Owen Pallett 2014

Last week Music Critic Twitter was all aflutter in response to Ted Gioia’s Daily Beast essay about how music journalism has devolved into lifestyle reporting because American Idol judges don’t know what a pentatonic scale is or something. Essentially, Gioia wanted more writing about the mechanics of music and less commentary on the culture surrounding it. That’s a matter of preference, but Gioia alienated a lot of readers by going into grumpy gramps mode to make his point. In one of many responses to that essay, Owen Pallett, one of the guys indie rockers dial up to add orchestral flourishes to their music, penned a piece for Slate in which he expounds on the greatness of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” using exactly the sort of academic terminology Gioia allegedly longs for. It goes a little like this:

I have picked Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” Because: this song’s success seems to mystify all the Katy Perry haters in the world. Why did it go to No. 1? Let’s start by talking about the ingenuity of the harmonic content. This song is all about suspension—not in the voice-leading 4–3 sense, but in the emotional sense, which listeners often associate with “exhilaration,” being on the road, being on a roller coaster, travel. This sense of suspension is created simply, by denying the listener any I chords. There is not a single I chord in the song. Laymen, the I chord (“one chord”) is the chord that the key is in. That is, the song is in G but there are no G-chords. Other examples of this, in hit singles: Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You”; almost-examples include Earth Wind and Fire’s “In September” which has an I chord but only passing and in inversion; same with Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.”

Informative! Pallett later references Blood Orange and Black Sabbath in the course of his argument, and he manages to fit in what might be a dig at Rick Moody, who (in another article that’s been infuriating Music Critic Twitter) derided Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” as derivative pap. (Pallett: “This analysis was an easy one, because the song is straight fours and its ingenuities are easy to describe. If I were going to talk about “Get Lucky” I’d probably have to start posting score. That is a complicated song.”)

Alas, some Slate commenters have disputed Pallett’s analysis, citing misquoted Sabbath lyrics and misidentified key signatures. Here’s one take from commenter Robert Fink:

But what do we think about the rhythmic analysis? I wish that Owen had taken a second to define “hemiola” or “cross rhythm” – it seems like the hook of the song is not really a “syncopation”, but what some music theorists have called a “diatonic rhythm” — an irregular but stable division of the metric grid. The way “Teen -Age – Dream” is sung to a 3 + 3 + 2 rhythm (the classic cross-rhythm, one half of the clave rhythm, etc., etc.) is what makes it catchy in a way that goes back to the 1950s and behind that to Africa.

Nerd out to your heart’s delight at Slate, or feel free to just stay here and enjoy the KP’s pop genius without pulling back the curtain. Pallett’s new album In Conflict is coming 5/13 on Domino btw.

Comments (30)
  1. I have an alternate theory to Katy Perry’s success: She’s hot.

  2. Kudos to “commenter Robert Fink” for showing everyone exactly why music journalists don’t write more technically. Becoming a musician and deluding the beautiful art that is music into endless internal monologues about the construct of music has been one of the biggest regrets of my life and subjecting the public at large to it would be unethical.

  3. He is describing the song in musical terms but you can make any song sound about this complicated with that kind of stodgy language. Also he is straight trippin’ if he thinks a tonic note clashes with a V chord. That simply makes it an add11 or sus 4 depending on the presence of a 3rd in the chord voicing. It’s pretty close to standard. Additionally “syncopation” being used to describe the chorus melody deserves a bit of an eye roll. It’s dotted 8th notes, hardly an interruption of the established rhythm. (a dotted note means you take the note and add half the value to it so a dotted 8th note lasts as long as an 8th note and a 16th note. Both very standard.) It’s a super effective song and undeniably catchy but this kind of language is just making it seem something simple seem complicated and simple can usually be pretty awesome.

  4. I mean… it’s not like that Gioia article is completely wrong. If I distilled all my beefs with music journalism to one central thesis, I would argue that music journalism discusses what is fashionable/unfashionable about certain music, and all but ignores discussion about actual music.

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  6. “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – Laurie Anderson or Steve Martin or Frank Zappa or Martin Mull or Elvis Costello or Thelonius Monk

  7. What I find confusing about modern pop music is I can’t find a single song I can tolerate, and I sort of doubt it’s the song structure or melody. The way it’s recorded is just so….. over compressed and auto-tuned sterile. If this was Diana Ross banging out a song in some motown studio would I be about this? I’m really afraid the answer is … maybe….

    SO trying to remain on topic, I think it is less of a discussion of harmonic content in pop music, because the recording process is so important and unmusical and overblown nowadays.

    • Might be true, but most drive-by criticisms of pop music has definitely convened to the fact that the “harmonic content” is derivative, uninspired, bland, unoriginal, etc.

      Which I often disagree.

  8. On a related note: why aren’t more music critics upset over the absence of the great book series “Best Music Writing”? It was a great place to showcase the different formats and approaches to music criticism. It seems like we might not be having this discussion if it were still around, or at least we’d be able to draw from more sources as examples writing style and criticism.

    Okay, the campaign has begun. #BringBackBMW

  9. To add to the schizophrenic nature of these comments:
    Does Music Critic Twitter refer to all of Twitter as one music critiquing entity, or the areas of the Twitterverse inhabited by music critics?

    Also, man, the Rick Moody and Dean Wareham piece was ridiculously engrossing, but has Rick Moody ever considered that maybe not everyone is interested in making music with a “human” feel, or “soul,” or, rather, that just because it’s something that he personally doesn’t like doesn’t actually make it invalid as art? At some point he seems to grasp this (and not that his other points aren’t interesting), but goddamn, it’s just a different artistic expression dude.

  10. I’m not going to lie – this is my favorite “guilty pleasure” song of the past 10 years. Pallett is right, it’s super exhilarating.

    98% of Katy Perry’s songs are run of the mill, nothing special. But I honestly dig this song a lot.

    • I dunno, I feel like a lot of KP’s songs are “guilty pleasure.” ET was my jam for the longest time. Dunno what it is about the beat and the vocals, but they hook me. But then again, I’ve got a soft spot for pop. Really, it’s hard to find a song by just about anyone that I don’t like.

  11. Music theory doesn’t translate directly into emotional resonance. You can say that a basic I – IV progression sounds pretty euphoric if you repeat it a few times, but All My Friends by LCD Soundsystem and the verses of Barely Legal by the Strokes have completely different effects. There’s so much theory to unpack to explain differences that are better explained in postmodern terms – x sounds like y etc.

    What I would like to say though is that in my opinion critics most definitely SHOULD be focusing more on the effects that result directly from the theory/harmony. It’s riskier and more subjective than taking the postmodern route (which relies on readers already being familiar with canonized reference points) but it’s much, much more insightful.

    In short, it’s why shit like Is This It being a fuckton better than 90% of the albums it influenced happens – because when you analyse that album theoretically it’s more adventurous than people give it credit for. It uses weird inversions and clever harmonies. You don’t need to know that – but you can still hear it. Same goes for Sonic Youth on Daydream Nation et al, which critics tend to half-understand already. They tune their guitars funny – it’s not (always) for sheer noise, it opens up new, unexpected harmonies.

    One thing I will credit most critics with is an understanding of the importance of timbre – essentially, what the instruments sound like. Probably because it’s the aspect of theory you need the least grounding in theory to explain. Bands like MBV understand it intimately.

  12. This and “Birthday” will be modern classics.

  13. Every word Ted Gioia wrote is true.

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