Play History #2: Switched on Pop

Podcast recs from a long time listener.

Roland Turner, the fictional ’60s jazz saxophonist portrayed by John Goodman in the Coen brothers’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ hates folk music. “In jazz we play all the notes — twelve notes in a scale, dipshit, not three chords on an oo-kulele.” Perhaps we can sympathize with Turner. The jazz saxophonist spends his years practicing, pouring all his energy into one instrument until proficiency is earned, while almost anyone can pick up the guitar and learn a Bob Dylan classic within a few months. How dare they!

Like folk music of the ’60s, modern pop music uses simple chords, familiar melodies, undemanding lyrics, and a team of production input reminiscent of the Hollywood studio system. Its ubiquity breeds cynicism. We imagine rich, out-of-touch masterminds chuckling as they turn the gears on another airlessly produced, inhumanly precise, endlessly recycled medley of replaceable, auto-tuned voices over ‘80s-tinged backing tracks.

And yet… pop music is so popular. The irresistibility of it is obvious. No matter our opinion of the song, who hasn’t walked away from Duane Reade humming ‘Blank Space’ or ‘Hotline Bling’? We must face the enduring question: can millions of fans all be wrong?

‘No!’ says the podcast Switched on Pop, a bi-weekly, 30 minute, music-filled show analyzing hit songs and broader musical tropes. Hosts Charlie Harding (a songwriter) and Nate Sloan (a musicologist) argue that pop songs sacrifice obvious melodic complexity for something more subtle: structural precision and purpose. A popular song juxtaposes familiar elements to achieve emotional connections, just like a fairy tale does — you may have heard something similar, but the feeling it inspires is undoubtedly genuine.

In their first episode, Sloan asks, “What is it about music that can connect us to that feeling of heartbreak so immediately and palpably?” This question, expanded for a range of emotions, is the thesis of the show, and in the exploration Sloan and Harding listen for the distinct signature of Max Martin on his decade-spanning trail of hits (episode 24), liken the descending bass line of the Weeknd’s ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ to the repetitive nadir of operatic lament (episode 20), and consider the paradox of Kacey Musgraves’ optimistic lyrical assertions on ‘I Miss You’ over the ominous musical invocation of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ (episode 1).

This last example brings me to why I really think this show is fantastic: Switched on Pop demonstrates the value of believing in something. You could easily dismiss the parallel of Musgraves to Radiohead as laziness or outright theft, but Sloan and Harding believe wholeheartedly that successful songwriters act with intention. They trust that artists like Taylor Swift know exactly what they’re doing, and from this assumption they derive the entire content of the show, like two scientists persisting in their faith that the universe can make sense.

To be honest, I wasn’t really a fan of pop music, and I’m still not reaching for top 40 after listening to Switched On Pop. But my appreciation for the form has multiplied, and, even more importantly, I see the power of analysis in general. When you give something the assumption of intentionality, you start to see the world not as a cold grinding of oppressive gears, but rather as a meaningful web of synchronicities.

The Switched on Pop website.

How I found it: Mentioned by Matt Belknap on an episode of Never Not Funny. Thanks Matt!

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