As mentioned in an earlier post, I connected with a woman that places songs into film & tv. She told me that these music directors are looking for material that sounds very current, and named a few artists I should check out. I’m hoping that I’m creative enough to emulate some of these trends without losing my artistic vision along the way. After today’s listening session, I’m still not sure it’s possible. But I’m also not sure it’s impossible. I’m blogging along the way so you can take the journey with me, but also so I have a good ledger of what makes a 2018 pop song, well, ‘pop’.
The first artist mentioned was Ed Sheeran, so I decided to listen and write about the first 5 songs on his “Divide” album from last year. Here are my notes:
Ooh! This is pretty good. 4 bar phrase of acoustic guitar cycles underneath a rapping vocal line. He’s rapping pretty well. Chorus is very sing-songy. I’m trying to express that idea a little more musically. Great lyrics about the music industry and the toll it takes on artists. “Ain’t nobody wanna see you down in the dumps because you’re living your dream and it should be fun.” Back to describing that ‘sing-songy’ thing in musical terms. Best I can say is that he’s singing chord tones over simple chord progressions. Meaning that if it’s a C major chord, he’s vocally accenting the C note (1st), E note (3rd), and G note (5th). He doesn’t stray too far from the notes that make up the chord. I like this song a lot, though.
Castle on the Hill (4:21)
This is a story-telling song. Very melodic vocal again. Sticking to those chord tones. Over a minute in here and we’ve just got a kick drum on every beat… no drum kit. Under later choruses we have the ‘ooh-woah-ohh-woah’s that are so common nowadays (that might be traced back to Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros). One breakdown has vocal over just acoustic guitar. Next breakdown has vocal just over a piano part (there’s no piano anywhere else in the song). Keeps things interesting. Again, neither of these first two songs have a more traditional drum beat, which is something I’m used to doing in every song.
Ah. Here’s a drum beat. Very sparse still. Once a songwriter friend of mine said “My songs are like a cube. Your songs are like a Rubick’s cube”. This song Dive is a very simple cube. I think maybe I’ve been hiding my feelings in the complexity and lyrical abstraction of my songs. Or maybe those are just the kind of pictures I choose to paint. Jury’s out. This song here is a bit bluesy. Very vocal driven, and Ed Sheeran is a very good singer. Chorus hook: “Before I dive right into you”. It’s a boy-talking-to-a-girl song. Beautiful female backup vocals (sounds like one singer multitracked as opposed to 3 different backup singers). Simple and so-so emotive blues guitar solo (I have to assume it’s Ed playing it). “So don’t call me baby unless you mean it” is a little pedestrian compared to the lyrics I’m used to writing. Can I find a middle ground, record some songs, and get them onto a film soundtrack so I can pay my rent? Am I selling my soul? I was discussing this with Maureen, and she said something along the lines of “go ahead and write the pop song, and then decide whether it’s also good enough to release on your album”. Good point. These two things are not necessarily correlated.
Shape of You (3:54)
Aaaand here’s the hit. This chord progression is very simple, doesn’t really evolve, but I suppose the repetition is the key to these earworms. Vocal driven over a marimba-type keyboard patch along with various hand percussion. Simple bass drum and 808-ish snare in chorus. Verse two, everything drops out and we go back to simply marimba and vocals- a similar technique I noticed all over my analysis of Best of 2017 hits, and would later incorporate into a bunch of my new songs. As the verse builds, he adds an octave harmony on top of his vocal line. Oh-ai-oh-ai chanting backups. “C’mon be my baby” is repeated 8 times in a row. I don’t like repeating anything 8 times, let alone “C’mon be my baby”. It’s just such a tired set of words. I should be able to find some middle ground with this style. Something that’s artistically sensible to me, right? I’ve been writing songs since I was 12, so I have a good deal of confidence that I can satisfy both the needs of film/tv as well as my own vision. Or is it that repetition and blandness are actually the secret ingredients to the popularity of these tracks? Hm.
Starts out with a subtle pretend-vinyl sound. Ballad. 6/8 meter feel. Oh. I think my aunt posted this video on Facebook. She’s 70. I guess you could say Ed Sheeran has wide appeal? This is not your grandma’s pop song, but yet it is! Nylon string guitar and a string arrangement that takes no chances. Chunky electric guitar offbeats. At 2:17 a more traditional drum beat comes in. “Hold my hand, be my girl, I’ll be your man.” I guess, well, I don’t know. Why does a lyric like this put me off? Can I come up with something as accessible, as universal, without sounding as bland as a slice of American cheese? There are 8th note piano chords. There’s a bit of a 1950’s groove buried in here. (Is that why my aunt likes it?)
Summary: Still not sure about this, but there’s certainly no harm in exposing myself to new music. Again, the contemporary techniques I picked up from my Best of 2017 listening project only added to my songs. Made them a little more interesting sonically. They’re still very much my own songs. I don’t feel I made any artistic compromises.
What do all of these 5 above songs have in common? They’re simple and repetitious. Well, the chords and lyrics are. The arrangements are where the action is. Instruments popping in and out. But still, there are no big surprises anywhere. The chords go exactly where you expect they would. Mostly because the whole progression is revealed in the first four bars of the song. As I’m copying my written notes over into my laptop now, the album is still playing and some of these other songs are pretty good, but they’re not the hits. The vocals and lyrics keep things interesting. Musically, well, not so much. The music is just wallpaper to support the lyrics.
Next I’ll do a 5-song look at the next artist the film lady mentioned: The Chainsmokers.
Thanks for joining me on this exploration/odyssey. I’d love to know your thoughts on this whole undertaking. Feel free to jot them down in the comments!