Song remixes are basically music magic

There’s perhaps no other song that represents the 2010s musically than The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey song ‘Closer.’

If you haven’t heard it yet–do you not have radio or go literally anywhere where music is played?–here’s the lyric video. It’s quite catchy, and even if you’re not a fan of this type of electronic synth-pop music it’s the type of song that is somehow much more magnetic than it should be.

Let’s be honest: Halsey is a big reason why this song is successful. She has a unique, colorful, strong voice, and is as confident and purposeful an artist as any in the music industry.

As far as why this is sort of a scion of 2010s pop songs, well, there is a kaleidoscope of reasons. First, it almost exclusively uses synths, keys, and programmed percussion. Second, the synths that it uses aren’t afraid of being electronic, unlike the 80s when synths tended to imitate other instruments like piano or guitar.

Third, the song uses the ‘drop’ in its song form, which is a decidedly recent phenomenon. The term ‘drop’ comes from electronic music and DJs, and you might have heard of the ‘bass drop,’ which is used in dubstep as a sort of chorus. Closer uses a drop, an instrumental break after the pre-chorus, in the same way. Its chorus is not sung, rather being played by the synths, which is an odd choice traditionally but something you’ll find a lot nowadays.

It’s a good song because it’s catchy and, like any good pop song, knows how to ratchet up tension and excitement as the song progresses to lead to an exciting climax.

So you’d think that Closer would be such a 2010s song that it would sound out of place in any other context, right? That its structure and core is definitively in a modern soundscape?

Well, you’d be wrong.

I was clicking around on YouTube and found this. I clicked on it for a few giggles and, guess what? It’s AMAZING.

It’s also fascinating, and it illustrates that pop songs are a bizarre, weird animal. Whether you think that the 80s version of the song is better or not is immaterial, because we can all agree that the 80s version, while completely different, is the same song.

Pop songs, of whatever flavor–rock, rap, metal, whatever (and yes, those all fall under the umbrella of ‘pop music’)–are different from art music because pop songs are their recordings. A Beethoven symphony is what happens when you play what’s on the page, but a Beatles song is the recording that they spliced together in Abbey Road studios.

That difference is gigantic, because any deviation from the written music for a symphony is a deviation from the piece itself. But the same isn’t true for pop music. When Taylor Swift performs a song in front of a stadium of people, she and her band do not just press play on a recording; rather, they play the song live, which everyone agrees is the same song despite it not being a note-for-note and instrument-for-instrument recreation of the song’s recording.

What that means is that even songs tied to a specific decade sonically can be re-arranged to fit an entirely different decade’s structure, harmony, and instrumentation and still retain its soul.

So what is a pop song? What is the song itself? The core part that can be transported and tucked into a snug bag of an entirely different size and color? The amazing part is that I have no idea. I’m not sure anybody else does, either. But we know it when we see it.


I have no desire to see Whiplash again, and that’s a testament to how perfect it is

Whiplash is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years. Heck, it might just be one of the best movies I’ve seen in my life. Critics loved it, too; it has a 94% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and picked up three Academy Awards out of five nominations (one of which was for Best Picture).

Look no further for an example that financial success is no indication of the quality of the film: despite its critical acclaim, Whiplash grossed only $13 million domestically and an additional $35 million internationally. With a budget of only $3.3 million, it did make its money back and then some, but it wasn’t as if millions of people were rushing to see the film.

At its core, Whiplash is both a film about one human relationship, that of main character Andrew Neiman and his teacher Terence Fletcher, and about the relationship between Andrew and his drive to become the greatest musician he can be. The film explores the morality of certain types of teaching, how professional drive can affect a person and their relationships, and what it means to try to be truly great.

There are two lines that define the conflicts in the film. Fletcher presents one:

There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”.

Neiman himself presents the other:

I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remember who I was.

Whiplash is as much a perfect movie as can be. It’s shot beautifully. It is wonderfully acted (with J.K. Simmons rightfully earning that year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Fletcher). The music is impeccable from every angle. The plot, pacing, and ending are masterfully done.

Like I said in the first sentence of this post: Whiplash is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years.

That I don’t want to see it again–at least, not for a long time–is just another feather in its cap.

The movie’s plot exists because of Fletcher’s abusive teaching style. The film’s most favorite scene is one of its best: it encapsulates the relationship between Nieman and Fletcher perfectly.

It’s also a great example of why I can’t watch this film again.

This scene is such a perfect recreation of what happens in rehearsals every day throughout the country that it is really quite uncanny. Music directors like Fletcher exist everywhere, and every musician who has continued to perform into their college years, like Nieman, has encountered a situation like this.

Well, not quite like this. Fletcher’s explosion of anger is greater than what most people see. But the brilliance of Whiplash is that all the emotions are there, and so believable. Even non-musicians can empathize, as similarly hard-nose teachers and coaches exist outside the music sphere.

Whiplash’s greatest strength is its uncanny ability to channel intensity directly into your soul from the pixels on the screen. You can feel Fletcher’s anger. You can feel Nieman’s cocktail of emotions in response. You can feel the effect of Nieman’s drive to be great on him and his relationships. You know the stakes in lots of movies. But to feel it? All the pretty cinematography in the world can’t substitute for strong emotional communication.

That is, I think, what makes Whiplash truly great. Yes, it’s well-written, well-acted, etc. etc. Those are all parts. The whole is a deeply emotional journey, and its glaring intensity is recognizable and persistent. Watching Whiplash is almost like having somebody yelling at you in your living room.

Not everything is sunshines and rainbows. Whiplash isn’t. It’s why it’s great. That I don’t want to see it again is proof of how great, proof of how well it communicates its emotions.

