O-o-h Child, we can hear Dennis Burke’s soulful drum groove react to every note in the trumpet melody, pushing and pulling the timing and dynamics to fit perfectly into the arrangement, as his brother James holds the descending guitar chord in bar four until the exact point when the brass section decays. To listen to this recording is to experience six musicians – independently, simultaneously and together – drawing us into their soundworld for every moment of three minutes and 17 seconds.
These days it’s possible to program this level of detail into a sample-based computer workstation, but the result is usually more perfect, consistent and accurate than humans can manage. We hear the technical inaccuracies of 1970s musicians as performance subtleties, constantly reminding us of the presence of a real person at the other end of the microphone. This communicates the humanity of the band to the listener.
But we shouldn’t be luddites, nor should we rose-tint the 70s. Objectively, pop music sounds better now than ever, in the same way that 2014 movies look better than 1970s movies. We have higher fidelity, more control of the mix, an effectively infinite palette of synthesised and sampled sounds, and more accurate vocals through comping and auto-tune.
Today, 10cc would not need to record 624 voices for three weeks with a 12-foot-long 2-inch tape loop stretched around the studio just to make some ethereal backing chords. And yet here we are in 2014, watching Hollywood’s finest CGI-powered contemporary sci-fi while listening to a 40-year-old vocal recording.
Creativity thrives when given a problem to solve, and the constraints of 70s music technology forced musicians to exercise all their artistic communication skills. As Igor Stravinsky said in 1942, “the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit”. Technological limitations collided with consumer demand to provide a golden age of creativity in popular music. Mumrock will never die.
I appeared on Voice Of Russia radio this week (the Brendan Cole show), talking about the Stairway to Heaven/Taurus allegations of plagiarism. It was a long and wide-ranging panel discussion, also covering Oasis, Deep Purple, Coldplay, Gershwin and others. The panelists were:
Joe Bennett, dean of the School of Music and the Performing Arts at Bath Spa University and head of the annual UK Songwriting Festival.
Below are some quotations from the full 30-minute discussion. The podcast can be downloaded here (28MB) or press play below to hear it in your browser.
JB: “The whole issue basically hinges around a four-bar piece of music played using a descending minor chord pattern…
“Yes, I believe he [Jimmy Page] copied it. […] It’s a riff he had access to, it’s a riff he heard recently and it’s not the kind of thing that would be terribly similar through coincidence. The issue is whether the thing being copied was in fact owned by Randy California in the first place. Can you copyright a minor descending chromatically in half bars?”
AM: “Actually, I’m not sure that I completely agree with the way Joe has characterised the question here because I think it’s pretty clear that any musical work, any literal work which it’s a fairly low threshold of originality does belong as a matter of copyright to whoever created it. If it is entirely commonplace and standard and gone before then there’s nothing knew and original. But once you hit that low threshold you’re the copyright owner in that work…
“And then the two questions become – one is, was there as a matter of fact copying? From what we know of the evidence in this case is suggestive of the fact that there could have been copying or maybe subconscious copying – a concept that was recognised in the George Harrison ‘My Sweet Lord’ case where it was found that Harrison didn’t know that he was copying but nonetheless he was subconsciously…
“So let’s assume that Randy California gets them on that, and then the question is – is it a substantial copy? And that’s the legal test – is there a substantial reproduction here? And then you start getting into quality questions about what has been taken, what has been saved and what’s been reproduced.
“This is actually a very difficult question… I think the original could well be owned by Randy California notwithstanding that is a descending minor chord pattern because it’s the particular minor chord pattern in which his copyright subsists. Has that substantially been taken by somebody else?”
CF: “With the Led Zeppelin example, to me it sounds way too similar to be regarded as just gaining inspiration. The Randy California version actually sounds like a Led Zeppelin song played wrong and I know it’s Jimmy Page that’s supposed to have copied it – I think the line should be drawn where getting inspiration is a theme or a feeling, but when you actually take the riff of the song I think that should be regarded as plagiarism.”
