Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works, and Why it Matters
By Nate Sloan & Charlie Harding
Oxford University Press
Think back to Summer 2012. Gotye ached and crooned about somebody he used to know; LMFAO wiggled and party-rocked till the tide turned; Carly Rae Jepsen just met you and implored you to call her...maybe. When musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding, co-hosts of music podcast Switched on Pop and co-authors of Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works, and Why it Matters, heard Jepsen’s ubiquitous runaway hit, they had a revelatory moment: there is a deeper meaning within this silly little Pop song.
“This song functions harmonically to support the really potent emotional quality that the song is trying to convey - this nervousness about asking somebody out,” says Harding in our Zoom Pop Music Braintrust Conference Call, adding: “The song reinforced that whole anxious quality by the way it moves in and out of trying to avoid its home key.”
On a quarantined afternoon like any other, Harding, Sloan, and I philosophized on Pop music, escapism, elitists’ historical stigmatization of the genre, hometown hero Beyoncé, and of course, “Call Me Maybe.”
Delving into Jepsen’s subtext would become the nucleus for the duo’s podcast where each week, Sloan and Harding dissect lyrics, harmonies, production, instrumentation, and historical context of popular songs to enrich their audience’s listening experience. Switched on Pop is a musically universal must-listen for any fan of popular music from any musical background.
For those who studied music academically, Sloan and Harding are the music theory professors you wish you would’ve had at 8 a.m. For listeners with little to no formal training, these guys spell music out in a way that transcends the limitations of the music alphabet’s seven letters.
“I think a lot of people maybe have this feeling like: ‘I like music but I don't really know how to talk about it. I don't have that technical vocabulary.’ We think that with some really targeted and carefully explained examples that anyone is really equipped to think deeply and interpret and analyze the sounds of music. Not just the lyrics of the song, but the actual notes. When you do that, you come away with, I think, a greater appreciation for the songs you love, and you may take more seriously the songs you hate,” says Sloan.
Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works and Why it Matters is a Pop Head’s dream textbook. Every chapter explains a musical concept through the lens of a lasting popular hit from the last twenty years. Its table of contents looks like a Now That’s What I Call Music! tracklist whose CD booklet contains a thesis on each song at hand. Sloan and Harding examine song form through Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ “We Found Love,” rhyme schemes through Drake’s “God’s Plan,” and counterpoint through Britney Spears’ “Oops!... I Did It Again.” Illustrations from Iris Gottlieb drive home musical concepts for musically illiterate readers. The book’s opening chapter finds drawings of Outkast’s André 3000 demonstrating the downbeat. A few chapters later, Beyonce’s ascending, penthouse-isn’t-even-the-limit key changes from “Love On Top” are on full display in the form of vertically stacked apartment units connected by a zig zagging staircase.
The guys recently dissected Dua Lipa’s euphoric, disco inspired break-up anthem “Don’t Start Now” in an episode of their podcast as high octane as the song itself. Their praise of the singer’s sophomore effort Future Nostalgia, released in lockdown’s earliest days, continues in our meeting before rapidly pointing to popular music's escapist embrace.
“It’s fantastic,” says Sloan. “We probably had more requests from listeners to break down that entire album than any other piece of music in the last, I don't know, year or something. It's really resonating with people which is just really cool and I think [it] speaks to the power of pop music to be a source of healing and joy and comfort. I love that album, but it's not like there's a lot of trenchant socio-political topics on it. it's just a fun, beautiful, escapist Pop record. So I kind of love that that's what people want right now. I think that's great.”
Harding raises the definition of escapism “10,000 feet above” Pop’s oft liberating four-on-the-floor pulsations.
“When [Pop music is] doing its job at its best, it's actually speaking to orders of the soul that don't get addressed in an everyday way. Whether that's permission to move your body in a way that you're not allowed to move at work; whether that's admitting our deepest, innermost desires for other people. It can sound kind of contrite to think of Pop music in this way but I actually do think that it has that larger, important release for the soul and I think that it's doing that on a daily basis for people. Whether it's on your commute when we all used to get to commute in traffic and be pissed off because we have to be around other people in public and we couldn't get home fast enough or whether it's, you know, at a club or whatever.”
Houstonians likely soundtracked their daily commutes with their favorite playlists and podcasts in a pre-COVID society. Now with those 30-mile drives to work reduced to 30 steps from living room to home office, there’s no escape for listeners who used to fuel their fix via car stereo. Everyone’s at home - artists, too; but the pandemic hasn't invented the bedroom recording artist. Sloan and Harding point to Fiona Apple’s dog barking in the background of her critically acclaimed Fetch the Bolt Cutters and Billie Eilish removing her Invisalign at the top of her Grammy-sweeping When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? as evidence that the tide of homegrown music had already started rising.
It’s a radical shift from the Pure Pop of the 2010s. Max Martin and Dr. Luke might have scoffed at leaving any trace of imperfection on Katy Perry’s dead-center masterpiece Teenage Dream, where every song, synth, and vocal performance are impossibly glossed and glowing. That style of polished Pop undoubtedly exists in 2020, (Dua Lipa’s well informed, deceptively traditional Future Nostalgia is plenty proof), but so does Lo-fi TikTok, and audiences are redefining the boundaries of authenticity as a result.
So what in the hell is Pop music?
“Our definition of Pop is kind of a moving target," says Sloan. "It's a triangulation of a few different qualities and one is just statistically — what is the most popular music? What are the most people listening to at any given moment? That's the great way to identify Pop music. But then there is also a style of Pop music. A sound. A specific set of musical characteristics that are constantly changing at different points in time. So it's not a static sound, it's constantly transforming.