Taylor Swift and the search for musical authenticity

The other week, I was doing that late night Youtube thing–you know, when you’re going to go to bed in a bit but see if there’s something fun to watch and then, crap, hours have passed, it’s 2am, and you’re watching a video of a chorale version of Smash Mouth’s great single All Star. Somehow, in one of my more sane Youtube black hole nights, I came across the below video. It’s a live performance by Taylor Swift of her top-ten single Wildest Dreams from her 6x platinum album 1989. It’s just Swift, an electric guitar, and a microphone, on stage for an intimate concert for a small audience at the Grammy Museum in December 2015.

Even if you’re not a Swift fan, this is the kind of performance that commands begrudging respect. There’s no pomp and circumstance, no fancy lighting, no backup dancers, no backing band, no random feuding with other pop stars, and is as exposed as a performance can possibly get. It’s a great version of the song, with the electric guitar rather than an acoustic guitar serving as an inspired choice–as is the decision to slow down the song just a tick or two.


Now, I’m a classically trained musician. I play multiple brass instruments and sing in a respectable choral ensemble. My college degree says ‘music’ on it. I once played a passable piano (passable enough to pass my keyboard proficiency, which is to say not very much but I at least did that). The point is: I’m not the key Swiftie demographic.

And yet: I quite enjoy listening to Swift’s music, much to the chagrin of my wife. There’s a reason for that, but we have to step back a little bit to get to an explanation.

Swift and her career is a fascinating case study about celebrity, the modern music industry, feminism, and even class. There’s so many routes of her success to explore, and what that success means. If you want to therefore launch an inquisition into the creation and implosion of Hiddleswift, for instance, go for it.

But the most fascinating part about Swift’s success is how she achieved it. From an extra-musical standpoint, there are two big assisting factors. First, Swift is gorgeous. Being pretty is a huge leg up; that’s just life. Second, Swift has an extraordinary ability to adeptly navigate celebrity without scandal, which is an underrated tool in a celebrity musician’s arsenal. There is a musical factor, though, and that’s the biggest one.

Theodor Adorno, German philosopher and critic, was born in 1903, a year where air flight was science fiction. Gustav Mahler, Charles Stanford, Giacomo Puccini, Anton Dvorak, and Camille Saint-Saens were all alive at Adorno’s birth. Adorno died at the age of 65 in 1969, one month before a quartet of nerdy Brits who named themselves ‘The Beatles’ released some album called Abbey Road and half a century after the first transatlantic airplane flight. As with most things at the start of the 20th Century, music was changing rapidly. A new, simpler, more accessible type of music was growing, fueled by the dual powers of globalization and recording technology.

Adorno witnessed the rise of this ‘popular music’ or, as an average teenager might think of it today, ‘music.’ Regardless, like your cranky old grandpa who refuses to consider to bestow the title of music to anything written in the last thirty years, Adorno was having none of the ‘pop music’ thing. In his essay On Popular Music, Adorno lays out why art music (or ‘classical’ music to some of you) is so much better than popular music. Adorno’s 1938 essay also expresses his distaste for the commercialization of music. Check out this quote, which seems like it was written yesterday, as opposed to 79 years ago:

Provided the material fulfills certain minimum requirements, any given song can be plugged and made a success, if there is adequate tie-up between publishing houses, name bands, radio and moving pictures. Most important is the following requirement: To be plugged, a song-hit must have at least one feature by which it can be distinguished from any other, and yet possess the complete conventionality and triviality of all others. The actual criterion by which a song is judged worthy of plugging is paradoxical. The publisher wants a piece of music that is fundamentally the same as all the other current hits and simultaneously fundamentally different from them.

To save you a whole lot of effort in reading the rest of Adorno’s thick prose on this subject: Adorno thought popular music was inherently and objectively inferior. According to him, it relied on extreme standardization and lacks meaningful musical development, its songs slaves to the churning money-making machine. Everything it does, ‘serious’ music can do better.

But there’s something that Adorno misses, either because 1930s music is indeed a different beast than 2010s music or because Adorno’s noggin is stuffed awfully far up his gluteus maximus. That is this: writing and recording a successful hit pop song is difficult precisely because it must check off so many boxes and adhere to such a strict formula. Writing a hit song necessitates operating within a constrictive box; it’s like trying to cook an entire three course meal utilizing only a microwave. The song must be between three to four minutes, fit into some version of a verse/chorus/bridge format, stick to a small collection of chords, and yet still invoke an emotional response and be catchy and/or memorable.

So what makes a song different? There are hundreds of thousands of musicians writing their own songs. Yeah, most of those songwriters don’t have the strength of the industry behind them, and yeah, hit songs are often the result of a cultural or musical zeitgeist; in other words, timing helps, too.

What makes Swift so good is that she operates within the constrictive pop music box just like everyone else, but her songs still achieve greatness. One reason is that their construction is impeccable, and they can be scaled down to an acoustic level or blasted to arenas and maintain their integrity and meaning. But the second, most important reason is that they come from a sincere place that just can’t be faked, no matter how hard one tries to do so. Millennials are great at sniffing out what is fake and what isn’t, and true originality shines like a bright lighthouse.

Watching an acoustic version of Wildest Dreams is a fantastic reminder of Swift’s great talent from multiple angles. It shows off her musicality, proves the song can work without all the flashy touches of modern pop music, and shows off Swift’s personal connection with her art. Swift, if nothing else, is authentic, which is her greatest achievement.

None of this would have happened if I didn’t see the video in the first place, of course. Maybe we should all go on more Youtube adventures. We might find something exciting. Well, that, or more dumb cat videos and memes.