Academic music criticism of popular music

Academic writing on music is often pretty amusing and interesting, especially when it discusses popular artists.

For example, here is Brad Osborn on Radiohead, from a recent issue of Perspectives of New Music:

The British rock group Radiohead has carved out a unique place in the post-millennial rock milieu by tempering their highly experimental idiolect with structures more commonly heard in Top Forty rock styles. In what I describe as a Goldilocks principle, much of their music after OK Computer (1997) inhabits a space between banal convention and sheer experimentation — a dichotomy which I have elsewhere dubbed the ‘Spears–Stockhausen Continuum.’ In the timbral domain, the band often introduces sounds rather foreign to rock music such as the ondes Martenot and highly processed lead vocals within textures otherwise dominated by guitar, bass, and drums (e.g., ‘The National Anthem,’ 2000), and song forms that begin with paradigmatic verse–chorus structures often end with new material instead of a recapitulated chorus (e.g., ‘All I Need,’ 2007). In this article I will demonstrate a particular rhythmic manifestation of this Goldilocks principle known as Euclidean rhythms. Euclidean rhythms inhabit a space between two rhythmic extremes, namely binary metrical structures with regular beat divisions and irregular, unpredictable groupings at multiple levels of structure.

Next is Jonathan Bernard on Frank Zappa in Contemporary Music Review:

A much more involved instance of parody occurs in the midst of a later version (1982) of “King Kong.” As Zappa’s liner notes to this particular performance point out, “Just about every one of our touring bands has played its own customized arrangement of this song.” “King Kong” was generally an occasion for extensive improvised excursions, many of which ranged very far afield indeed from the “head.” In the present version, Tommy Mars’s synthesizer solo has worked its way into interesting territory: we hear an abbreviated version of the head in a kind of chromatic “show-biz” harmonization; then things begin increasingly to resemble the bombastic style of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, a synthesizer-dominated group that was immensely popular in the 1970s. This alone suggests that a parodic moment may have arrived — but it is only the catalyst. The bombast begins to imitate the cliches of bad movie music, such as the fanfares from some Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza — a development not entirely surprising, since the very title “King Kong” has cinematic associations. Soon a stentorian voice is heard over the solo, intoning what at first sounds like “Hail, Caesar!” But instead of “hail” the voice actually says “hurl” — in the slang sense of vomiting, that is, by which we are meant to receive some additional commentary on the musical “value” of what is taking place at that moment. Shortly thereafter, the ensemble segues into a tutti rendition, with the synthesizer in the lead, of the familiar Allegro theme from the Overture to “William Tell.” That this is not a takeoff on Rossini… is inferable from context: the chain of associations stretches here from old movies, to old movies often seen on late-night TV, to other late-night TV fare, such as reruns of The Lone Ranger. Sequences of this sort take longer to read about than they do to unfold in real time; Zappa’s famously virtuosic later bands, under the control of his widely variegated yet precise cues, were adept at such rapid shifts. Part of the fun for the audience was “getting it,” or at least some of it, without needing any explanation. (So I apologize if I have spoiled the joke, in the interests of critical inquiry.)

When “serious” music is quoted or evoked, the situation becomes more ambiguous. Listeners to Zappa’s earliest records became familiar with his predilection for placing snippets of well-known 20th-century works in rather incongruous contexts: Absolutely Free, for instance, contains recognizable fragments of all three of the early Stravinsky ballets, as well as the “Royal March” from L’Histoire du Soldat and “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets thrown in for good measure. None of these quotations but one (to be discussed shortly) lasts more than a few seconds, a fact which might arouse the suspicion that they are nothing more than in-jokes, or the aural equivalent of the “potzrebbies” in Mad Magazine — or simply trashings of high culture à la Spike Jones. But the surprising smoothness with which these quotations are grafted onto a basic rock & roll context… suggests that another interpretation may be closer to the mark: that these quotations are tokens of Zappa’s seriousness of purpose as a composer, by which, perhaps a little naively, he hopes to be recognized as something more than a rock & roller looking to parlay simple-minded music into fame and fortune. As he said once, “Stravinsky in rock is like a get-acquainted offer, a lossleader.., to bring in my own ‘serious’ music” (Shelton 1966).

The most serious thing Zappa does with a quotation on Absolutely Free is also the longest, set as an interlude or instrumental break in “Status Back Baby”: a condensed, somewhat jumbled version of the first few minutes of [Stravinsky’s] Petroushka. “Status Back Baby” recounts the inner turmoil of an adolescent, self-described as a “handsome football star,” who fears that he is “losing status at the high school” because rumors are circulating that his “school spirit’s at an all-time low.” The musical setting is itself an ironic comment on the protagonist’s presumably anguished state of mind: the spiffy 6/8 march tempo is evocative of something one might hear at a pep rally or football game; there is even a punctuating drum major’s whistle at the upbeat to the first and last verses. Why is Petroushka interjected into the midst of all of this? Probably because Petroushka is a puppet, in the throes of forces he cannot control, whose story turns out rather pathetically. There seems to be no more to the implicitly drawn analogy than that, but what is of further interest about this particular use of quotation is its disjunct quality. While the other quotations on this album seem rather slyly slipped in, this one is baldly exposed, dearly meant to be noticed in its stark contrast with its surroundings, even for the listener without the requisite musical background to recognize it specifically as Stravinsky. The interlude it forms seems to ask the question: Is this social setback the beginning of a greater, perhaps even permanent alienation of the football star from the idiocy of high-school popularity contests? The answer, of course, turns out to be a resounding “NO!,” as the march tempo resumes and our hero vows to “try like mad to get my status back today.” It is not too much of a stretch to see this momentary feeling of being “out of it” as emblematic of Zappa’s own misfit experience all through his high-school years: while his peers lapped up the latest pop album, Zappa was listening to Stravinsky, and no one understood him at all.

And finally, Dmitri Tymoczko on The Who in chapter 9 of A Geometry of Music:

Figure 9.3.22a shows the chords in the Who’s “I Can’t Explain.” The verse is constructed around a I–VII–IV progression in E mixolydian, while the chorus is a standard I–vi–IV–V progression in E major. The two parts of the song therefore involve a single-semitone change over a fixed tonic, exactly analogous to the opening of Debussy’s “Des pas sur la neige.”


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