What Makes it Good; Genre, Values, and The Voice in Pop Music

5 May 2016

What Makes it Good; Genre, Values, and The Voice in Pop Music

It is pretty universal that one of the most important elements of a good pop song is the hook; the ability for listeners to find it catchy, to remember it after hearing it only once, is what makes them listen a second time and then decide that they like it. Everyone judges music in different ways because everyone has different values, and pinpointing what makes music good or bad is so subjective that I’ve decided to focus on why I judge music in large part on the vocal performance. I believe many people do this subconsciously, as I often do, because when confronted with the abundance of names and factors that go into a given song, my perspective of the song always shifts a bit. I am reminded that just because the singer may grasp one’s attention most easily, that does not make them the most important aspect of a song. Many of us may make these judgments because the meaning we attach to a given song is closely intertwined with our opinions of the artist singing that song. Exposure to media, like watching American Idol while I was growing up, encouraged me and many others to judge music based on whether the vocal talent was impressive, rather than countless other elements of a song that could be factored into that decision.

In addition, I’ve found that I value music largely on whether the performer sounds talented both on a recording of the song and performing live. A performer’s authenticity, or natural talent that is not artificially enhanced, is of the utmost importance to me. When one remembers all the other people that contribute to a song, one realizes that the performer doesn’t or shouldn’t define the quality of a song. There are many roles involved in producing a piece of music that should be equally taken into consideration when making a value judgement. Simon Frith contemplates this is his book, Performing Rites, while John Seabrook’s book, The Song Machine, explores what it is that makes a hit. With help from their works, I will explore how and why I value pop music, why it is important to distinguish the genre, and how I could broaden my perspective by being mindful of others’ values and judgments.

This association of mine between “good” songs and vocal talent first begs the question of what I deem to be vocal talent. Seabrook offers that “[t]alent shows tend to reward a facile ability to sing in different styles over deep artistry, and to favor singers who lean heavily on melisma—stretching a sung syllable out over several notes—because that’s the way great vocal talents are supposed to sound.” (Seabrook 127) Confronted with this approach of judging talent made me realize that not only do I indeed put value in a singer that can execute “melisma” or vocal runs, but that I put value in the entire song in which it occurs. This reminds me of the example of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud.” I love this song for many reasons – for its sweet-sounding chord progression and the gentle guitar strumming – but mostly, I now realize, for Sheeran’s display of vocal talent through melisma. His run on the lyric “Oh honey now” right before the first chorus is my favorite part because it demonstrates for the listener an ability he is capable of executing that not everybody can. This brings up another value of mine: that I appreciate a voice that sounds unique rather than a more generic one, or one that chooses to hold back on such displays of individual talent.

I believe American Idol has had a large impact on these values instilled in me. I started watching it with my family when the third season was on air in 2004, when I was just nine years old, so I did not really have music tastes of my own yet. I therefore trusted the judges’ opinions of what was good and what wasn’t. One aspect of the contestants’ performances on which the judges always stressed importance was song choice; if they didn’t choose songs that displayed vocal ability and individuality, the judges would criticize their performances, deeming them bland and unoriginal, even if they sang perfectly on pitch. Growing up with these values in music, I incidentally learned to value music based on the formula followed by an up-and-coming pop singer. When I eventually stopped watching American Idol I found that I began to disagree with the judges’ critiques and realized my values had changed a bit. I began to appreciate songs that followed an entirely different pattern or that I found intriguing for reasons other than vocal talent; in other words, songs of genres other than pop. However, I don’t think I will ever be able to shake the way I am drawn to certain pop songs that exhibit unique singing abilities because of this show.

Genre is not just how we categorize music, it is how we categorize our thoughts and judgments about music. An example of a musical work I found I liked more recently is Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. This is a classical piece which is just about as far from pop music as one can get. I obviously like this symphony for very different reasons from why I like Sheeran’s song because, firstly, there is no vocal aspect of Schubert’s piece, which is my favorite part of the other. In terms of a pop song, this makes Schubert’s piece pretty horrible. Yet that is the beauty of genre; different standards and accepted patterns are set within each genre of music. One can have multiple sets of values for music if one enjoys more than one genre.