JS: “The only people that have really been open about it [plagiarism] is someone like Noel Gallagher – he’s always been like ‘oh I like that’, ‘I love that’… And he got nailed for it for a song which was left off their second album, which was very similar to ‘Uptight’ by Stevie Wonder. It was originally included on ‘What’s The Story Morning Glory’ and had to be taken out…”
“…There are not a lot of musicians who do it. It’s incredibly common for musicians to be accused it [plagiarism].
“You look at any Amazon review of an album and someone will say – ‘I can’t believe that they get away with this track, it must be obvious to anyone with ears that this is a complete rip-off!’ Everyone thinks they hear echoes of another track… And a lot of the time musicians hear that.”
“A few years ago Joe Satriani – the rock guitarist, had sued Coldplay because he claimed that they had taken a little snippet of melody from one of his endless self-indulgent guitar noodles. You listen to it and really it was like ‘mate, you’re dreaming.’
“This is a man who like a lot of musicians has a very large ego and believes he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He sees a band like Coldplay who get a certain amount of critical acclaim, although not everywhere, But Satriani obviously looked at that and thought – ‘I see my influence everywhere, they’re all ripping me off!’ It’s amore in his head that reality.”
“In regards to Led Zeppelin doing this – if hadn’t been Jimmy Page I might have been prepared to say – well yeah, it’s just a minor chord pattern. It’s not an uncommon pattern of chords – the descending pattern of chords, and even the fingerpicking – the sort of 1-2-3-4 is hardly uncommon in the folk tradition. The fact is, Jimmy Page has form – a lot of form, when it comes appropriating other people’s work. Now whether that would count in the court of law is highly debatable, no doubt.”
JB: “Well coincidences can take place and in the case of the Joe Satriani track I think that idea starting on a minor ninth chord with the melody and then over the C chord – that was the melodic fragment he was picking up on. My personal view is that it is not beyond the realm of coincidence that two composers separately could come up with what is a relatively simple harmonic and melodic idea over two phrases.
“The challenge with this kind of issue, and particularly the Randy California issue, is that everybody hears music subjectively.”
“When a listener hears a piece of music they’re listening to quite a lot of information going into their brain, not just the thing musicologists write about typically – melody, harmonic context, i.e. the underlying chords and that which could be notated, but they’re also hearing the production, they’re hearing the instrumentation.
“So for example, had I played you the Randy California track using a brass band arrangement, it would be technically the same composition and the same piece of intellectual property in terms of music publishing, but it would sound completely different because it would be played by a brass band.. So, the reason that a lot of people hear similarities can be influenced by something as simple as instrumentation, and because I’m sitting here with an acoustic guitar and have played both examples on the same acoustic guitar back to back, that rather enhances their similarity as composition in terms of listener perception.”
CF: “The Beatles in particular came up with very-very original songs for their time and had a very unique sound. While they might borrow ideas and get influence from rock and roll and other stuff that was around at that time, they definitely put their own stamp on it. I don’t think that you could regard what they did as plagiarising, but it was taking influence and producing original music.”
JB: “A lot of my academic research is investigating the psychology of the creative process – exactly how do people come up with melodies? There’s a lot of romantic mystery attached to it in the mainstream media and of course songwriters maybe have a bit of a vested interest in mythologizing the process in that way.”
“Every creator of music has heard previous music and is creating new material in that context. So when I interview songwriters they tell me that it happens all the time that they accidently, inadvertently or even deliberately compose fragments for their own song that they’ve taken from other songs… But normally that’s avoidance of plagiarism – a normal part of the creative process. You just go – oh that sounds a bit similar, I’ll tweak it until it doesn’t.”
AM: “The issue that we come across again and again is the dichotomy between an idea and the form of expression of an idea… And you see that in all forms of copyright works, it’s not just music.