"Lastly, Pop is what's in our collective conscience. Not just the things that we're listening to the most but the things that occupy us and that we talk about and that play a role in our life. These can be anything from Irving Berlin's ‘White Christmas’ to ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ to the prayers you sing in church on Sunday. We consider all of that Pop music. The cellphone, the marimba ringtone on the Apple iPhone - that's Pop music. We kind of think of it as these three poles. Elevator music, hold music, that's all part of Pop too,” says Sloan.
Harding adds that popular music reflects the values of a moment in time and that classical music was once popular music too. Considering Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin popular music might ring atrocious to any elitists in the house, but Sloan and Harding's Switched on Pop mission is keen on past informing present.
“We have to be very careful about setting up sort of a classical hierarchy of what is good music and what is bad music,” says Harding, adding that he and Sloan draw from the past “to help our ear understand, to help give ourselves a musical vocabulary, and to potentially make and draw connections like a historian would to see what we can learn from the past to understand our present moment. It's a tendency of relating to the past that we are always trying to temper ourselves not creating those hierarchies.”
Plenty of Pop enthusiasts endure the genre’s stigmatization at the hands of these hierarchies reinforced by less inclusive audience members of genres like jazz, indie rock, and classical music. Mention Destiny’s Child to a professor at Shepherd School of Music and he or she might instruct you to find your destiny elsewhere. Harding attributes this stigma to two underlying factors: identity and emotion.
“So often the fan bases of popular music are, first: young women, people of color, queer people. It's not surprising that these audiences, which are so often marginalized in other parts of our society, the things that they enjoy are also not taken seriously. So identity in a larger sort of cultural biases can definitely be a part of the criticism of popular music.”
Sloan boils it down to another factor: commercialism.
“We recognize Taylor Swift or Beyoncé as important artists with something to say, so we also acknowledge that their goal is to sell as many records as possible — and we’re okay with that. However, for certain people, for certain audiences, the association of artistry with commerce makes them very uncomfortable because it seems to degrade the artistry. That is why a genre or style of music like classical music is often supported not as much by the marketplace, but by institutions like symphonies and academies and nonprofit organizations.
"Ultimately it would be a mistake to think that that music isn't part of a tradition of commercialism as well. Mozart didn't write operas because he woke up one morning and thought: ‘I need to express the deepest corners of my soul through the medium of song.’ He was trying to put food on his table. So he wrote The Marriage of Figaro and it happens to be a great, meaningful, complex work. Ultimately it's a matter of perspective and I think doing this podcast has shown us that just because music is made with the goal of making money doesn't mean that there's not a lot of innovation and artistry within it.”
Near the end of our Pop Music Brain Trust Conference Call, this writer stands on his Houston Music Industry History Soapbox. It’s a barely brief lecture, touching on only bullet points like Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s wardrobe malfunction, late Tejano icon Selena’s final performance at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour launching its American leg in 1990 at The Summit, which was later reimagined as Lakewood Church, home to Pastors Joel Osteen and Kanye West.
There’s a roster reading of Houston artists who have conquered the charts which inevitably lands at H-Town’s very own Destiny’s Child. Unlike professors previously mentioned, Harding and Sloan aren’t repulsed; they’re all ears. See, this wouldn’t be a complete Switched on Pop experience without analyzing a popular song. Given the humid place and dire times that we occupy, DC3’s 2001 hit “Survivor” seemed fitting. (In the event that you’re a survivor but haven’t heard this classic in a minute, press play below as you continue reading.)
We listen to only the first half of the song, which, unsurprisingly, is plenty to get these guys going. We leave off at an unconventional moment in the song. Where most pop songs employ a bridge in the middle of a song before its final chorus, Child of Destiny abandon convention here, defying listeners’ expectations by opting in for three bridges instead of one (there’s a lack of musical zoning for ya).
“[Beyonce’s] pushing boundaries of form and that's something that she definitely is doing not just in this song but in a lot of her later work., says Harding, noting that her 2016 hit “Formation” has two distinct hooks rather than one traditional chorus. “She's someone who really likes to play with formal boundaries of Pop music.”
“Certainly something that stands out to me is the melding of this Baroque string arpeggio with a really highly syncopated, funky drum beat. That's, in a lot of ways, the sort of central animating power of the musical accompaniment - is the juxtaposition of those two things,” adds Sloan.
Chalk up the smörgåsbord of influences to Bey’s stint at HSPVA if you will, but her Baroque sensibilities are apparent throughout her work from her highly ornamented, melismatic vocal runs to the opening harpsichord riff of earlier Destiny’s Child staple “Bills, Bills, Bills.” Like it or not, Bey and Bach run side by side.
Harding is quick to notice visual cues from Queen Bey, a notoriously ocular artist, especially since surprise dropping her 2013 eponymous visual album where each song contained its own music video.
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“I was intrigued to see that perhaps the yellow dress that she wears in the video for ‘Hold Up’ is a reference back to the yellow outfit she's wearing here in ‘Survivor.’ They both kind of have a similar meaning of sustaining their strengths and relational difficulty. But that's not Switched on Pop, that's like some video analysis.”
Perhaps the song’s most relevant components for Houstonians living in a post-Harvey, COVID world - and what a world that is, are its lyrics (I’m a survivor / I’m not gon’ give up / I’m not gon’ stop / I’m gon’ work harder / I’m a survivor / I’m gonna make it / I will survive / Keep on survivn’), and their repetitive nature — a sentiment that rings loud and clear with Sloan.
“I think this song is all about, you know, conveying your strength, and your metal, and your resilience. Maybe one way to do that is to sing the same thing over and over again until you convince the listener that you're not going anywhere, you're a survivor, and this melody is a survivor too. It's going to survive through this entire song, and it's never going to go away.”
Keep on survivin’, Houston.