Sunday, August 26, 2007

Rick Astley Has Taken Control of Your Computer

It's probably a gross failing on the part of Firefox's developers that when I opened this link in a new tab, I couldn't shut it again without force-quitting the program, but as malware goes, this is pretty benign stuff, and its comedic value probably makes up for any inconvenience it causes.

No doubt this video was chosen as an illustration of all that is most annoying about '80s pop music, and Rick's combination of black turtleneck and weirdly high-collared trenchcoat, his absurdly peppy dancing, and the cuts to the groovin' African-American bartender to give him some street cred are pretty damning -- even if we manage to forget for the moment that he was the most unlikely physical specimen to emit such deep and resonant tones until Tay Zonday. Nonetheless, I would like to say a few words in defense of the much-maligned Mr. Astley.

I find this song kind of catchy, but his other inescapable hit from the '80s, "Together Forever", is one I actually went to the trouble of pirating and uploading to my iPod. You remember it -- "Together forever and never to part, together forever, we two."

That first line begins on the 5th scale degree, moves up to 6 and down again to 4, then leaps up a seventh to 3 on the syllable "for". (Ah, it's so nice to be able to wax technical and know that I'm not losing my audience, because they've all made such careful study of my music primers.) I hope to have occasion in the near future to rhapsodize about melodic leaps of a seventh, but suffice to say that they don't happen all that often in pop music, they're wonderful when they do, and 4 to 3 is a more interesting seventh than the more common 5 to 4 or 1 to flat-7. "Ever" comes down from 2 to 7 -- the 7's relationship to the melody's lowest tone (so far) insinuating a tritone, my other favorite melodic interval. Two words, and we've already covered six of the seven notes of the key. (Compare, for instance, James Blunt's "You're Beautiful", which I intend to slag off on this blog, and which consists almost entirely of three or four notes.) "Never" lowers the melody's floor from 4 to 3 -- expanding the range of notes it covers. "To" is another leap of a seventh (hurray!), from 3 to 2, in what the music theorists call a sequence -- a repetition (or at least an approximate repetition) of the preceding pattern of pitches, but begun on a different pitch. "Part" brings us, finally, to the only note in the scale that the melody has not traversed so far -- the root, the tonic, the "home base" of the key.

I submit that the melody to the lyrics "together forever and never to part" in Rick Astley's song "Together Forever" is about as interesting a pitch sequence as the major scale has to offer. And I think it's because I concentrate, when listening to pop music, more on things like pitch sequences and less on things like the singer's hair and the cheesy synth arrangements that my tastes so frequently confound my friends' expectations. (I sometimes suspect that that's also the reason nobody seems to like the songs I write as much as I do.)


Vanessa said...

But it's the cheesy synth arrangements that are such a big part why the Astley songs are so boppy and danceable!

To say melody (pitch sequences) is king, is that like saying plot is all important?

did you read the globe article on whistling?

Arthur said...

Thanks Larry. I will never listen to that song the same again.

Vanessa, keep pressing Larry on issues related to non-melodic aspects of songs. In particular, press him on what they *mean* culturally. It's a conversation I've been having with him on and off for a couple of years, but we never get past first base. The party line is (something like) that Larry only holds melodies to be beautiful for their technical interest and abstract symmetries and their ability to support verbal poetics in a way that feels coherent. Sometimes he admits that he likes a "groove" or something like that; we once discussed the appeal of Outkast's Hey Ya. But mostly those things seem to fall into some sort of "visceral appeal" category, which is related to music in some necessary way, but the development and analysis of these elements he either finds to be not an intellectual pursuit he is interested in or not an intellectual pursuit at all.

It's basically the area of music I like and am (somewhat) interested in and Larry distinctly is not. I would call it something like the "substantive" (as opposed to abstract) poetics of music, closely related to the value of music in forming group identities, shaping youthful self-conception, and defining lifestyles and even adult self-conception. I believe Larry thinks this element of music is kind of ad hoc (new music is different for the sake of difference) and its analyzable elements are mostly purely visceral (Hey Ya back beat is elemental; cheesy synths are happy especially with danceable beats; off-key whistling is relaxed -> slack vibe), but I've always thought there was more to it, especially as regards the building of references and the relationship to verbal poetics.

This is becoming a magnum opus when it was intended at first merely as encouragement, so I'll leave it at that.

Jay said...

I was watching lots of MTV when Astley's songs came out and commenced hating him on sight. He was a sweet lad whose videos showed him having luck with ladies - no, excuse me, THE lady, his soul mate, the only one in the world for him - and in my limited experience sweet lads had luck with dick.

So I agree with Arthur that non-melodic aspects of songs are pretty important. And while I think Larry has insufficient appreciation of these, it can hardly be otherwise given that his first exposure to popular music was relatively late and that he appreciated what he heard as a classically trained musician. We're totally different in this respect. One Sunday afternoon I waited for "Pac-Man Fever" to come around on the Mighty 690 (as it then did about once an hour) so that I could air-guitar the solo on a hockey stick. For my mother. "Pac-Man Fever" is not a "good song" - it's an undistinguished 1,4,5 - but it's indispensable to a particular memory of a kind that still leads me, in the course of weekend ruminations, to call my mom. I only bought "Born in the USA" because it was my job to call high school baseball games for a few weeks one Spring and Donnie Angotti insisted that the team take the field to the title track. I was ordered to buy the record myself by boys much cooler than myself. Donnie got a season's worth of dramatic entrances and I got Bruce: I win. I don't think Larry had many of these formative experiences - at least in childhood. He listened carefully and with discrimination from the beginning. I don't think he knows what it's like when the best thing to happen to you all day is a few moments' consumption of some tinkly crap smeared on the airwaves by a company selling you to its advertisers.

I like Astley's two hits (was there a third?). I think what happened to "Together Forever" is what happened to the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love?" Both are "good songs" by my lights (which are rudimentarily similar to Larry's). But by means of musical arrangement, production, packaging, and product-positioning the songs were artificially flavored for sale.

It's one thing when they try to improve the taste of a piece of crap. But it's an abomination when they take a splendid cut of meat and try to make it taste like an improved piece of crap. What Larry's doing is showing us one way to extract something delicious from what we've been served and to cook for ourselves if we like.