Monday, July 5, 2010

Hands up who thinks writing pop is easy

John Mellencamp"I don't have to worry about any pop sensibility. I can write adult songs, and I don't have to worry about choruses and hook lines."

That was John Mellencamp, talking to MTV in 2001 about his important'n'meaningful Cuttin' Heads album.

I love the arrogance of it. The way he dismisses pop music as childish and incapable of meaning. The assertion that a chorus somehow devalues a song. The belief that difficult, challenging melodies and impenetrable musical interludes are better at evoking the giddy headrush of falling in love than, say, Jackie Wilson's Sweetest Feeling.

I don't want to write off John Mellencamp (Jack and Diane is a great American rock ballad) but his point of view is wearsomely common.

Pop music isn't just silly or frivolous or obvious - although it can be all of those things. Pop is also profound (What's Going On), surprising (Hounds Of Love), inventive (Groove Is In The Heart), challenging (Papa Don't Preach), political (Paper Planes), witty (Common People) and mournful (Teardrop).

It is also incredibly hard to get right.

If you don't have the indulgence of multiple time signatures, abrupt key changes and suspended 16th notes, you have to wrestle novelty out of the standard four chord sequence... Plenty of people have done it, as this brilliant, age-old internet meme proves, but it requires a lot more discipline than John Mellencamp would have you believe.

As proof, here are two songs that haven't quite managed to get it right. The first is the Saturday's new single, Missing You, which is the musical equivalent of a post-botox episode of Desperate Housewives. Everything looks like it's in the right place, but you can't shake the eerie feeling that something essential has gone missing.

The Saturdays - Missing You

Secondly, we have Sky Ferreira's One. Again, it has all the ingredients of a hit single in 2010: Sparkly synthesizers, a Rankin-directed video, and a lyric concerning robots. But the writers have made the fateful mistake of confusing a production gimmick for a melody, and the whole thing goes flat like a glass of coke in a cupboard.

Sky Ferreira - One

Let's clear up this argument once and for all with a quote by all-round genius and pop provocateur Robert Wyatt, who sums up the key point in one perfect sentence.

"Anybody who thinks pop music's easy should try to make a pop single and find out that it isn't."

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