However, there is no perfectly impartial categorization system for genre. According to Frith, “even within such ‘objective’ measures there are, nevertheless, ideological implications, as indicated by the use of the terms ‘authentic’ and ‘popularized’ with reference to folk and classical music. Such descriptive terms are not purely musical.” (Frith 81) So, to one person, “popularized” classical music may include entirely different works than what the same category might include in another person’s opinion. With such variable categories based on everyone’s assorted perspectives, there can be no regimented classification of music. Therefore, everyone makes their own categories with varying degrees of others’ influence and their own personal likes and dislikes.

Nevertheless, no matter what pop song we listen to, the singer’s voice is often the most prominent aspect, and therefore colors our overall judgement of the song. However, what we often don’t realize is that “The Voice” we hear is a combination of several voices.

In The Composer’s Voice, Edward Cone asks whose voice we hear when we listen to a Schubert setting of a poem by Goethe. We hear a singer, Thomas Allen say, with a distinctive physical voice; we hear the protagonist of the song, the “I” of the narrative; we hear the poem’s author, Goethe, in the distinctive organization of the words and their argument; and we hear Schubert, in whose voice the whole thing is composed. (Frith 184)

According to Frith, there are actually four voices including the singer, the “protagonist of the song”, the “poem’s author” or lyricist, and the composer, and we interpret the fusion of these four as one when we listen to a song. The singers often get more credit than they are due because their mouths are the ones immediately uttering the words that command the audience’s attention. Yet the “I” of the song, such as the “I” in Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” is a character created by the lyricist. These characters are often used to help illicit an emotional response from the audience since they are the ones who get hurt, are in love, etc. The lyricists themselves are often entirely overlooked. At least for pop songs, I know I almost never consider the writer of the lyrics unless the lyricist is also the singer or the composer, and sometimes not even then. Perhaps this is because their names are not displayed across album covers or advertised as much as other roles are and therefore are not nearly as well known. Finally, the composers, the most influential and perhaps the most important voices of all, are often forgotten since they are detached from a performance. They are not performing, so they don’t contribute any immediate emotion to which the audience can connect. They do undoubtedly contribute emotion into their art, but it is in a more abstract sense, and is therefore less likely to be remembered or attached to the singer’s rendition of the song.

The combination of all these voices creates “The Voice” on which many of us ground our opinions of a song. Yet the composers are often the most important because they provide the essence of the song: the style and rhythm and structure to which listeners are attracted. However, it is rare that listeners realize this, and instead continue to hold the singer’s voice in the highest regard. Frith develops this notion by pointing out the difference between the persona pop artists develop and their own biographies.

The up-front star system means that pop fans are well aware of the ways in which pop performers are inventions (and the pop biographer’s task is usually therefore to expose the ‘real’ Bob Dylan or Madonna who isn’t in their music). And in pop, biography is used less to explain composition (the writing of the song) than expression (its performance): it is in real, material, singing voices that the ‘real person’ is to be heard, not in scored stylistic or formulaic devices. The pop musician as interpreter (Billie Holiday, say) is therefore more likely to be understood in biographical terms than the pop musician as composer (Mark Knopfler, say), and when musicians are both, it is the performing rather than the composing voice that is taken to be the key to character. (Frith 185)

Frith exposes an interesting point here: that even when musicians take on two personas – the performer and the composer – the performer is the one with which people associate the entire work. I think this is probably due to the fact that when one performs, one shares the emotion one experiences with everyone else in the audience, whereas composers are less easy to connect with because they are not present on stage at the time of the performance, even if they themselves are the performers.

