Tag Archives: popular music


Response: Scientists say all pop music is too loud and the same

Many Canadians of a certain age will have drawn great comfort from news reports about a team of Spanish scientists who have proved that modern pop music really does all sounds the same (and elsewhere). The Reuters news story describes a study of pop songs from 1955 to 2010, analyzing melody, instrumental timbre, and loudness, and concluding that music has become blander and more homogeneous during the past sixty years.

While this story may have inspired glee in Hendrix fans and gloom in their Skrillex-listening offspring, it also caused a lot of exasperated sighs among professional music scholars. Members of IASPM-Canada (the Canadian branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music) question the value of a nationally-funded (admittedly by Spanish taxpayers, not Canadian ones!) study that seems simply to proclaim “music was better when we were young.”

In our email conversation over the last few days, we also wonder about the reliability of the findings, given that the algorithms included only melody and instrument sound. It’s a bit like comparing sentence structure and word choice in recent fiction: sure, Zadie Smith and EL James might use adverbs in similar ways, but would that really tell us anything useful about their work?

Furthermore, Adam Krims (Professor of Music Analysis, University of Nottingham) points out “potential problems in the study on its own terms: for instance, what is being defined as a ‘chord,’ and how is differentiation being measured?” Is it really true that Lady Gaga and Diana Krall sound the same, since both play the piano and they have approximately the same vocal range? Can listeners hear no difference between Justin Bieber and Jack White? Have genres such as hip hop, electronic dance music, and metal truly had no discernible impact on the sounds of mainstream pop?

Like any scientific study, this one has produced results that are determined by the tools and methods used. Lori Burns (Professor of Music, University of Ottawa) notes that “scientists necessarily constrain their research parameters, asking very limited questions about a restricted sample so that they can make finite conclusions using the potential of their computer programs … they were certainly not thinking about the advances in production and technology and I cannot imagine that their computer programs could produce analytic results for hip hop or dub step!” By choosing melody as the crucial parameter and ignoring rhythm altogether, for example, the scientists fail to identify a great deal of what makes music powerful.

Nevertheless, Serge Lacasse (Associate professor of music, l’Université Laval) cautions us not to assume that innovation, variety and evolution are always of utmost importance to music, and he wonders why this should be the “basis of any sort of evaluation of popular music (or another music for that matter).” To be fair, this responds to a problem less with the Spanish study itself, which does not offer any value judgements, and more with the smug headlines attached to the news report in various media: “Pop music too loud and all sounds the same: official” (Reuters) and “Pop Music All Sounds the Same Nowadays” (Yahoo! News).

Because of course, listeners in some settings do prefer music that sounds predictable. Referring to the playlist of a radio station that identifies itself as “your music at work,” Jody Berland (Professor of Humanities, York University) describes “singing within a 13-14 note range, with the men all singing in the same range as the women. The range of sonic expression is extremely narrow and about 80% of the songs are confined to two or three musical keys.” The function of this kind of music is to provide a suitable backdrop for a certain kind of workspace, and the radio programmers will carefully avoid disruptive sounds and styles. In this way, the demands of the music industry lead to homogenized product, which might sometimes be at odds with the artists’ intents. Listeners use and value music in different ways, depending on many factors. Susan Fast (Professor of English & Cultural Studies, McMaster University) reminds us that “music is listened to by people with diverse histories, often based on gender, sexuality, age, class, race and ethnicity, to name a few, and who gravitate to certain musics, at certain times, for particular reasons. These social contexts and others have to be taken into account and in studies such as these, they are not.”

But the appeal of this kind of scientific study is that it promises conclusive proof and definite answers (as well as furnishing a few glib newspaper articles). That kind of neat analysis is difficult to produce when we have to deal with humans and their messy lives — the kind of work that scholars in the arts and humanities undertake. There is no real need for conflict between these scholarly approaches, but research with “quantifiable” results is often valued more highly (not least in terms of funding dollars) and Dana Baitz (independent scholar and musician) points out that “the reception of this study — the way newspaper editors position the findings — redoubles the sense of scientific superiority over the arts.” Eric Smialek (PhD candidate in musicology, McGill University) notes the “valorization of research that affirms what a large segment of the population already believes, rather than research that problematizes, destabilizes, or changes conventional ways of thinking.”

Thus, a frankly frivolous study offering conclusions about music based on scientific methods is paid for by the Spanish National Research Council, even when it does not try to address the ways in which people listen to music, why certain songs catch a collective audience in a particular moment, why musicians make songs at all. The richness of popular music stems largely from the creativity of individual performance, which involves varying timbre, rhythm, phrasing and more, with various tools and technologies, and within the context of genre conventions and listener expectations. The best studies of music and its crucial role in our lives address the notes and much more.

