Here's a common case in the current music world. Head Automatica's new album, Popaganda, is getting good press from critics, who understand the relationship between a project and its product, but it's getting complaints from those niche listeners who tend to post album reviews on web sites... probably because those listeners only know how to judge an album based on their own understanding of genre and artist loyalty.
Head Automatica is essentially the pet band of Glassjaw's vocalist Daryl Palumbo. Glassjaw was an insane hardcore band, one of those rare acts that I respected but had trouble listening to. In this, Palumbo's more recent work, he's taking a new direction. Head Automatica's first album, Decadence, was a disco-inspired punk album ripe for dancing and club nights, and this flavor was influenced strongly by Dan the Automator, Head Automatica's DJ collaborator. For Popaganda, Head Automatica's second album, the band spins further off on its tangent, dropping the angst and soothing the digestion. It's an extremely, unabashadly pop album, sugar coated on every side, and considering the title, I can assume that this was intentional. And guess what? It works.
Now, I've noticed some confusion among fellow listeners as to the definition of "pop." If you're not clear on this, you might have real trouble appreciating Popaganda. Thus, this post: I'm going to explore "pop" as a genre, rather than as an economic distinction or as a deragatory word, and I'm going to cite definitive moments from Popaganda to demonstrate my points.
Okay, so most people know that "pop" comes from popular. This can be a useful starting point if it's not taken too literally... after all, there are a million subgenres that use "pop" as a modifier (power-pop, synth pop, electropop, pop punk, indie pop, and apparently "dream pop" is one, now, too) and most of these hardly get five seconds of airplay every decade. So if they're not popular, what makes these genres "poppy"?
The answer is that pop music, including tons of lesser-known artists like Head Automatica, derive a lot of their musical techniques from popular sensibility. Mass consumption has given birth to a number of musical devices and tendencies, and if you're playing pop, it means you're using these devices out of concern for the mass digestibility of your music. Contrast this with "experimental," which is when you push your boundaries beyond the public appetite for the music, or "traditional," which is drawn from a certain musical heritage and is designed to speak directly to that niche.
These pop music devices are, generally speaking, oriented toward the following characteristics of the music:
1 - Grab: Pop music is best if it's immediately recognizable. The faster you can filter, understand, and appreciate a melody, the more it qualifies to be in a pop song. Certain songs are awesome after a few listens (consider, for example, the Rx Bandits' album The Resignation, or anything by The Mars Volta), and this may make them brilliant, but it doesn't make them pop. You should have a sense of a pop song after the first verse and chorus, or earlier, if possible.
2 - Cling: This is what makes commentators call something "catchy." There's a strange deep-deated motive in pop music to get the chorus stuck in your head, so you can't stop fucking singing "Oh Baby Baby" on the subway, no matter how much you hate Britney and/or Kevin Federline.
3 - Buzz: A pop song should make you feel better for listening to it. Whether it does this by making you happy (a la The Beach Boys) or by sympathizing with your sadness (a la the book/film High Fidelity), pop should be there for you. It's your best friend. You can never let it go.
Those are the abstract goals... grab, buzz, and stickiness. I've got a copyright on that terminology. Those goals have, in turn, given rise to some devices that can be found, in various forms and sequences, throughout the history of pop. As much as this might sound like it limits pop to a few neat tricks, that's not the direction I'm trying to go. I'm sure we haven't even seen the beginning of the thousands of ways a band can pick up with a hook and climax with a big moment, and we, the listeners, have an infinite appetite for all the variations of a simple three- or four-chord riff.
So here are those devices, which I feel are at the core of pop music:
1 - The Hook:
You may notice a certain affinity between the word "Hook" and the word "catchy." It's TOTALLY not a coincidence. A hook is a singular moment in a song that is designed to catch the listener's attention so that the riffs (see below) can get stuck in their head.
For some of the best hooks in recent songwriting, check out Ultimate Fakebook. In their song When I'm With You I'm Okay, there's a moment when the instruments drop out, there's a pause, and then the singer kicks in all alone with the title line, followed by the full-force chorus. It's a singular moment in hook-writing history.
