Call Me Traditional?

Carly Rae Jepsen

Call Me Traditional?

Stephen Graham listens to a range of new pop singles from artists such as Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen, and considers whether it makes sense to think of there being a traditional form of pop music.

Is there a concept of the ‘traditional’ in pop music? I’m not talking here about the existence of a tradition of shared-but-evolving musical values and techniques; or at least that is not what I’m talking exclusively about. What I have in mind is rather something akin to the ‘classical’ forms of different musical styles, actually-existing-genres which, although they may be the product of later developments and agendas, have come to represent something like the canonical, traditional centre of those styles. Examples would include the trad jazz of Humphrey Littleton or Wynton Marsalis, or the 1990s trad rock of Paul Weller and Ocean Colour Scene. Neo-classical nineteenth century symphonies by the likes of Louis Spohr would similarly fit into this category.

These ‘trad’ forms are retrofitted, historical fabrications of what market forces and genre practitioners collectively decide to be the ideal canonical image of their music. These fabrications draw on a variety of musical signifiers and cultural resources in order to mask the fabrications as supposedly authentic, original examples of the genre.

‘Trad jazz’, for example, is a retcon drawing on Dixieland and Ragtime. Trad blues is fuzzier, but is fabricated from something like a mixture of boogie woogie, electric blues and acoustic Delta blues. Trad rock involves some configuration of the standard rock band line up (drums, guitars, bass and vocalist), with light inflections of conventional pop tonality and the musical language by elements from blues and harder forms of rock. The concept of the ‘traditional’ (represented by the ‘trad’ prefix in the aforemnetioned genres) serves both as standalone genre label, as in these examples, and also as a genre synecdoche, as a sort of sign gesturing at an idea of some traditional centre, where ‘trad’ serves to denote the presence of conventional, sometimes even outmoded, musical gestures.

But is there a ‘trad pop’, either in terms of some sense of a genre synecdoche which could be applied in negative or positive terms to a song, or as a standalone (sub)genre in itself?

The question is interesting because pop has been defined, since its earliest manifestations as a recognisably modern commercial form by the conflicting commercial imperatives of homogeneity (to satisfy current demand) and innovation (to create new demands). The pull toward homogeneity, towards sameness and repetition, would suggest that the existence of a core canonical ‘image’, retrofitted or not, should be expected. On the other hand, pop’s obsession with innovation and with fashion — with what I have called the ‘novelty complex’ — would seem to pull it away from any ‘traditional’ nucleus.

And, true to form, when examining pop history we see that a traditional nucleus is both present in one sense, and absent in another. The musical language of pop has shifted little in the past century; although more obviously ‘black’ derived popular music forms such as funk, disco, hip hop, and hip hop-influenced-pop deploy a limited harmonic and formal palette, favouring rhythmic and textural exploration instead.

More generally, a traditional nucleus is apparent in the musical language of pop. Short and repetitive musical forms, duple rhythms (i.e. with phrases and melodies divided into 2s and 4s rather than 3s or anything more complex), non-narrative and straightforward lyrical subjects, and diatonic melodies and harmonies have all remained important in pop.

At the same time, pop’s emphasis on novelty and on experimentation with the newest technological tools and cultural memes means that the chances of a truly uniform traditional nucleus ever settling are remote. The emphasis in pop, at these ‘surface’ levels of sound quality, arrangement, and lyrical subject matter or marketing imagery, is always on perpetual change. The textures and arrangements – growing as these do out of cultural demands for new sounds and new technologies — of pop songs continually evolve, sometimes calling back to earlier styles, but always seeking to express a distance from what came immediately before. The opening question should thus be re-posed. There is a concept of the traditional in pop. That tradition is present in pop’s consistent use of certain harmonic, melodic, lyrical, rhythmic and formal tropes. Instead, we should ask: Is there a concept of traditional sounds and textures in pop?

From Beiber to Usher to Jepsen

Pop’s double bind of homogeneity and innovation is displayed across a range of recent singles. Justin Bieber’s ‘Boyfriend’ is a strong but shamefaced pastiche of Justin Timberlake’s early solo work. Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ is an unconvincing Talk Talk tribute. Even in innovative contexts, homogeneity prevails. Usher’s ‘Climax’, produced by Diplo, is a stark rendering of spent desire, channelled through woozy textures derived from Drake and The Weeknd. Nicki Minaj’s ‘Beez in the Trap’ is a forbiddingly minimalist rumble of clicks and blips, sharing DNA explicitly with Minaj’s own ‘Roman’s Revenge’ but also more implicitly with the similarly harmonically barren, but texturally and atmospherically rich, ‘Single Ladies’. Tulisa’s ‘Young’ exploits the recent David Guetta-inspired upsurge of interest in retro dance forms, particularly trance and house, twice making use of a soaring bridge motif cribbed straight from Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’, whilst at the same time capturing something of the contemporary moment all the same.

All of these innovative songs are Janus-faced, looking to the future whilst exploring musical gestures either well worn or shared with other artists. However, even in spite of these resemblances and echoes of other tracks, their emphasis is more on innovation than it is homogeneity.

But such duality is not uniformly the case. These thoughts were in fact primarily provoked by an encounter with a track, Carly Rae Jepsen’s fun ‘Call Me Maybe’, which seems to instance something quite unique in this respect of innovation and homogeneity.

‘Call Me Maybe’ deviates very little from the framework of musical gestures and techniques discussed above. It uses the same I-vi-IV-V chord sequence (in the key of G; G-em-C-D) and the same type of lyrical subject and form we find in countless songs, from Sean Kingston’s ‘Beautiful Girl’, to Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’, to the vast majority of 1940s ballads and 1950s doo wop songs.

But unlike the tracks considered above, from ‘Beez’ to ‘Climax’, ‘Call Me Maybe’ offers little by way of originality of texture or arrangement. Instead, it seems to be seeking to exploit some sense of a ‘trad pop’ arrangement. The track deploys elements of disco (the sprightly synth strings in the chorus) alongside simple synth and guitar textures. The production is dry, emphasising compressed studio sheen over warmth or grain.

Such a traditional template pops up again and again in the past thirty years of pop music, from Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions such as Kylie Minogue and Sonya to Disney pop, particularly of the High School Musical variety. It is striking for its blandness, even if it has often served as the frame for some highly appealing music. What is interesting is that the template marks this music out from the rest of the pop field by its insistence on traditionalism in every respect. It refuses to kowtow to the double bind of homogeneity and innovation, instead cleaving in a rather twee manner to tried and tested pop sounds.

‘Trad’ forms are anachronistic by their very nature, but trad pop, if indeed it is fair to describe the music in this way, takes that sense of anachronism to an almost radical juncture, simply by existing within a pop context where innovation and evolution in sound and texture are almost insisted upon. ‘Call Me Maybe’ and other tracks like it flagrantly ignore this, providing us instead with bland pop music rendered strange by the innovations happening around them. So, whilst perhaps it does indeed make sense to speak of a concept of traditional pop sounds and textures, it is also the case that, because of pop’s double bind, such traditional sounds will never move to the centre, but instead persist in the form of an increasingly anachronistic, and thus estranged, tangent to mainstream pop styles.  

Published on 10 May 2012

Stephen Graham is a lecturer in music at Goldsmiths, University of London. He blogs at www.robotsdancingalone.wordpress.com.

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