Con­cept song­smiths beat bat­tery pop by go­ing in for the long haul

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION -

Pop is eat­ing it­self – and get­ting fat­ter. The aver­age length of a pop song in the 1960s was two min­utes and 59 sec­onds. In this decade the aver­age is four min­utes and 26 sec­onds. The old Tin Pan Al­ley maxim “If you can’t say it in three min­utes, you can’t say it at all” no longer holds as we ap­proach the era of the “con­cept song”.

On Justin Tim­ber­lake’s cur­rent al­bum, most of the songs are more than seven min­utes long, and many now in the con­tem­po­rary r’n’b world are go­ing for the seven, eight or even nine-minute state­ment song. Th­ese fig­ures come from a fas­ci­nat­ing study called the Bill­board Ex­per­i­ment which looks at how songs have dif­fered over the decades in terms of length, tempo, artist fa­mil­iar­ity, time sig­na­ture and key/mode.

The only thing that hasn’t changed over the decades is the pre­dom­i­nance of words such as “love”, “baby”, “heart” and “yeah” in the lyrics. But we knew that al­ready. Artists, though, are push­ing the song -length boat out in or­der to stand out from the ba­nal and ho­mogenised mu­si­cal crowd. There is a cer­tain com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful sound pro­duced by a small pool of song­writ­ers and pro­duc­ers that dom­i­nates the charts. There have never been so many big-sell­ing songs all in the same tempo and the same key.

The preva­lence of “bat­tery pop” has been sci­en­tif­i­cally proven. A Span­ish study – men­tioned here be­fore – an­a­lysed half-a-mil­lion pop songs from 1955 to the present day and found that to­day’s mu­sic has fewer chords, less com­plex melody lines and a gen­er­ally more limited “tim­bre palette”. And it does seem that any­thing that sells more than a mil­lion copies has ei­ther the name Calvin Har­ris or David Guetta on it.

The new con­ven­tion­al­ism is be­ing chal­lenged, though, by the con­cept song. One of the most crit­i­cally ac­claimed tracks of the past few years is Frank Ocean’s Pyra­mids, which comes in just short of 10 min­utes. Hailed as a Pur­ple Rain for the iPod gen­er­a­tion, Pyra­mids is epic, com­plex and in­trigu­ing. On My Beau­ti­ful Dark Twisted Fan­tasy, Kanye West was reg­u­larly hit­ting, and ex­ceed­ing, the seven -minute mark.

On their cur­rent Shake The Ha­bit­ual al­bum, The Knife have two songs at nine min­utes, one at 10 and one at 20. The cur­rent Ir­ish num­ber one is Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, which comes in at a very long (for a chart hit) six min­utes -plus.

Judg­ing by what it has pro­duced so far, the cur­rent vogue for long songs is a good thing . And there’s a no­ble his­tory to the long song. If you ig­nore any­thing ever recorded by Tan­ger­ine Dream or any of their pre­pos­ter­ous ilk (and also ig­nore short-long mon­strosi­ties such as Novem­ber Rain and Bo­hemian Rhap­sody), some of mu­sic’s finest mo­ments have come in at around the 10-minute mark.

Tele­vi­sion’s Mar­quee Moon (10.40), Bowie’s Sta­tion To Sta­tion (10.14), The Stone Roses’ Fool’s Gold (9.53) and Mad­ness’s The Lib­erty Of Nor­ton Fol­gate (10.10) are just some ex­am­ples of qual­ity, cre­ativ­ity and length.

It’s rel­a­tively easy – es­pe­cially with to­day’s pre-pro­grammed op­ti­mal pop pack­ages – to get in and out in less than three min­utes, but it takes some­thing spe­cial to hold it to­gether be­yond the 10-minute mark with­out just stitch­ing two or three dis­parate ideas to­gether. In pop to­day, size re­ally does mat­ter. [email protected]­

Tara Brady on the idio­syn­cra­sies of the Ir­ish box of­fice

Oh dear. As gloomily pre­dicted in the pre­vi­ous in­stal­ment of this col­umn, April re­ally was the cru­ellest month for Ir­ish movies. The car-crash style pile-up of way too many in­dige­nous films over six weeks meant that ev­ery­one went away dis­ap­pointed and empty-handed.

As the (long) month wore on, Ir­ish prospects wors­ened con­sid­er­ably. Last week­end af­ter five weeks in cinemas, King of the Trav­ellers scraped its way to ¤30K; the ex­cel­lent Good Vi­bra­tions left the top 20 mid-month with a lack­lus­tre €71,588; Jump opened to an ap­palling €3,812from 10 sites two weeks ago then dis­ap­peared. The ad­mirable Pil­grim Hill, a small bright spark on an oth­er­wise dark hori­zon, has man­aged €69,333to date – not bad for a pic­ture ev­ery­one thought would be a hard sell.

Let’s hope lessons have been learned. This is a teeny, tiny mar­ket and a frag­ile, dam­aged national brand; there’s no room for this kind of com­pe­ti­tion. There are other months, you know, in­clud­ing nice quiet ones like March and Septem­ber, when smaller movies don’t have to go toe-to-toe with Iron Man 3.

Speak­ing of RDJ’s fi­nal bow as Tony Stark – we don’t re­ally ex­pect him to re­turn for Avengers 2 af­ter a re­puted $50 mil­lion payday (plus points) and all that chat­ter about James Franco com­ing in, do we? – IM3 has al­ready taken €1,848,339 in the ROI and count­ing.

The big box of­fice story, mean­while, came from across the pond, where the same pic­ture has scored the sec­ond largest US open­ing of all time ($174.1 mil­lion), be­hind The Avengers’ $207.4 mil­lion.

Is Tony Stark the most loved-up fran­chise char­ac­ter of all time? The an­swer is an em­phatic “yes”. The golden al­go­rithm sug­gests Iron Man 3 is head­ing for a grand Amer­i­can tally of around $350 mil­lion. The film has al­ready scored $711,212,195 worth of busi­ness world­wide, so ex­pect it to sail to­ward the bil­lion-dol­lar mark within the next fort­night.

Back on the home front, the Ir­ish ap­petite for crap knows no lim­its: the pee-poor 21 and Over mus­tered €99,031last week­end and the numb­ingly id­i­otic Olym­pus Has Fallen sailed past €479,945af­ter three weeks.

We still heart Ryan Gosling: the mud­dled but in­ter­est­ing Place Be­yond the Pines is hang­ing on to the No 6 spot with €343,533.And the grey-ish euro has nudged the lovely Love Is All You Need past €104,120.Mean­while, de­spite a sub­ject mat­ter that can nor­mally be re­lied upon to pull in au­di­ences, the Os­car-nom­i­nated Gate­keep­ers failed to scare up even mod­est doc­u­men­tary busi­ness last week­end.

This is bad news for the in­com­ing and de­layed A Hi­jack­ing (open­ing next week) and for this week­end’s in­com­ing and de­layed Me and You. Ir­ish auds are rightly turn­ing their back on films not re­leased day-and-date here and in Bri­tain. UK-based dis­tri­bu­tion houses would do well to re­mem­ber that Ire­land is a coun­try in its own right and not a re­gion suited to Lon­don’s sloppy sec­onds. Take that, for­mer colo­nial masters.

Frank Ocean: 10 min­utes of heaven

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