By Joel Hartse
The latest single by the Black Eyed Peas—a hip-hop group I used to like, back when their rhymes were prophetic instead of puerile—came on the radio in the coffee shop. My friend Kevin—who was also a fan—and I instantly tensed up and began complaining.
“Is this even a song?” he asked. “Or is it just words and sounds?”
And while the minimal drum, bass, and inane speak-singing of a group like the Peas does raise this question, so does a lot of pop music. Music is, of course, formulaic—it has more in common with math than I will ever admit—but there’s formulaic and there’s formulaic. Too often, it feels that so little is at stake in the verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus of even the great pop songs.
The Marxist critic Theodor Adorno would blame this on the lack of “concrete totality” in pop, which he saw as inherently inferior to what he called “serious” (classical) music. The difference has to do with the relationship of individual parts of the music to the whole of a composition.
In serious music, Adorno argues, “every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece which, in turn, consists of the life relationship of the details and never of a mere enforcement of a musical scheme.”
In pop, however, the parts that make up a song (e.g., choruses and verses) lack a significant relationship to the whole of the piece; there is no “concrete totality” to the song, and “no stress is ever placed upon the whole as a musical event, nor does the structure of the whole ever depend upon the details.” Although a pop song does possess some semblance of totality, in that its various elements fit together by virtue of melody, rhythm, and chord progression, each discrete element ultimately asserts itself irrespective of a total musical framework.
I am really no expert on aesthetics, but I’m pretty sure that Adorno is wrong. Or maybe not wrong, but irrelevant. I don’t know exactly what kind of popular music he was writing about—Tin Pan Alley, maybe?—but I do think that while we will always have the robotically perfect unserious pop songs of people Dr. Luke and Max Martin (they’re responsible for many of the candy-pop hits you’d hear on the radio if anybody still listened to it), we have also, this year, heard pop music that has moved to an altogether different plane than even the concrete totality of Adorno’s serious music.
I am speaking of the 2010 albums by Janelle Monae (The Archandroid) and Sufjan Stevens (The Age of Adz), both of which I have been listening to this morning, both of which are expansive, gorgeous, and confusing, and possess a spirit-penetrating totality.
Monae, a 24-year-old singer whose boundless energy and creativity can barely be contained by the album format, has made a record that manages to embrace the tropes of R&B, soul, hip-hop, rock, jazz, and funk—not to mention sci-fi film, American history, religion, and literature—which gels into a masterfully cohesive work of art and story that it is impossible not to dance to. (Seriously. You will now click this link to the “Tightrope” video, and you will now dance.)
And Stevens—well, I didn’t expect to like the Age of Adz, having lost patience with his prolix patriotic noodling around the time he released a collection of cutting-room outtakes that was longer than the record from which they were culled. But he isn’t even really bothering with the traditional pop-song format anymore; I’m not sure which are the verses and which are the choruses, if there are any, and I can’t tell if the Age of Adz is a collection of songs, or just one set piece, or thousands of tiny fragments held together only by Stevens’ fragile voice and ingeniously bizarre production decisions (lazer synths, autotune, cheerleading chants, a 25-minute mini-album-within-an-album).
Whatever it is, this record—like Monae’s—is the work of an artist is committed to inhabiting the words and sounds they create. This is where I want to perhaps go too far, using words like sacrament and incarnation, but to avoid blasphemy I will just say this: there is something deeply satisfying about listening to a pop record that clearly believes in itself, in all its flailing and incomplete totality, and its source.