Jacqueline Warwick
Associate Professor of Music
Dalhousie University
President, IASPM-Canada

More thoughtful and comprehensive articles about the study can be found here and here. The scientists’ own report is here.


Hawkins and the British Pop Dandy

In the past, Stan Hawkins has produced worthwhile work for researchers in popular music interested in gender, masculinities and the singing voice, particularly in the form of his book, Settling the Pop Score: Pop Texts and Identity Politics (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002). This newer book, entitled The British Pop Dandy: Masculinity, Popular Music and Culture, is part of the same Ashgate series as the earlier title, and seems to be an expansion of some of the thoughts and ideas in the earlier volume.

Hawkins begins his book by providing a list of “dandies,” even prior to defining what a dandy actually is. In his list, which he notes is not comprehensive, are singers like Bryan Ferry, Mick Jagger, Robbie Williams, David Bowie and Steven Morrissey. The last two are particularly interesting to me, since my graduate work revolved around their artistic output and celebrity image.
Hawkins does well to attempt to work through the definition of “dandy,” suggesting its gradual transformation “from a term of abuse to one of resentful respect,” describing those employing “displays of tame eccentricity, dry wit, vulgarity, comic excess and most ‘troublesome’ behaviour.” (2, 3) Hawkins is concerned with the British (English) pop musician as dandy, the conflation of Britishness and masculinity, and he locates identity, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and class as sites of dandyism.

Hawkins suggests that, central to his study is “the positioning of the body and its presence in recorded form,” and our imaginative responses to music performances: “In multimedia settings, then, music mediates desire by instructing us to imagine what we see.” (7-8) In a way, I agree, though in my work on Morrissey, I suggest that we construct the image of the celebrity from fragments, and over time (perhaps using our imaginations, as Hawkins suggests). Our desire comes from wanting a complete picture of those celebrities, working through their enigmatic star images for wholeness. If only I would have had Hawkins’ book a few years ago during the writing of my doctoral dissertation; Morrissey is “signifying difference through musical practice,” a particularly elegant way of expressing the singer’s transgressing of conventions. Hawkins also calls this a kind of “dissident masculinity.” (35)

In his discussion of Morrissey’s music video for “You Have Killed Me,” from 2006, Hawkins suggests that this performance is “one of the countless examples of how pop maximizes hyperbole as an emotional crutch.” (72) Here is where some of Hawkins’ analyses are both elegant and thorough, but seemingly surface as well. He briefly speaks of the lyrics which reference Italian culture: the director Pasolini and his film Accatone, as well as Morrissey’s “introduction in Italian by a compère.” (71) There is no mention of how this problematizes Morrissey’s own Britishness, perhaps imbuing him with a cosmopolitan sensibility; it is quite possible that such a reading would correspond with Hawkins’, but he seems to simply glance over an important characteristic of both this video and this period of Morrissey’s career.

What Hawkins does provide is an elegant, and much needed, analysis of the singing voice in popular music. In particular, Hawkins provides a brief but deft discussion of tremolo and “glottal shakes” in Morrissey’s voice (drawing from Lomax), something sorely needed in studies about the singing voice in general. Much further study can come from Hawkins’ work here. Hawkins suggests, though, that exaggeration is the most common trait of Morrissey’s vocality, which songs like “Seasick, yet Still Docked,” or “Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning” (both which show Morrissey’s vocal constraint) seem to contradict. (128-129)

Hawkins’ analyses here are particularly heartening to me in that he works to unify ideas regarding meaning in the singing voice; his discussion of how Morrissey’s persona is “filtered” through his singing style is particularly useful, not only in discussions of Morrissey, but also in greater discussions about meaning in the singing voice. Of interest is Hawkins’ argument that “sound is no less camp than the imagery we associate with the artist: for to be camp in pop is to sound camp.” (151)

In relation to this concept, Hawkins explores the idea of camp as “mask.” He assumes that music is about the intersection between what we as consumers of music hear and what we see; his concern is with popular music as mediated through recording, both sound and video. For Hawkins, “to mask something is to place weight on that which is not there,” but that which seemingly makes itself known at the conflation of the heard and the seen in mediated popular music performance. (154) In this study, then, Hawkins promotes analyses taking into account the “complete picture” of the mediated performer, focusing on the whole consumed cultural object engaged by fans.

This book follows and builds from Stan Hawkins’ earlier work in the area of masculinities and performance and, as such, is highly recommended for scholars interested in popular music, and the singing voice in popular music. Those researching masculinities in pop music performance might find it particularly useful.


Kelly Best Reflects on Spaces of Violence, Sites of Resistance

Kelly Best, a PhD candidate at Memorial University offers her reflections on the 2010 meeting of the IASPM Canada chapter at the University of Regina’s Interactive Media and Performance Labs.

From June 3rd to June 6th, scholars, artists, b-boys, and b-girls converged on the campus of the University of Regina (et environs) to share in the 2010 joint meeting of IASPM-Canada and the Canadian Society for Traditional Music (CSTM). Expertly organized and executed by Charity Marsh (CRC) and her hardworking crew of dedicated assistants from the Interactive Media (IMP) Labs at the University of Regina, the conference provided ample opportunity to discuss issues of music, meaning, and violence, to hear many performances, and to participate in hip-hop workshops. We also had opportunity to celebrate with Beverley Diamond at the official launch of her festschrift. While all of the activities and presentations I attended were enriching experiences, a few themes and events stood out.

Frequently discussed were the tensions between musical meaning, violence, artistic intention, and social impact. Thom Blake and his colleague from University of York, UK made this clear in their presentation on the ambivalent intentions of Terre Thaemlitz, a UK-based, experimental sonic artist who makes contradictory claims on the efficacy and intention of his musical exploration of the politics of transgendered bodies.

Incredibly gracious on both sides and as close to an intellectual battle as I have ever witnessed, was Martin Daughtry’s response to a portion of Susan Fast and Kip Pegley’s co-presentation on Judith Butler’s analysis and theorization of a group performance of a Latino-American reinterpretation of The Star Spangled Banner – an event that, according to Daughtry, did not occur. His critique raised important questions about the representation of “fact/truth” by postmodernists, like Butler, who theorize about music and violence.

Ellen Waterman’s paper on her research with assistive musical technology showed importance of improvisational play in the lives of the differently-abled and the subtle violence afflicted on them by making the assumption all creative expression be part of corrective “therapies.”

Keynote speaker Jocelyne Guilbault’s insightful presentation on Soca music in Trinidad gave compelling examples of how music can both resist and reinforce violence within diverse communities.

I also had the opportunity to participate in the expertly facilitated DJ workshop held in the Interactive Media and Performance Labs.  The only facility of its kind in North America, the lab was filled with sets of industry-standard turntables, laptops, mixers, and headphones.  DJ Hippo showed us how to drop a beat.

Drop a beat we did (or tried to do, in my case).  But skip a beat they did not. The Saturday night party held in Charity Marsh’s beautiful backyard was the brilliant grand finale to three evenings worth of deeply moving performances (including a surprise appearance by Regina’s finest). And did I mention the food? Like the delectables we delegates daily enjoyed, this conference was fresh, local, and ample. And all was implemented with unprecedented grace and generosity. The 2010 IASPM-Canada/CSTM meeting in Regina has been the highlight of my year. I offer sincere thanks to all those involved.

Kelly Best

PhD (Cand.)

Memorial University

Tension and Resistance – A Review of Regina 2010

The joint conference of the Canadian branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and the Canadian Society for Traditional Music took place from June 3rd to 6th at the University of Regina. Entitled “Spaces of Violence, Sites of Resistance: Music, Media & Performance,” the conference showcased the work of both established scholars in the diverse fields that study popular music and a vibrant group of graduate students. There were a couple of papers of exceptional quality presented by young scholars who had just completed undergraduate degrees, which were refreshing for those of us who teach undergraduate classes. While the stated theme of the conference was violence and resistance, an unstated theme which arose out of the papers presented was that of tension, a kind of resistance, in which there occurs an impeding or slowing force exerted on one material thing by another, and vice-versa.

The conference began with a critical exploration of authenticity in popular music, and Michael Ethen’s paper on the Grateful Dead touched upon the tensions between the profit and marketing “machine,” that is, the music industry and its interests, and the making of music, the “authenticity” that is often so precious for fans of popular music.

I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to chair a panel on global conflict, violence and genocide. Paul Aitken’s paper, which won a student paper prize for this year’s conference, discussed the music of System of a Down and its sonic strategy as protest of the Armenian genocide. Drawing from Deleuze, Aitken presented the argument that riffs, which normally serve as stabilizing structures in music, instead serve to distrupt. His presentation also highlighted more tensions, this time between disruption as reflection of historical revisionism (as per Foucault) and disruption as expected musical form for this style of music.

