Canadian musician Owen Pallett—the man who arranged the strings on Arcade Fire’s albums, co-wrote the soundtrack for Spike Jonze’s Her, and has a bunch of wonderful solo albums—can now add another feather to his cap: that of an engaging music writer. His recent series of three essays for Slate, each aiming to explain the appeal of a well-known pop song through music theory, tackles some relatively dry subject matter with impressive brio.
For instance, did you know that Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’ achieves its weightless effect because none of the instruments plays the chord of the song’s key? Are you aware that Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ is ambiguously keyed—it could be in one of two different keys composed of the same notes? Or that Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ sounds like such a juggernaut because it completely eschews syncopation? Pallett’s essays will explain all this, and much more. (They’re very much worth half an hour of your time.)
These essays didn’t arrive out of nowhere; rather, they are responses to a provocative piece by the jazz critic and music historian Ted Gioia entitled ‘Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting’. One of Gioia’s key assertions is that music critics no longer write about music qua music; they eschew the “discussion of song structure, harmony, or arrangement techniques” in favour of “scandal and spectacle”. Gioia contrasts this with other forms of commentary that focus almost exclusively on the technical aspects of their objects: sports commentators, TV cooking shows, and automobile experts. Contemporary music critics, Gioia rages, are as absurd as “an expert on cars who refuses to look under the hood of an automobile”.
Is Gioia right? On the question of whether contemporary music criticism utilises music theory or discusses the technical aspects of music production, he’s absolutely correct: most contemporary writing about music, from Billboard through to Pitchfork, refuses to discuss music in purely musical terms. When it does, it does so only in the most general of terms. This, from Albert Freeman’s review of Tobias Freund’s album A Series of Shocks at the Quietus, is about as technical as most music criticism gets these days: “… unchanging kick-snare pattern, underpinned by an understated but insistent bass figure, eventually gets subsumed in a sea of swirling ambience”. Give that to a musician and ask them to replicate the sound Freeman’s describing, and you’d likely get something quite unlike Freund’s song ‘If’. (I’m certain the same could be said of any of my own previous attempts at describing how a song sounds.)
The broader question is: does a lack of musicological detail and accuracy matter? An album review is necessarily going to lack detail, even if it clocks in at 1500 words; the important thing isn’t whether the critic’s description of the album is complete (which would be impossible in any case), but whether the critic illuminates some aspect of the album that would otherwise remain hidden. (This requirement becomes more acute in an age of music-on-demand services and pre-release album streams—music critics no longer have the luxury of imagining that their job is to describe music for an audience that hasn’t yet heard it.)
Music theory can help explain certain aspects of what makes an album or song special, particularly if deployed deftly and infrequently, but too much of it risks alienating your audience—even Gioia’s much-vaunted “Discerning consumers who care about music and have good ears”. Unlike sports, you don’t need a knowledge of music’s rules in order to appreciate it, and most music consumers are completely unversed in music theory beyond the very basics of do-re-mi and counting out 4/4 time.
Pallett’s essays may well present the best face of the counterfactual scenario that Gioia would like to see become reality, but it’s hard to see his approach become the default for music critics. The theory involved takes a lot of explanation, even with some necessary simplification, and it would require that editors devote significantly more page and screen space to music writing. It’s also hard to imagine that the joyous, nerdy energy of Pallett’s essays and the novel thrill of reading them could be maintained over a long period of time. Good thing that Pallett had the sense to cap the series at three entries.