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8 January 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 7:36am

Switched On Pop: a nerdy appreciation of pop music

A study of 21st-century pop music by Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding allows readers to ask more of pop by explaining how popular music works, and why it matters.

By Emily Bootle

In 2014 a YouTube video by Dutch channel LifeHunters did the rounds on social media. It showed two presenters attending a food conference, masquerading as restaurateurs making healthy, organic fast food – when in fact they were serving real McDonald’s to unknowing critics. As the critics taste the deconstructed Big Macs on camera, they comment earnestly on flavour and texture, and hilarity ensues. It is not that the critics are exposed as frauds, per se: it’s that for once they are not superior. Their sophisticated palate and florid vocabulary are useless, because we know something they don’t.

Pop music is a bit like fast food. Both can be as satisfying as their haute counterparts. Almost everyone enjoys them in a certain context, guiltily or otherwise. And one of the reasons that both are so often dismissed intellectually is that their detractors tend to be better equipped to justify their feelings about them than their fans. In music, the high-low divide remains the most contested of any art form.

It is more difficult to disguise music than it is food. But the prank is also about the power of perspective: what happens not just when a Big Mac is cut into unrecognisable pieces, but when it is consumed with higher expectations. Switched On Pop – a study of 21st-century pop music by Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding – allows readers to ask more of pop by explaining “how popular music works, and why it matters”.

That pop music works and matters is an argument that has gained traction in recent years. Switched On Pop started life in 2014 as a podcast explaining the musical techniques underpinning pop hits; it was joined by Dissect, a serial podcast deep-diving into hip-hop albums. There is a consensus, particularly among millennials, that pop culture is something worth considering critically: Beyoncé is hailed as a genius; Charli XCX a postmodern commentator.

This follows a century in which the music world was divided. One of the most notable critiques of popular music was published in 1941 by the social theorist Theodor Adorno. His case for “serious” music over pop is an elaborate take on standard-issue snobbery: pop is one-dimensional, mass-marketed and promotes conformity. These attributes derive from what Adorno identifies as “standardisation”: the content, structure and harmony of all pop music are broadly the same; there are fixed rules to uphold and a goal to aim for. This prevents pop from achieving anything profound.

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In 1941 pop was a relatively new, stylistically narrow counterpart to a still-dominant “classical” scene. Now the umbrella of pop music encompasses countless genres and cultures and is the prevailing musical force worldwide: “standardisation” is no longer such a sturdy concept. But Switched On Pop argues that pop can be both musically and sociologically meaningful even within the sort of framework Adorno describes.

Sloan and Harding’s approach is to identify the crucial characteristics of pop and break them down using illustrative songs. Their choices comprise a cross-section of the past 20 years of Western pop, from Ariana Grande and Skrillex to Outkast and Britney Spears. The authors recognise that there is “no way to represent the full richness and complexity of 21st-century pop in a single book”, but give it a pretty good go anyway.

They are almost as interested in the social context of pop as its technical intricacies. The chapter that explains timbre (the specific tonal quality of sounds that can alter the atmosphere of a song) does so using Sia’s unique vocal quality, and touches on her appropriation of a fake patois – a technique that would proliferate insensitively for the rest of the decade. An examination of Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools”, meanwhile, reveals the drug culture inherent in the style of southern US hip hop known as trap.

The main purpose of Switched On Pop, however, is not cultural but musical analysis. Music critics face a problem of vocabulary: they are forced to choose between the allusive and the scientific. The former can lead to a reliance on increasingly obtuse adjectives to try to get close to the emotional experience of listening to music. The latter requires technical terminology that is unfamiliar to most readers, and often fails to capture the emotive qualities that makes the music worth analysing in the first place.

The required understanding of music theory leads to necessarily laborious explanations, but also allows for the authors’ most illuminating insights, which identify techniques used by specific artists in specific songs. They coin the term “T Drop” for Taylor Swift’s musical signature: a melodic pattern repeated throughout her work described as a “lachrymose descent”. Musically, this helps explain why Swift’s work is so irresistible; conceptually, it cements her artistic credibility.

The reason Switched On Pop works as a podcast is that listeners can experience first-hand the techniques Sloan and Harding explain, by hearing the relevant snippets of the songs. Similarly, the book is punctuated by user-friendly diagrams that use both visual analogies and fun, familiar caricatures of pop stars – Lamar’s head dotted around to show a pattern of syncopation, for example – to ground the granular explanations in something more accessible.

The language itself is similarly chatty (Justin Bieber becomes “The Biebs”). And although it is consistent with the book’s intention to make pop more serious and classical less intimidating, to quip that “Rossini would likely cough up his affogato” also exposes the chasm between the two styles of criticism and the potentially jarring effect of combining them. Removing the seriousness from classical music writing can deaden its impact (as demonstrated by Classic FM’s social media presence). Similarly, there is a coolness to intelligent pop writing that can be disrupted by tongue-in-cheek references to 18th-century composers.

This is one of the questions that Switched On Pop poses: why shouldn’t pop be nerdy and classical be fun? But on the other hand, why can’t pop just be different, and acceptable on its own terms? “If readers find Taylor Swift’s reliance on the T Drop excessive… it may prove instructive to compare her style to that of another great melodist, namely, Josquin des Prez,” write Sloan and Harding. No doubt it would – but it’s also worth questioning why readers would need a 16th-century canonical comparison to take Swift’s music seriously.

“Serious music,” writes Adorno, “may be thus characterised: every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece.” In popular music, on the other hand, “every detail is substitutable”; “complications have no consequences”. Sloan and Harding consistently refute this claim, and here classical comparisons are useful. Referring to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth as a “hook” reinforces the argument that Ariana Grande’s “Break Free” contains not just memorable pockets of musical material, but “hooks” that convey the meaning of the song on a macrocosmic level: “Breaking free is expressed musically throughout the song in gestures large and small. ‘Break Free’ is more than a title, it’s an uber-hook.”

When a food critic unknowingly eats McDonald’s and finds it delicious, they are tasting something simple and perceiving it as complicated. In pop music, the opposite is true. Its overarching messages may be simple, visceral and accessible, but under the shiny surface is a wealth of complexity that conveys meaning. Switched On Pop makes the case that this might be “serious music” after all. 

Switched On Pop
Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding
Oxford University Press, 224pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran