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Princess Stomper deconstructs the Art of the Pop Song

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by Princess Stomper

Listening to MGMT yesterday, I began to wonder if people had forgotten how to write great songs. “How can you say that?” I hear you cry. “‘Electric Feel’ is a great song”, to which I’d counter, “‘Electric Feel’ has a great hook; it is not a great song”.

Great songs have rules – surprisingly rigid ones at that. It’s not that the songs that obey those rules are automatically good, but that the ones that break those rules are almost universally bad.

They’re bad because … well, let’s take that MGMT song. It does at least divide the song into verses and choruses, but there is no melodic variation between the verses and choruses: they’re almost exactly the same except for the repetition of the lyrics that points to a chorus. Musically, there’s not a lot going on until the 2:40 mark, when we finally have a bridge. It’s a part of the song that sounds different to the rest of the sound, and it’s taken over two thirds of the song’s length to get there. By which point, I’m so bored, I don’t care that the song’s doing something else, even if it stays doing something different for the rest of the song. In terms of its duty to entertain, the song is a failure.

This is the problem I have with Arcade Fire: they don’t use traditional song structures. Some people count that as their strength, but each part of the song is so long that I’ve long lost interest by the time it does something different. I find myself thinking, is this all the song is going to do for the rest of its running time?

It’s a modern problem, I think. Songs designed for ringtones rather than proper listening. I mean, seriously – does anyone over the age of eight think ‘Push The Button’ is a good song? It’s the same notes all the way through – it does nothing else at all for the entire song.

Then again, Cracked accurately listed ‘I Gotta Feeling’ by The Black Eyed Peas as the worst song ever made. In every case, you hear the first few bars and think “this could be an OK song” and find yourself staring at the screen in disbelief. Is. This. All. It. Is. Going. To. Do. For. The. Entire. Song? The Black Eyed Peas song does at least have a bridge and chorus of sorts, but like the other offenders on my list, by the time it does anything different you’re just too bored to care.

Compare these for a second to widely-loved songs like Britney’s ‘Toxic’. Note how many different parts there are to the song – how it builds up and breaks down, how it doesn’t go more than a few bars without changing into something that contrasts with the section before. This is what makes the song sound “interesting”.

(continues overleaf)

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51 Responses to Princess Stomper deconstructs the Art of the Pop Song

  1. Boots April 12, 2011 at 10:24 am

    Can we get back to calling a middle eight a middle eight? Then you don’t have to call a bridge a “pre-chorus”.

    Or I could, you know, get over it.

  2. Niall April 12, 2011 at 10:53 am

    “Push The Button” is incredible, one of the strongest singles of the last 10 years, and a poor choice to illustrate your point I thnk.

    Yes the motorik backing track may not change (much), but there’s a very audible verse/bridge/chorus structure, with the parts themselves containing beautiful distinct melodies (the rising bridge sung by Keisha, for instance). All that AND the backing vocal manages to squeeze in an extra hook (“push-the-button/push-push-the-button-button”).

    Writing a fully formed song like this over an unchanging chord structure takes a lot of skill in itself, without relying on clichés of the “And-key-change… Now” variety. I think Dallas Austin and the band did a great job.

    God I LOVE this song!

    Niall, age 9

  3. Everett True April 12, 2011 at 10:55 am

    Re: ‘Push The Button’. What he said, only less eloquently.

  4. Darragh April 12, 2011 at 11:04 am

    I’m not sure I agree with you Princess Stomper. Who set these apparently rigid rules for whats a great song and what isn’t? Where are they? Who wrote them?

    You seem to be saying that in order to be a ‘great’ song, one needs to be able to detect discernable differences between a songs parts, changes in melodies and so forth. Do lyrics, themes, moods, and so forth, not count then? While, ultimately, I think good melodies make songs more likely to be ‘great’, I don’t think the relative strength of a song is determined by how many they are and at what point they occur. Reducing songs to mathematics is ultimately boring.

    In my opinion, songs are great or not dependent on the individual listener. How long a song spends in the top 100 matters not at all to me. I must admit I think most of the examples you chose above are not great songs at all.

    There are songs that I appreciate for its musical technical wizardry as well as songs I appreciate for the their turn of phrase. I think The Cardigans “Lovefool” and Boris’s “Pink” are great for entirely different reasons. It’s isolated listener response, not any set of objective metrics that makes a song good or not. The latter does not exist.

  5. Everett True April 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    (from Facebook)

    David Whitelock · Works at Self Employed – Fwd Play
    So we have hard and fast rules when it comes to writing a pop song? I don’t think many people would agree with that. The pop song comes in many guises and structures are numerous….The 32 bar verse chorus variation is just one example but consider the many that have Intro and outros, sometimes a pre-chorus, a bridge and or a middle eight and perhaps a solo. The song that starts with a chorus or holds the chorus until after the 2nd verse, counterpoint has a role as does the idea of collision. Sticking to the traditional form can get a bit boring, a good pop song should hold your attention, it might make you want to sing and or dance or it moves you in a particular way. Whose to say that Laurie Andersons O’Superman was not a great pop song? it did after all get to number 2 in the UK charts. The arrangement and interplay of dynaimcs is crucial. God Only Knows by the Beach Boys is not traditionally structured and I am hard pushed to think of a better pop song.

    Muzz Artery · Colley comprehensive
    I stopped after page one…. pop songs have always been grown up nursery rhymes for morons. Great songs have the ingredients of a pop song and something that actually forces intelligent emotive response subliminally – the MGMT track being a great case in point. MANY classic pop songs are still great songs too but they’re primarily written as adult nursery rhymes for mongs….

  6. Wallace Wylie April 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    The rules seem to be that a good pop song is one that you like, whether it adheres to any particular rules or not. “Electric Feel” is bad because you don’t like it, “The Rockafeller Skank” is good because you do.

    I personally think song-craft is over-privileged in the grand scheme of things.

    http://wallacewylie.blogspot.com/2010/10/singer-not-song-or-why-performance-is.html

  7. Everett True April 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Are we forgetting Billy Childish’s two golden rules? ARE WE FORGETTING BILLY CHILDISH’S TWO GOLDEN RULES?

  8. Darragh April 12, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Wallace – you’re spot on.

  9. Princess Stomper April 12, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    @ Boots – very well, ‘middle eight’ it is.

    @ Niall – sorry, you’ve still not persuaded me that ‘Push The Button’ is any more than an extra-long ringtone.

    @ Darragh – I definitely did not say that lyrics, themes and moods were not important. It’s just that in the absence of a decent structure they fall flat.

    Perhaps you enjoyed ‘Kill Bill’ volumes 1 & 2. I did not. I thought that they were almost unwatchable – particularly the second. The most boring, meandering rubbish I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through.

    However, I thought even while watching it that with some decent editing you could have a five star film. The performances were great, the action was great, the camera-work was great, and some of the dialogue was great. It had every ingredient right … but had just been cut together really badly. If you cut out all the waffle, you could turn an unwatchable 4-hour film into a 90-minute masterpiece.

    That is the point about structure.

    @ Wallace ‘Electric Feel’ is not a bad song because I don’t like it. It’s a bad song because, like ‘Kill Bill’, with a few clever cuts you could turn it from something really dull into something spectacular.

  10. matt April 12, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    But that’s still just yr opinion, Princess Stomper. Opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one.

  11. Everett True April 12, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one.

    Gotta love folk who use cliché to back up their ‘arguments’.

  12. Niall April 12, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    That’s fine Princess – your article hasn’t convinced me of anything in particular either.

  13. Hannah Golightly April 13, 2011 at 12:48 am

    I’m with Princess Stomper here and I am backed up by the Axis of Awesome:

    http://youtu.be/5pidokakU4I

    Check this out. Proof that formula plays a huge part in Hit Songs.

    I don’t think Princess Stomper was attempting to write off any song that didn’t fit this mould, but some of you seem to be more interested in expressing your informed music taste choices than actually digesting what she is showing you here in this article.

    There is also psychology that proves that there is something specific happening in catchy songs that literally get stuck in your head- they create a puzzle for your head and there’s a piece missing, so your mind is forced to try to resolve it.

    There are many things going on in Pop songs and I think it’s interesting to learn more about such things.

    Great article.

  14. Hannah Golightly April 13, 2011 at 1:06 am

    Here’s a bit that relates to what I said about the psychology involved:

    http://www.physorg.com/news69003006.html

    From reading this I think it explains why Hit Pop songs follow the same predictable pattern of structure: Because it’s a structure that must have worked well at some point in the past, perhaps the Beatles played a big part in establishing it since they were the most listened to band at the dawn of modern pop. Well, it suggests here that since it’s a structure everyone has heard a zillion times and one that like Princess Stomper says shows off each hook to its best advantage and is a successful model for a song, that it will be more recognisable, and therefore more catchy. Repetition is key to people adopting a song, hence the whole concept of a chorus, radio play, MTV and the whole shebang of music promotion. Other structures are equally as good and as satisfying, but ultimately, the general public who buy the No.1 records are not the intellectual music appreciators or musicians who listen with an open-minded ear. They like what they like and they like what they know. And why not?

  15. sid April 13, 2011 at 1:25 am

    what about music from a different culture? music which doesn’t follow the set of rules you’ve stated. no, not music which has a complete mastery of the rules, and bends them to create genius. but music which is of a completely different time and space. what then? do you switch it off cause your already bored, cause y’know, where the fuck are the rules even? that’s why you’d probably enjoy music from a different country, which has been bastardized to suit your tastes, and if you listen to some of the real stuff (i don’t know, some dude wailing for 10 minutes straight), you wouldn’t like it. but a group of people have lived that music. and this is leads me to believe that, fuck, there are no rules.

  16. Princess Stomper April 13, 2011 at 4:03 am

    Thanks, Hannah, and interesting links – I’d seen the Axis of Awesome clip, and love the Pachelbel Rant clip that’s also on Youtube. I wasn’t necessarily saying “a good song is a catchy song”, though – I mean, I think that MGMT track is one of the catchiest things I’ve heard. That’s what I meant by “it has a great hook”.

    I don’t know – maybe I didn’t explain it very well in the article, but it looks to me like people didn’t really understand what I was getting at. The only comment that has actually addressed the issue of structure is Sid’s.

    @ Sid, this article was about pop music. Yes, I’d probably get bored listening to someone wailing for 10 minutes. Most of the “world music” I listen to is indeed bastardised to suit my tastes, because we live in a globalised culture where even at the peak of Ofra Haza’s popularity the music she was making could be described as extensively Westernised. Is “some dude wailing for 10 minutes” more real than Stellamara? An Israeli friend sent me ‘The Drunk Men Theme’ by Yone Rohe, which I took to be a traditional folk song – but thinking on it, it does seem to follow a basic pop formula. Does this lessen the impact of the song and make it somehow “fake”? For all I know, it could predate pop (since I can’t find much info on either artist or song). Is ‘House of the Rising Sun’ less real because it was a hit pop record?

    For all the people saying “there are no rules”, there’s one thing that many of the great pop songwriters I listen to have in common: they all studied music theory extensively.

  17. Darragh April 13, 2011 at 4:57 am

    @princess stomper – actually, I didn’t like Kill Bill 1 at all, curiously for reason’s perhaps similar to your own (I never watched no 2)

  18. Darragh April 13, 2011 at 4:59 am

    Also, didn’t accuse you of deliberately overlooking lyrics/themes etc, just noted the absence of these things when discussing the relative strength of pop songs.

  19. polarbearisdying April 13, 2011 at 7:59 am

    PUSH THE BUTTON IS ACE-POP!

  20. Hannah Golightly April 13, 2011 at 9:00 am

    There are rules and there are exceptions. But when something is exceptional, then it gets copied by the industry and capitalized on. We need not lose sleep over it… but it IS annoying when genuine talent in terms of both songwriting AND performing eg. Goldfrapp get ripped off by plastic pop stars like Rachel friggin Stevens: http://youtu.be/pWfVy102T7E compare http://youtu.be/uco-2V4ytYQ

    p.s. I am going off the subject a bit here

  21. P_Catt April 13, 2011 at 11:17 am

    There are three things that make a song good.

    1. Taste
    2. Brains
    3. Sexiness

    Have enough of these and you will be popular.
    Luckily I’ve got buckets of brains and sexiness, but I’m not so good on taste.
    Look at Prince, he had all three from time to time. And he did well.

    Music is like water, flowing through our ears until we are drowned.

  22. Niall April 13, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    “…maybe I didn’t explain it very well in the article, but it looks to me like people didn’t really understand what I was getting at. The only comment that has actually addressed the issue of structure is Sid’s.”

    Or perhaps they just don’t agree? Maybe that’s why you think my comment about Push The Button (structure and all) didn’t count?

    Oh and “Some Girls” was released a year before “Oh La La”.

  23. Princess Stomper April 13, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    Apologies, Niall, your comment did indeed address structure (though we can disagree on the part about it being “very audible”).

  24. Lucy Cage April 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    “Goldfrapp get ripped off by plastic pop stars like Rachel friggin Stevens”

    But ‘Sweet Dreams My La Ex’ is a fucking gem of a pop song! It absolutely totally nails the Pop.

    I do think if you start dividing musicians/singers into the ‘real’ and the ‘plastic’ you’re onto a loser. Cos plastic is where it occasionally is. And people who go on about what is REAL music are not to be trusted.

    The truth about great pop is that it is ineffable. Something either is or is not a great pop song. You can’t say there’s one formula that makes something great because there are always ALWAYS exceptions. You can’t make rules, cos they are there to be broken, spectacularly, inventively, infuriatingly, subtly, counter-intuitively. Pop is full of copyists and pastiche, it’s self-referential and playful and eats itself for breakfast. What makes a song work is the something that is special about that particular song, usually, in the case of pop, a fucking stonking hook. Even if that hook is snitched from someone else and dressed up in shiny new clothes.

  25. Lucy Cage April 13, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    (Yes, of course it’s a matter of utterly subjective opinion what makes something great. That’s the beauty of people and of criticism.)

  26. Hannah Golightly April 13, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    Re-read what I wrote since you misunderstood. I am comparing a singer who is singing someone else’s music as opposed to expressing her own soul/creativity to someone who does. Hence plastic. You are right about LA ex. You just didn’t get what I was saying.

  27. Hannah Golightly April 13, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    Nial, it doesn’t matter if Some Girls was released before- everyone who heard Rachel Stevens’ song recognised it as Goldrapp by a different singer. To say otherwise is not doing your homework. I picked out the song that was most similar to make my point but I could have just as easily picked out another that was released long before if that pleases you. Compare it to LA Ex and you see even more so what I mean. Although on some tenuous reasoning I’m sure you’ll find some angle with which to disagree: be my guest.

  28. Lucy Cage April 13, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    I see what you’re saying, Hannah, and I do think as an all-round clever creative person Goldfrapp gets the crown over poor old Rachel Stevens. But as a pop song, LA Ex does the business. And Rachel Stevens does the business in singing it.

    It’s perfectly possible to imagine a clever, calculated song (not obviously expressing anyone’s ‘soul’) which is magicked into something extraordinary by someone else’s impassioned rendition of it. Plenty of the very greatest, most stirring pop songs ever recorded have been written by one person (or several; some practically by committee) and sung/interpreted by someone else: I don’t think that makes them less authentic or real or unplastic or even uncreative/soulful, because I don’t think those categories are particularly useful, especially if we’re talking about the song not the singer.

  29. Scran April 13, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    I seem to be unwelcome to comment.
    I wish I hadn’t spent time writing a post regarding the structure of Push The Button now.
    What was wrong with my post, moderator?

  30. IJ April 14, 2011 at 1:49 am

    ‘Some Girls’ is 10x better than any Goldfrapp song. And I like Goldfrapp. Throwing around terms like ‘plastic’ and ‘ripped off’ shows that you’re getting distracted by things other than the song, therefore your entire argument is moot. If this was an article about pop culture it’d be a different matter. But it’s not, it’s an article about the Pop Song.

    I completely disagree about ‘Push The Button’ by the way. A pop song established on a groove is no better or worse than a song that makes wild curveballs and changes. It’s why pop is so great – that kind of shit really doesn’t matter, trying to nail down ‘rules about pop’ apply to only one person: you.

  31. Everett True April 14, 2011 at 7:24 am

    Scran – I don’t allow out-and-out abuse in the comments section. You’re very welcome to comment on ‘Push The Button’ (a song I love, incidentally) minus the gratuitous personal insults.

  32. Niall April 14, 2011 at 7:29 am

    Hanna my dear you’re not in a position to tell anyone to do their homework when it’s obvious that you should have posted this:

  33. Wallace Wylie April 14, 2011 at 9:26 am

    Can we all reach an agreement that “Overload” is still the best Sugababes song?

  34. Everett True April 14, 2011 at 10:07 am

    No way. Either ‘Push The Button’ or this.

  35. Princess Stomper April 14, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    Actually, I’m going to vote with Wallace on this one – ‘Overload’ is indeed my favourite Sugababes song … closely followed by ‘Freak Like Me’ and ‘Stronger’.

  36. sid April 14, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    i shouldn’t have said bastardized. music tweaked to suit tastes doesn’t have to not be genius. um when i said real i wasn’t referring to the various connotations that are associated with the word. i guess i was only pointing towards music, which exists without the shackles of or with its own set of rules, which wouldn’t start / play out the way you expect it to. the fact that there are innumerable groups of people, with myriad ideas of what they expect of the music they listen to, leads me to infer that there aren’t actually any finite rules. especially within the confines of pop music, which is being to played to such a diverse audience. jeez, the idea, aura around a kind of music, could be equally detrimental, in its effect on people, than structure alone. and what about personal ideas and experience. in judging the black eyed peas song, the memory of my friends and me, jumping gaily and clapping our hands like primates at a club, weighs heavily on me.

  37. Hannah Golightly April 14, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    Nial, I could have posted any number of Goldrapp records. So at least you agree with me 🙂 Told you!

  38. Hannah Golightly April 14, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    IJ, you are right Some Girls IS an amazingly good song. But you must admit, it’s always easier to take someone else’s piece of creativity, sound, style, production, vocal sound and style as a beginning point. Goldfrapp created their original sound from scratch. They wrote it. Then they played and sang it. Then some record company comes along, gets one of their rostas of songwriters out and requests a Goldfrapp style song for one of their pop acts. The results are good. Possibly in part, because unlike Goldfrapp, whose songs are structurally diverse, Some Girls follows strict Pop song rules- hence it sounds like an improvement on some of Goldfrapp’s own songs.

  39. Hannah Golightly April 14, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Because it is instantly more accessible to pop pickers.

  40. Dan April 14, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LayQ98lR8I

    No song structure needed, but utterly amazing in my book.

  41. Dan April 14, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    Umbrella wouldn’t be anywhere as memorable as a song if Rhianna hadn’t added her own ‘eh, eh, eh” stutter singing hook on the back of the chorus. In fact I think it was offered and knocked back from Britney without said hook. Doubt it would have been such a success.

    I tend to agree with Everett on this, it is the combination of sound, song and performance that produce great tracks, otherwise we would be all be staring in awe at sheet music rather than buying records.

  42. Scran April 15, 2011 at 12:55 am

    Umbrella wouldn’t be anywhere as memorable as a song if Rhianna hadn’t added her own ‘eh, eh, eh” stutter singing hook on the back of the chorus.

    According to lore, Rhianna did not add that. When moving the loop points over the vocal, an unanticipated loop was created. It was kept in, because it sounded rad.

    I believe it is now sung, particularly for live versions.

    we would be all be staring in awe at sheet music rather than buying records

    Which, lest we forget, was originally decried as the death of music… If people can play it in their own house, why will they need to go out to the concert halls?! Copying manuscripts is theft!

  43. Dan April 16, 2011 at 5:25 am

    You’re probably right, what I’d originally heard was wrong because, if this is actually the demo track sent to Britney (hard to confirm that), then it would indicate the hook was developed in the demo process before it reached Rihanna:

  44. Scran April 18, 2011 at 2:09 am

    Hm.
    Still seem to be banned from posting the icreasingly out of date post about Push the Button’s Chord structure.

    Scran – I don’t allow out-and-out abuse in the comments section. You’re very welcome to comment on ‘Push The Button’ (a song I love, incidentally) minus the gratuitous personal insults.

    Yep, did that, but hey.

  45. Everett True April 18, 2011 at 7:25 am

    Don’t know what’s going on here Scran. This comment was approved, as was the previous one. You’re welcome to post it again if you like. I appreciate the fact you’ve toned the insults down and are taking the time to contribute to the debate.

  46. Blue Straggler May 11, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    How come you namecheck Estefan, Orbit and Dennis, but not Cooper/Higgins/Scarlett in the same set of examples?

  47. Princess Stomper May 11, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    @ Blue Straggler I was being indicative rather than exhaustive. There’s some further credits information here: http://www.answers.com/topic/the-sound-of-girls-aloud-the-greatest-hits

  48. sadie May 12, 2011 at 12:05 am

    Sorry Princess Stomper but
    “there must be room for some sort of experimentation in how music is written? Of course there is, but those who subvert the rules must understand them in the first place – why they’re there, how they work, and only the people who have a complete mastery of music can bend or break those rules.”

    In my view is just totally wrong. What about all the great pop bands that came thru the art schools and have no knowledge and a complete disregard for the ‘rules’ etc..
    As with all art it is often those who refuse to learn the rules that break them in the most interesting and attractive way, because they ‘feel’ their way through to new areas without necessarily intellectually dissecting them.
    From my experience it is those people who have been ‘trained’ that have the least ability to break the boundaries and discover new turf.
    “Pop” is an intuitive, elusive beast and you either have it or you dont, the point about structure being that if you are used to hearing songs made in a certain way then that is what you will come to expect.

  49. Niall Mac July 16, 2011 at 9:06 am

    You hit the nail on the head about ‘The Rockafellar Skank’ by Fatboy Slim, very good blog!

  50. Pingback: Who makes the rules for music? « Reinspired

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