“But at what point is what has been taken – the inspiration, as against down at a level where it’s the particular way in which that idea is expressed. It’s a real problem for the courts to grapple with any particular case and therefore it’s a real problem for artists and music companies when they’re looking at issues like this…”
“I think the answer ‘I wasn’t aware’ is probably not a defence… A court can find that you were copying and reproducing and that’s the test – were you as a matter of fact copying without intending to, maybe even without realising?
“The answer seems to be yes you can. You’ve got to have pretty compelling evidence to show that that particular track was around so much and you’d heard it so often that it was somewhere there in the back of your mind that you’d be regurgitating it without even realising…”
JS: “When you combine a musical pattern and also a lyric which quite often Led Zeppelin have done then that’s when you haven’t really got too much of an argument. Again it was something that Noel Gallagher has done several times – the song ‘Whatever’ goes ‘I’m free to do whatever I want’ and Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band said that he [Neil] basically stole that from ‘I’m free to be an idiot’. As far as I know Neil Innes now has a credit on that one, along with the other ones that Noel Gallagher has given credits away to. If Neil Gallagher was going to steal the melody, he might have gotten away with it, but to actually steal the first two words? Then you’re in trouble.”
CF: “Most times when you come up with a song that you actually want to borrow a part of then you approach their publisher and ask permission to do so. I’ve done that before in bands that I’ve been in – we did a cover of Mr Sandman which is obviously a very old classic song. We approached the publishers and they approached the writers and they gave us permission to use it.”
“…We basically did a cover of the entire song but did it in a very different way to the original. The original is all very happy-clappy and we were doing a darker version of it. So we sent them a recording and they wrote back and said – yeah, you’ve got permission to use it… And they would get a percentage of royalties from it.”
AM: “It’s an expensive thing to do as a claimant and it’s an expensive thing to defend as a defendant. And I hate to say it, being a lawyer, but it is one of the areas where typically the people who really succeed are the lawyers and therefore it lends itself to early resolution.”
JB: “It’s all in the ear of the listener isn’t it? It’s dependent on the way people receive it – to some people things will sound very similar, to other people not.”
Today I’ve been at the University of Bristol with scholars from the Severn Pop Network. We were discussing Carl Wilson’s book Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste. It’s an interesting read, using CD’s work, biography and persona to drive a discussion of what we perceive as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music and why, and how this contrasts with demographic and literal popularity of a pop product. I personally find Wilson’s lack of musicological comment to be slightly annoying (he makes almost no reference at all to the musical content of the works, or the works of the other artists he uses for contrast – for example, Elliott Smith). Wilson’s own musical prejudices (as he very occasionally admits) are obvious in the book, and he never attempts to quantify his reasons for disliking Dion’s work. He does, however, get into a fascinating discussion of Dion’s Québécois cultural background and the way the French-Canadian music industry’s economic evolution in the last 20-30 years has contributed to its content. I found it to be a very entertaining book, and not terribly academic, apart from the allusions to Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital in chapter 8. I just get irritated when people talk about music without mentioning the music…
Here’s a playlist of some of the music cited (and implicitly cited) in the book.
Here’s a few relevant citations, and a video from Steve Almond providing his own take on the discussion of taste and fandom.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction.” In Knowledge, Education, and Cultural Change: Papers in the Sociology of Education, edited by Richard K. Brown, 71–84. London: Tavistock, 1973.
Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996.
Salganik, Matthew J., Peter Sheridan Dodds, and Duncan J. Watts. “Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market.” Science 311, no. 5762 (2006): 854–56.
Washburne, Christopher, and Maiken Derno, eds. Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate. New York: Routledge, 2004.
I’ve recently discovered the American song-poem. This was a form of vanity publishing songwriting that was most common between the late 1960s and early 1970s. The lyrics were written by amateur poets, who would respond to small ads by music production companies promising to set them to music for a fee. There is an excellent collection of materials and information about the genre at the American Song-Poem Music Archives.