In a panel on “Microphones and Mash-Ups,” Michael Audette-Longo presented a compelling twist on Roland Barthes’ “grain of the voice.” Where, according to Barthes, the listener experiences a dispersion of the self, Audette-Longo suggested that the “grain” can work in reverse, fundamentally dispersing the identity of the voice in the recording. There is much potential for further work in this area.

Many reported that the workshops on Thursday afternoon were a highlight of the conference. The quartet of workshops, which focused on Hip Hop culture, were based in the Interactive Media and Performance Labs, an initiative under Dr. Charity Marsh, Canada Research Chair at the University of Regina. Dr. Marsh and her team were gracious and generous hosts, to those who participated in breakdancing and those who refused to do so.

The papers presented on Michael Jackson were particularly well done. The lack of sustained critical work on Jackson’s music was stressed during this presentation, though it is probable that Jackson’s death facilitated such work. It is questionable whether the excellent work presented by the panel presenters would have come to being if Jackson were still living. Susan Fast’s presentation pointed out Jackson’s queering of white musical genres, and observed the singer’s fascination with white female rock guitarists.

Meredith Evans’ paper on Lady Gaga was wonderfully refreshing, discussing Gaga’s tensions between the mainstream, reinforced by her meteoric rise to popularity, and her transgression of it. Ellen Waterman’s presentation on the inclusive power of improvisatory music for students with very little mobility was particularly insightful. While many of the papers dealt with violence, transgression, disruption and so forth, this paper dealt with bodies that were being included in a context where they normally had no ability for participation. Her paper illustrated the power of resistance for emancipation. This contrasted nicely with Marlie Centawer’s paper on Billy Corgan’s presentation of the vampire in the video for “Ava Adore,” where Corgan is the outsider, working within the constraints of a single shot and as a type of Murnau’s Nosferatu character.

Lauren Acton’s paper on violence in Canadian musicals was met with (appreciative) laughter. Her excellent paper highlighted the tensions that arise when cultural artefacts jump media; many attendees will follow up on the musical version of “Evil Dead,” thanks to Acton’s wonderful presentation.

Susan Fast and Kip Pegley presented their work towards a theoretical framework for the study of music, violence and geopolitics. Fast and Pegley addressed current philosophical approaches to violence and culture, in the form of books by Žižek, Butler and Spivak. One of their compelling arguments was that none of these works give ample thought to the role of (popular) music in society. However, if music scholars demand that Butler touch upon not only photography in terms of affect but music as well, can a scholar in photographic arts demand that music scholars’ work focus on their interests as well?

Craig Jennex’s paper on boy band masculinity was delightful in its revelation of the sexual tensions inherent in the music, lyrics and visual presentations of these singing groups. Jennifer Higgs’ paper on Gordon Lightfoot presented the tensions inherent in an artefact of a certain time (Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”) and Lightfoot’s own concerns over its interpretations.

Eric Hardiman presented on Melissa Cross, a vocal coach working to “reconstruct metal masculinity,” an extremely interesting case. His presentation brought to light examples in the milieu of “hard” music, where bleeding from the throat, a site of violence, is something wanted, required by the music. Cross evokes the same aesthetic while suggesting a more healthful style of singing.

Jocelyn Guilbault’s keynote presentation continued the stated theme of violence and the unstated theme of tension, by bringing to life the subjective and objective violence (to use Žižek’s terms as presented by Fast and Pegley) inherent in Soca—or party—music from Trinidad.

Richard Sutherland’s presentation on municipal policy in Calgary was surprisingly refreshing, even if it was presented early in the day on Sunday morning, especially after the events of the previous evening (during which municipal policy was enacted, or so I’m told).

Mickey Vallee presented on Radiohead’s music as the last of the “hip commodity,” illustrating, yet again, the tension between emancipation from current industry constraints (of distribution, for example) and requirements for certain forms of capital (the need of an Internet connection to purchase Radiohead’s In Rainbows, for instance). His analyses were approached from the side of aesthetics (drawing from Merleau-Ponty) rather than from Structuralism, which is so often prevalent in popular music studies (and interdisciplinary studies as a whole).

In all, this conference continued to reinforce the wonderful and important work that is being undertaken by members of IASPM and CSTM. Of course, a conference is much more than presenting and listening to papers; the social times were also (all so) wonderful. Here’s to the 2011 IASPM Canada conference next summer!

