It’s been a busy week so far, but I thought I’d put out a post about something a lot of people have been hoping I’d take on in this newsletter and in my writing more broadly.
As you might know, I have a lot of opinions about music. It’s a very large part of my life. That isn’t really saying much as it’s a large part of most people’s lives. But most people don’t broadcast their takes on it to a large audience on social media. Those takes and the respect people have for my writing on politics have given some the idea that I might do a decent job writing actual music criticism. I once hoped to myself and I still might, but I’ve been hesitant about it for reasons I hinted at in this thread on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:
In short: I don’t think I’m capable of doing the kind of music writing I’d find most valuable as a reader and a listener. I can offer some limited cultural and historical context. I can use words like “angular” and “woozy” to describe sounds. I can puzzle over lyrics. But I simply do not have the equipment to communicate well about the things I find most impactful and enjoyable about music: how music actually technically works to make me feel a certain way. I play music myself — very, very badly — but those things still feel pretty ineffable to me, and I don’t like writing about things that I don’t feel fully articulate about.
I should say, though, that as much as I’ve criticized the dominance of a particular kind of music writing, there’s certainly no “right way” to write about music, and I think just about all of it’s valuable. And every so often in this letter, I’ll share some of the music writing I’ve enjoyed recently. I’ll write just a bit about some of the music I enjoy too— not as well as I’d like, but just for fun. Anyway, here’s some writing I think you should check out.
“The Culture Warped Pop, For Good”— Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding (The New York Times, March 2021)
This is a really great interactive and, frankly, belated introduction to some of the formal innovations that have reshaped pop music over the last decade that The New York Times ran earlier this year. You can see visually what the “pop drop” is all about; it describes the ways artists and producers have been changing up structures and sounds to game the streaming economy and the algorithms of platforms like TikTok really well:
Although verse-chorus form may feel like the musical water we’ve been swimming in for ages, from the 1920s to the 1950s, a form known as AABA, edified by music industry men, ruled the charts. Think of songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or Billie Holiday’s “Blue Moon.”
Then, over the course of the 1960s, verse-chorus form took stage, focusing songs’ emotional weight and intensity around that central, familiar chorus. Are we in the midst of another major shift?
Seven of the Top 10 songs of 2009 follow verse-chorus form to a tee, sitting alongside some early experimenters like the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” Every Top 10 song of 1999 (remember “Believe” by Cher?) except one was in verse-chorus form. But listen to the Top 10 songs of 2019 and you’ll find only three of them strictly conform to verse-chorus form. The 2020s, as weird as they already are, may cement the next great tectonic shift in pop music, offering new ways for artists to express themselves in negotiation with new technological and commercial pressures. We may lose the chorus as we knew it, but gain previously unimagined sounds that will score the decade to come.
“The Number Ones: UB40’s Red Red Wine” — Tom Breihan (Stereogum, May 2021)
Since January 2018, Stereogum’s Tom Breihan has been writing about every single song that's ever hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Number Ones is far and away my favorite music column running and one of the internet’s best time sucks. Each piece offers not only impressively deep biographies of the artists, songwriters, producers, and session players behind the hits, but also a look at the weird contingencies that have shaped pop radio and, as it gets into the 1980s, a bit of reflection from Breihan on the music that’s soundtracked his own life. It’s warm and unpretentious, it comes with a really lively and often moving comment section, and it really encourages readers to think deeply about tracks we take for granted or tend to think about as disposable. You can’t go wrong starting with any one of them, but of the ones I’ve read recently, I particularly enjoyed his piece on UB40’s “Red Red Wine”:
“Red Red Wine” had a wild ride. The UK band UB40 first released the single in 1983. At the time, UB40 didn’t even realize they were covering a song from cheese-pop master Neil Diamond. Their version was a cover of a cover, intended as a salute to a beloved reggae oldie. In its original form, “Red Red Wine” became UB40’s first #1 hit in their homeland, and it did respectably well on the American charts. But “Red Red Wine” didn’t truly become a smash in America until nearly five years later, when a pop-radio program director, unsatisfied with the new music he was getting, went rogue and threw the song into rotation.
UB40’s label had to scramble to keep up with this new demand for a half-forgotten song, and “Red Red Wine” ultimately became the most straight-up reggae song that had ever reached #1 in America. By the time “Red Red Wine” topped the US charts, the song’s co-producer was dead. “Red Red Wine” might be a simple song, but its trip to #1 was very, very complicated. Lots of elements went into the song’s eventual triumph: Musical evolutions, shifting tastes, random happenstance, and the sort of music-business maverick shit that simply could not happen today. That song had a journey.
“Here Come the Drums” — Mark Sinker (Tribune, April 2020)
This one’s a review — not of a piece of music, but a book. Matt Brennan’s Kick It: A Social History of the Drumkit (which I should actually read at some point) is about the rise of the modern drumkit and the drummers and manufacturers who’ve shaped it. It’s ground not often covered in popular music criticism, and Brennan does a good enough job leading readers through it that it prompts a fundamental question from Sinker: “Whose interests should music-writing serve, and what better stories can it start telling us?”
The emotional-intellectual energies of music are bound up in its sheer physicality, as bashed out with wood on skin or metal, with vigour or with deliberately controlled finesse. Music is a material snapshot of the forces present in our psychic world: music as it flows, the ways we like it to flow, how its sounds and effects soothe or surprise us, what we learn about ourselves from the flavours of these shocks and conjunctions. Some of what’s material just means money: who owns what, who gets paid for what, the sedimentations of belief that underpin this, the institutions and laws and machineries that channel such beliefs; the quasi-class divides within the professions that cluster round them. Maybe drummers aren’t quite the wretched of the earth — but it’s highly useful to take a peek from their upside-down angle at our unexamined hegemonies.