The distinction between a star’s “invented” persona and that star’s true persona is an interesting one because authenticity is often seen as one of the most important aspects of an artist. Listeners assume that artists put their true feelings, their heart and soul, into their performances, and try not to think about the fact that they may only make certain decisions based on what will sell or what will keep them in the spotlight. This truth that the audience expects from an artist, highlighted when Frith says, “it is in real, material, singing voices that the ‘real person’ is to be heard, not in scored stylistic or formulaic devices,” is something that can make or break the public’s opinion of a performer.

Authenticity is a key value of mine, which I also think developed from my exposure to American Idol. For me, if singers’ live performances cannot live up to the sound they establish in recordings, or if they are auto-tuned or digitally corrected, I have a very hard time liking the songs they sing. When this occurs, I feel on some level like I am being lied to, or like anyone with no vocal capacity could sing that song if the voice is going to be corrected anyway. I have never liked songs where voices are auto-tuned because I prefer a natural-sounding voice, which displays real talent. This makes sense, having developed my musical values based on a show that was a vocal competition. The show emphasized the notion that if the singers are not talented enough, their songs will not have the substance necessary for a successful career. That must have stuck with me, because I still value popular songs with talented singers over popular songs with more artificially enhanced voices or even simply less of a display of vocal ability.

Take Sam Smith’s song, “Lay Me Down,” for example. Upon first listening to Sam Smith’s album, In the Lonely Hour, I liked the raw, emotional quality of his voice, but as always, was skeptical about whether he could deliver the same sound live. When I watched a live performance of his song “Lay Me Down” on Saturday Night Live, he proved to me that the talents displayed on his recordings were justified. He not only achieved all the difficult portions of the song that can be heard on the recorded version, he went above and beyond by creating even more complicated vocal runs and belting even stronger than on the recording. This made me appreciate his songs so much more, because he demonstrated that his talent is real.

Many of us, myself included, at times, take judging a song by its singer a step further by taking into account that singer’s personal traits and background. When one finds out that singers have overcome adversity in their past or simply have likable personalities, it is often hard to dislike their music because it seems like one dislikes the singers themselves. Alternatively, if singers are found to have negative qualities or scandal in their personal lives, it is equally hard to separate one’s attraction to their music from one’s attraction to their personalities. Frith quotes Gregory Sandow in regard to the phenomenon:

Even before Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography it was hardly a secret … that Sinatra hasn’t always been the nicest of guys. So it’s a commonplace of Sinatra criticism to separate Sinatra the artist from Sinatra the man. But I’ve always thought that his character slips through in his performance … And in fact it slips through precisely because of his art. Because he is an artist, he can’t help telling a kind of truth; he can’t help reaching towards the root of everything he’s felt. He makes his living singing love songs; like any great popular singer, he can expand even a single sigh in those love songs into something vast. But he’s also got his own story to tell, a story that goes far beyond what any love song could express; it’s a story a little bit about triumph, partly about a lust for power, often about loss, and very much about humiliation and rage. (Frith 186)

I think Sandow is right when he says that the reason we have a hard time distinguishing our opinions on performers’ music and performers’ personal lives is because they draw on their personal lives so much to give their music emotional value and authenticity. Singers pour their own stories into their music, so it is difficult to separate the two. This is another way in which the performer holds too much weight in how I judge a song as a whole.

The values I have established on what makes a song good or what makes a performer talented are so subjective that they really only apply to me personally. Perhaps some people agree that authenticity is important or that the singer’s voice is what stands out most, but they might also have an easier time distinguishing between performer and composer, and have less difficulty giving more credit to the composer. This vast difference of opinions is what makes music so versatile and what keeps pushing the boundaries of what has already been done. What one considers acceptable, another may not, so there is constant friction between fans and skeptics. This leaves infinite space for artists to create any and every sound they can imagine, from those that are of a similar form to many others and thus largely accepted, to those that nobody has even categorized yet, whose fresh sound invites others to criticize or praise. The unlimited music tastes of listeners provide a freedom for artists to create whatever they choose, because chances are, someone out there might not like it, but somebody will.

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