These (mostly awful-sounding!) recordings are useful in my songwriting creativity research, because they demonstrate the relationship between process and product, and also because they are created using a known process constraint (e.g. Bennett 2012). All the songs ostensibly took a lyrics-first approach (in that the poem was sent in to the production company) but in many cases it is obvious that the singer is crowbarring the lyrics into the melodic phrase. This suggests to me either that the songs were done in one take with no rehearsal (unlikely, given the comparative sophistication of some of the arrangements) or, more probably, that the backing tracks were pre-recorded and then re-used many times with different lyrics/clients. The lyric scansion on many of the songs is horrendous, with rushed phrasing to get to the end of the line and some phrases that start or finish at a point in the bar that is obviously ‘wrong’.
But the session singers are competent and the backing tracks well-made, in an easy-listening kind of way. You can sense that the recordings were made in a hurry – there are moments when the keyboard and bass are playing different chords from each other on the downbeat, and the band corrects the mistake in real time – the chords are usually correct by the middle of each bar. These are competent pro session players, probably working to very small fees and tight timescales. The strings are mostly played on a Mellotron by the sound of it (and the low-budget approach suggests this was likely).
I find a strange beauty in the mismatch between obvious doggerel in the lyrics and the cheesy professionalism of the backing tracks. And in some cases the vocalists are clearly trying to work too many syllables into a backing track that can’t hold them all in each phrase. Here’s Rat A Tat Tat, America. Listen at [0:53] where the ‘marshy bog’ line has to be added after the melodic line has finished.
Some of them work quite well, possibly more by accident than design, or at least by some excellent crafting by the session singers. Most of the scansion in ‘I Like Yellow Things’ works pretty well, although the B section is a tougher listen than the lists in the verses.
Aside from the scansion (which I suggest becomes a valid musical gesture of its own after you listen to three or four of these songs back to back) I’ve also become intrigued by the melodies. We know that these songs were recorded to a budget and to a deadline, and that the session singers were probably working to a pre-recorded backing track with a minimum of rehearsal. So they’re going to be looking for melodies that work reliably with the chords, and are less likely to take melodic risks. The melodies have two characteristics that suggest a first-take approach to pitch. They rely heavily on static notes, often the root note of the current chord (as in I Like Yellow Things). And they repeat melodic phrases without the variation that would be needed to maintain interest. For an example of over-using the same melodic phrase take a listen to Do You Know The Difference Between Big Wood and Brush? The melody has a good ascending chromatic line that sings well for the first four notes (the words ‘do you know the…’). My guess is that this phrase was written at the same time as the backing track, and the singer then used this basic framework to (try to) scan the new lyric over it later. But we then get the ugly scansion of the four syllables in the words ‘difference between’ (more crowbarring), and the singer rather apologetically repeats the root note of Bb for the last three of these in order to hit the start of the next ascending phrase over ‘big wood and brush’. The chromatic ascent (in the key of Bb, the notes are D-Eb-E-F) is occasionally abandoned on the fly in favour of a diatonic approach (D-Eb-F) in order to get the lyric phrase to fit.
In some songs the singer appears to abandon the idea of a properly constructed melody, and simply sings up and down the scale until the lyric line comes to an end. In the case of The Moon Men, I get the impression that the band (drums, bass, sax, electric piano) is following the singer. I also note that this track seems to have early 80s production values (that might even be a Dx7 keyboard part?), suggesting that the practice continued beyond its apparent peak in the late 60s and early 70s.
The lyrics are perhaps the least interesting aspect of song-poems to analyse, being mostly written by beginners. It is worth observing one common trait, which is the tendency to write about subjects with no emotional content. I Like Yellow Things is a good example – the title says it all, and the lyric is simply a literal list of yellow things. Here are another couple of examples of the same phenomenon – Green Fingernails (sung with wonderful sincerity by Gene Marshall) and Listen Mister Hat.