Materialism is who contributes and how, who owns what and why, what creativity is, and where in a performance it takes place — where the music is in the music, and how a useful history can engage with this. Above all, materialism is about limits and about potential: what can’t be done and what unexpectedly can. The ground we walk on is at once solid and reshapable, and the tiny nuts-and-bolts of this reshaping maybe tell us more about how this world changes than rotted leftover idealism can. With the very notion of the ‘critical’ under culture-war fire, we need better practical maps to a deeper past, and better map-reading also.
“The Endless Life Cycle of Japanese City Pop” — Cat Zhang (Pitchfork, February 2021)
This last piece is a really deep and delightful examination of “city pop” — a broad genre of R&B-influenced Japanese pop from the late 1970s and 1980s. “Essentially, city pop is Western music that’s been adapted by the Japanese, now coming back to us as a retrospective source of fascination,” Zhang writes. “The head of the internet music label Business Casual once said that listening to city pop was like ‘seeing old commercials from another world, selling the same brands and consumer products but in a different way than I remember.’ It is familiar enough to be comforting, but implicitly exists at a slight remove; the Japanese lyrics preserve an aura of exoticism and mystery, giving Western listeners room to freely project their desires.” Interestingly, many of those Western listeners have been brought to the genre by YouTube’s algorithms and the site’s burgeoning playlist culture:
One of the most explosive Japanese YouTube recommendation hits in recent memory is “Plastic Love,” Mariya Takeuchi’s 1984 disco-funk track about trying to dance away heartache. Selling a modest 10,000 copies upon release, the song suddenly spiked in popularity after an anonymous user named “Plastic Lover” uploaded an eight-minute version onto YouTube in July 2017. The song soon rose to the top of the music discovery subreddit r/listentothis, and proliferated further through memes and fan art. The video now has over 55 million views, although it was temporarily taken down after photographer Alan Levenson mounted a copyright strike over the thumbnail photo, a dreamy black-and-white headshot of Takeuchi. Nearly every young city pop fan I’ve talked to has cited “Plastic Love” as their gateway to the genre, and the YouTube algorithm as their route. Surprisingly, the song wasn’t available on Spotify until two months ago.
Why does city pop thrive in the currents of YouTube? The term “YouTube-core” commonly refers to calming mood music like “lofi hip hop radio - beats to study to,” which can be looped in the background for hours as you grind away on work. Visually defined by its Miyazaki-style illustration of a girl studying, “lo-fi beats” is anonymous and functional by design—its individual artists have almost no name recognition. Meanwhile, city pop—which coincided with bigger studio budgets and advancements in recording technology—is carefully arranged by well-respected professionals: “king of city pop” Tatsuro Yamashita, for example, is one of Japan’s most successful solo male artists ever, with over a dozen studio albums and various film/TV composition credits. But YouTube doesn’t recognize these nuances—the algorithm will simply route listeners from “lo-fi beats” videos to “Plastic Love.”
This piece, like the first, drives home how radically social media has reshaped the musical landscape, and I’ve come to regard the impact of streaming and platforms like YouTube and TikTok with ambivalence. Spotify executives unintentionally remind us seemingly every month that their business has made things worse for artists in important ways. We’ve never expected so much for so little; streaming is functionally piracy channeled through tastemaking corporate overlords and, thanks to savvy marketing, without the guilt. But pop has gotten a lot weirder and more adventurous over the last decade — a lot of lazy assumptions about what the mass public wants have exploded, and artists, songwriters, and producers have, as always, worked very hard to wring as much creative freedom as they can out of a fundamentally cynical and abusive industry.
Olivia Rodrigo, who you really ought to know about if you don’t, seems to be one of the first pop stars fully of the 21st century — not just in the sense that she was born in the early aughts, but in the sense that she seems to be where all of the novel forces and trends meet. She’s been propelled into the stratosphere by TikTok, and she’s an omnivore who’s used the web to mine a past she never experienced for a diverse set of influences. “Born two years post-Napster, two years pre-YouTube, Rodrigo grew up with music of all varieties at her fingertips,” Pitchfork’s Olivia Horn wrote in her review of her debut album Sour. “The range of her taste, and her disinterest in choosing a lane, animate Sour; queue up a track at random, and you might hear pop-punk fireworks à la Paramore (“good 4 u”), dewy-eyed soft balladry à la Ingrid Michaelson (“1 step forward, 3 steps back”), or alt-rock squall à la the Kills (“jealousy, jealousy”). Like any teenager, Rodrigo is trying on identities.”
And the results are often pretty stellar.
“Deja Vu”, right down to its rhythm track, sounds like all the indie hits I grew up with in high school finally making it as big on the charts as they always should have. That was music I often discovered on YouTube, and the site’s still one of my go to resources not only for music discovery, but for music education. There are wonderful communities of musicians on there, and the vibes of those corners are a reminder that the internet off Twitter is brimming with much more positivity and creativity than we give it credit for. One YouTuber I can recommend checking out is Adam Neely, a jazz musician who talks about the mechanics of music really accessibly and puts together neat video essays on things like race and music theory and the sociopolitics embedded in “The Girl from Ipanema’s” very chord progression. Branch out from there — the site’s a much more satisfying use of your idle time than scrolling through your timeline again.
Today’s reason: Luciano Pavarotti’s lost and forgotten cover of Flo Rida’s “Low” — a track made all the more mysterious by Pavarotti’s death a month before Low’s release. Not sure how it happened, but I think we can assume the intervention of the divine.