Compare the hook at the heart of "Nowhere Fast," whose chorus comes in with the line "I got away with murder last night in the parking lot..." This is a little darker than Ultimate Fakebook's sunny day shit, but it works the same way, as a sick, sick, hyper-simple minor-key chorus that kept replaying in my head while I was walking to get lunch. A good hook should be there to grab your attention after it's slipped during the verse, and "Nowhere Fast" does it with style.
2 - The Riff
A riff is a simple, repeatable musical fragment, often at the heart of a good pop song. The point is that it can be repeated, elaborated upon, it can ground the vocal progressions, and you can hear it just below conscious level enough times that it gets impossibly stuck in your head. Michael Jackson's classic "Smooth Criminal" is profoundly riff-laden... the opening chord progression, leading up to the phrase "Annie, are you okay?" keeps repeating, and every time we hear it, we want to hear it again. It's perfect modular songwriting, broken into simple, repeatable fragments that are predictable without being monotonous. He is the king of pop, after all.
Riffs perform myriad functions, often as the root and baseline of a more fully-fleshed song. That's where Head Automatica ws going with "Lying Through Your Teeth," which has a nice 3-chord riff at the opening, and bridging practically every gap. It does its job, acting as a strong root for the song and an anchor point for listener recognition.
3 - Major Chord Progression
Despite some notable exceptions, the major key prejudice is one of the undeniable elements of pop music. The major key is the one that sounds... you know, nice. Happy. C - E - G. All the old pop musicians, like the Beatles at their earliest and sugariest, Elvis Costello, and the founders of pure pop relied on major scales and harmonies to give their songs a perfectly unhealthy deliciousness. Moving on down through pop history, pop punk never escapes from this major chord tendency, from Green Day to Blink-182. One of the things that marks "What's My Age Again?" as painfully poppy punk is the fact that the chorus puts 150% of its emphasis on a three-note major key melody.
Enter Graduation Day, the opening, and perhaps the most impossibly pop melody on Popaganda, the epicenter of its flavor. That chord progression that keeps getting repeated in the chorus is exactly what pop sugar has always been about.
4 - The "Money Note"
I heard this term in some music article, and I've decided to adapt it. There's a moment in a lot of songs, especially ballads, where there's a sudden jump from one key to another, or a sudden turn from minor to major.
Popaganda has subtle moments like this littered all through it. Most are subtle pick-ups that borrow from the money note formula... Daryl Palumbo is good at twisting his voice at important moments, like at the breakdown in "Million Dollar Decision," around 2:40 into the song. The cut in Palumbo's voice does something that alternative balladists (Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey) should be familiar with... it grabs the listener and yanks them back into the song just before the resolution.
5 - Sharp Edges
Come on, if you want music to get its teeth into people, it has to be razor sharp. A sad but pertinent example: the modulations in New Found Glory's second recording of "Hit Or Miss," which were surreally (artifically) on key. Palumbo himself is the master of the sharp edge... it was blunted a bit when he was in Glassjaw and all he had were crunchy guitars and gut-wrenching screams. It came out a lot better in Decadence, where he had a good opportunity in "Beating Heart Baby" and other vocal-weighted tracks.
In Popaganda, Palumbo's single-note sharpness comes across perfectly, complimented by crystal clear guitar work in almost every track. She's Not It is a fine example, but it's just because that's the one I happen to be listening to right now. Palumbo holds all his notes and his voice modulates all over the place, but it always keeps its tone.
Pop shouldn't be limited by these devices... if there's anothing the history of popular music has taught us, it's that a pop sensibility can be overlaid on any serious sound. Sometimes such experiments can fail miserably (for instance, 7 Seconds' The Music, the Message). Still, these devices work in country and techno just as well as they work for Hanson and NOFX. Popaganda borrows its sick, greasy melodies and its molasses hooks from every point in a shifting genre, and it results in a record that's hard to put down if you really appreciate a simple, clean, slick piece of power/pop/punk. That was the project... Popaganda. And that's what happened.