Introduction, Paul Aitken

Hi, you’ve probably already noticed my name around here. I was recently tasked with revamping and improving on the IASPM Canada website and communication strategy. It has been my immense pleasure to do this for the association.

I have been a popular music fan all of my life. I can vividly remember sitting around my parents’ table as a child in the 70s with Harry Chapin or Elton John playing on the radio and I still have a pang of nostalgia every time I hear the theme to CBC’s “As It Happens” and its resemblance to the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”! I shed a tear when John Denver passed away as he was probably the first musician I ever felt a connection to, even though I was probably barely able to talk when I first heard the dulcet tones of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” When I first saw the video for Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” I wanted to BE that. When I saw Jimi Hendrix in the Woodstock movie my jaw dropped, I got shivers. When I first heard Joni Mitchell I got an inkling of what love might be about; and I never understood the vitriol of Alanis Morissette until after my first experience with the former. When I heard “Even Flow” I jumped out of my seat. When I heard the opening riff of “So What” I heard possibility. When I saw the Allman Brothers live I watched a musical conversation take place. When I first heard Run DMC, me an all my suburban friends perked up: “What is that?” And even though it’s a rare occurrence, when I heard Songs in the Key of Life, I danced.

And when I first saw Napster a chorus of angels literally emerged from behind the screen and sang, I swear.

My love for popular music developed into a deep commitment to music of all kinds, and I found myself begging my folks for a guitar. I received a plastic one sometime when I was still single digits, which I then proceeded to smash to bits on the basement floor. I can only assume I saw a TV programme showing old footage of The Who or Jimi Hendrix. As I got older, and actually began playing the guitar, for real, I learned that guitars aren’t meant to be smashed. Or, at least your ONLY guitar shouldn’t be smashed! As for back up guitars…

I played in a lot of bands throughout my teen years, playing gigs at bars I wasn’t allowed to drink at. Somewhere in there somebody must have mentioned that you could study jazz at university, and so I made a point of pursuing that. In the early 90s in Canada it was either jazz or “classical” music. Having little interest in the latter at the time, the jazz route was the way to go. I quickly found that while the training I was getting as an instrumentalist was invaluable, there was little respect, and even fewer avenues, for studying and thinking about popular music. I persevered and throughout the better part of the decade that it took to earn my undergraduate degree from York University (during which there were numerous sojourns into a professional music career) a veritable sea change happened in musicology. When I started in university you couldn’t breathe the words popular music at most institutions, and now there are fully-fledged degrees in the subject. To me, this is amazing, and personally heartening.

The world of a professional musician is both extremely rewarding and extremely difficult. While I was more active professionally I managed to release two independently produced albums, Live at the Jack Lyons Concert Hall (1998) and York Sessions (2001), both of which I now give away for free on my website. I had the pleasure of working as a sideman for many great musicians in the UK, US, and Canada, I led my own groups, had the opportunity so sit in on live gigs with several inspiring musicians, and even spent some time “in the trenches” playing in cruise ship show bands and lounge acts. I have immense respect and admiration for those that are able to carve out a living making creative works because, quite simply, these artists are responsible for making my life better. In fact, I can’t imagine life without the efforts of these creative musicians.

There came a time when I desired to take my interest in an academic direction. With the help of many of the scholars who are part of IASPM I pursued an MA at McMaster University in the now defunct Music Criticism programme (thesis here), and found that my interests were moving toward the uses (and misuses) of new technologies for music distribution. This led me to the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds where I am now a PhD candidate. My PhD thesis research focuses on critical theories of gift giving, their relationship to music piracy and the ways in which this relationship may/may not present a challenge both to the music industry and to how we conceive of the exchange of cultural products. The project combines traces the developments of the seminal work of Marcel Mauss through critical anthropology and French theory and combines this strand of thought with contemporary work on digital networks and music piracy. Specifically, I am looking at the ways in which private or “members only” music filesharing articulates the struggles and contradictions of late capitalism. I proceed with an eye to conceiving of the possibilities of an emergence common and renewed possibilities for collective politics, but one that is constantly threatened by the interests of profit and limitless assertions of ownership. This project forms a part of my wider interest in popular music studies, ICTs, and critical/cultural theory. While a graduate student I have taught popular music history at Dalhousie University and political economy of the media at McMaster University, both in Canada, and communication theory at the University of Leeds.

I hope that we can all turn the IASPM Canada website into THE cutting edge resource for all things related to the scholarly pursuit of popular music in Canada.

More information about me is available here, but it would be much more interesting for you if you just read this.