Structurally Unsound

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 ring tones 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”.

I don’t know much about music technically, so can’t go into which songs use the 32-bar form or other such jargon, but I do know that – regardless of the genre – my ear expects certain things to happen at certain points and if those things don’t happen at that point, I become confused, frustrated, and very quickly lose interest. It’s not because I’m not clever enough to “get” the music, but that the music is not clever enough to subvert those rules and remain entertaining.

It doesn’t have to be as obvious as Toxic, though. Yesterday, Everett True was praising another track by Britney, Till The World Ends, which on the surface seems a lot simpler. It’s just a brainless dancefloor filler designed for dancing rather than active listening. He claims not to care about the structure, but just how he can lose himself to the song’s energy. However, it’s the structure that provides that energy. Although melodically there isn’t much going on, the rhythms are hugely complex in how they build up and break down. It’s these wave-like swells and drops that dictate how your body is going to move on the dancefloor. For the brainless dancefloor filler, structure is everything.

Probably my favourite song in that direction is Rockafeller Skank by Fatboy Slim, because it does so much with so little. A single spoken-word vocal sample and surf-rock guitar riff – but clipped and layered and built and broken until you have absolutely no choice whatsoever but to move your whole body in time to the rhythm. It’s an absolute masterclass in how to write music with samples.

But surely, I hear you cry, 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. This is why Foetus can make pure noise sound like this but when you-spotty-goth try to make a “noise rock experimental” track, it just sounds like random s*** by someone who doesn’t know how to make music. I’ve heard way too many “experimental” tracks in my life by people who view it as some sort of easy option, when it’s just about the hardest music to make.

The bands that subvert the rules tend to make the music very densely layered with easy-to-hook-into melodies and lots of variety. What you never feel is bored. The song might not be doing what it’s supposed to, but it’s not doing the exact same thing for more than a few bars at a time.

Most of the songs that are in the charts and just ignore the standard rules of songwriting aren’t deliberately trying to subvert the rules of songwriting in order to experiment, they’re just crappy songs. This is why you quickly get bored of them and why those songs are very, very quickly forgotten.

It’s why really beautifully-written songs like Umbrella or Hazy Shade of Winter or Superstar are so lauded and covered – because a well-written song can be presented a dozen different ways and still preserve its power. A great song entertains and inspires and moves and excites. It’s why people absolutely jump on songs that are well crafted – listening to Umbrella after years of drivel like Push The Button is like a rainstorm after a drought. Umbrella spent 71 weeks in the top 100 (including 10 weeks at number one) in the UK, because people just wanted to keep on hearing it.

That’s not to say that popularity is an indicator of quality – we all know how many crap songs have reached number one in the charts. It’s just interesting to note on a bestseller’s list like this how many of the songs actually deserve to be on there. Sure, there’s plenty of crap, but there’s Cathy Dennis’s Ivor Novello award-winning Can’t Get You Out Of My Head for Kylie, William Orbit’s dreamy Pure Shores for All Saints, Gloria Estefan’s Whenever, Wherever for Shakira, and Girls Aloud’s Sound of the Underground – all not just popular, but really bloody good songs that, without exception, conform to traditional pop songwriting structures. Even novelty hit Asereje (The Ketchup Song) is a really superb song if you listen to it with an open mind.

Girls Aloud are one of the few acts to successfully subvert those structures with the wilfully strange The Show. It still has recogniseable verses, choruses and bridges, but just puts them in utterly the wrong order. It manages to stay interesting throughout because each segment changes at precisely the point that you expect it to – it’s just that the actual part of the song that you expect to hear falls into a different place to the one you’re anticipating. It therefore sounds familiar and strange at the same time. It’s the kind of skill that they could pull off because Xenomania had already demonstrated that they knew how to write good songs.

Yes, innovation is important, and perhaps the other trend in music is its stagnation. The combination of weak songwriting with poor structure is particularly toxic – much more frustrating than the dull Boy Band ballads of the previous decade. What we need to see is innovation in the sounds and styles being played using the framework of traditional solid songwriting. That’s when you get the kind of great songs that make people want to make music.

2 comments on “Structurally Unsound

  1. Dude. I might be willing to bow to you over your knowledge of Britney. Might.

    You have however given two really good reasons above why, although it’s fun to invent rules of songwriting and apply them to chart hits thereby explaining how one song works and another doesn’t, it isn’t actually possible to do so in practice. (A great pop song never boils down to a grossly over-simplified signifier like structure alone: production, melody, energy, performance, identity, context, destination … all of these are equally, if not more important.) And how, when it really comes to it, we’re still talking personal preference.

    ‘The Ketchup Song’ – good? No. Simple as that. No.

    ‘Push The Button’ – anything less than incredible? No. You need to be listening from an entirely different perspective because here you really are missing out. (As I say, I might be willing to give you Britney … but not Sugababes. No fucking way.)

    Also, your love for the OK-ish Girls Aloud betrays how traditional your love for pop is: which is fine, but doesn’t allow for the continual reinvention process of pop. (I will check out What Will The Neighbours Say?, however. I love being proved wrong.)

    It does not come down to one factor. PLUS: no single factor is indispensable.

    Want to take this discussion over to Collapse Board? Might be fun to post this there.

    • Sure, we can take this over to Collapse Board, if only to explain what there possibly is to like about Push the Button!

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