And sometimes there was no melody at all – several of the recordings are just poems spoken over music. Run Spook Run (performed by the master of the genre, Rodd Keith) is particularly interesting because it contrasts the beat-poem approach of the verses with a properly arranged titular chorus, complete with Andrews Sisters style backing vocals.
There were times when the session singer was so unrehearsed or rushed that different choruses have different melodies. Compare The Palace Roses at [0:11] and [1:46] – same lyrics, entirely different melody. It’s clear that by the time singer Todd Andrews got to the final chorus he had forgotten his own melody from the first one!
Commercially, Song Poems could be seen as a nasty scam designed to extract money from gullible amateur songwriters. But these recordings show that there are some cases where, within the constraint of terrible lyrics and time-limited studio sessions, the production companies are doing their best to make something that sounds good. Whatever you think of the material (and I think the most we can say is that it has arguable kitsch charm) it’s an interesting insight into the creative process of word-setting and the psychology of vocal improvisation.
It seems apt to end this blog post with Rodd Keith’s strangely prophetic I Died Today, in which he apparently predicts his own death…
Joe Bennett (Bath Spa University): Who Writes the Songs? Creative Practice and Intellectual Property in Popular Music’s Digital Production Chain
In music, two objects can be owned – the composition (sometimes including a lyric as a ‘literary work’), and the sound recording. The separation of song and recording is the basis on which the music industry distributes monies, but equitable IP distribution becomes more difficult when creative individuals’ contributions (of melody, lyric, arrangement, performance or production) overlap or are non-‐linearly created. In the 1960s it became increasingly common for performers to write their own songs; from the 1980s, democratisation of recording technologies gave songwriters and performers the opportunity to self-‐produce; and by the early 21st century most digital home studios had more production power than the world’s leading studios had enjoyed only 30 years earlier. 1 These changes in creative context mean that songwriters no longer need to notate their work as they did in the early 20th century; production, lyric, melodic, arrangement and performance elements can be created, edited and adapted at any stage of the creative process. Non-‐linear creative practice in song production has implications for ownership and copyright that may challenge the historical privileging of melody & lyric in popular music’s legal hierarchy. 2 This paper will provide examples of creative practice, and discuss the legal, musicological and ethical questions that 21st century song production presents for the music industry and for future music creators.
In my recent research I’ve become increasingly interested in the way mainstream songs behave like a Darwinist ecosystem (this is the book chapter where I set out these ideas in more detail). The theory goes that successful characteristics of songs self-propagate because hits influence songwriters to do more of the same – although this may eventually lead some songwriters to challenge what become mainstream norms. So it can be interesting to analyse the most successful ‘organisms’ in the environment to see which musical, structural and lyric characteristics are evident.
Early in 2013 I looked back at the top 10 airplayed songs of 2012 (see Take Me Down Like I’m a Four-chord Loop) and found a number of musically similar characteristics, notably a prevalence of four-chord loops and surprising lack of variation of tempo – half of the songs had a tempo of 128 beats per minute.
“You Won’t See Me” – In Search Of An Epistemology Of Collaborative Songwriting
This research paper was published in the Journal on the Art of Record Production issue #8 – proceedings of the 8th Art of Record Production conference, Université Laval, Quebec (2013).Full version
This paper proposes an observational methodology by which we may gain deeper understanding of the creative processes used by collaborative songwriters. Almost every aspect of popular music production and consumption has been discussed and analysed in scholarly work, but the creation of the song itself has rarely been subject to scrutiny. This is perhaps due to the fact that very little of the songwriting process can reliably be inferred by listening to an audio track or reading a score. Therefore, two methods are proposed in combination – interview-based and participatory auto-ethnographic observation. In both cases the songwriters themselves generate the qualitative data. The aim is to construct a framework that researchers may use to provide answers to the question “how shall we know the mind of the songwriter?” The methods proposed here have been tested with more than 20 professional songwriters between 2009 and 2013, and a selection of these observed co-writes will be published as case studies in 2014.