The five songs in with a chance to win this year’s APRA Silver Scroll Award are Close Your Eyes by Bic Runga, Life of the Party by Chelsea Jade, Horizon by Aldous Harding, Richard by Nadia Reid and Lorde’s Green Light. Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue…
Okay, so maybe the ‘blue’ part of that familiar expression is pushing it a little – other than as a reference to the Afro-American origins of popular music over a century ago, arguably from which much contemporary music is derived. But still, reflecting on the finalist choices for the 2017 Silver Scroll Awards, I couldn’t help but notice that these songs are all connected by concept.
They each: (1) adhere to cultural norms currently situated in contemporary pop music (further discussion of which is provided below); (2) contain distinctly salient features framed within those cultural norms; and (3) pay homage to previously established musical styles, borrowing from older generations of musicians and their creative legacy.
Borrowing from the past is nothing new. Recent innovators such as Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson are no strangers to using genre specific compositional techniques, and the result helps frame songs in a larger timeframe, perspective, and consequently audience. With the above observations in mind, let’s look at the final five.
Bic Runga’s Close Your Eyes plays stylistic tribute to the ephemeral sounds of the flower power ‘60s, The Beatles, Small Faces, The Byrds, and perhaps even a pinch of Stone Roses. Yet at the same time Runga employs the kind of attention grabbing devices found in 21st Century chart culture. For example, the intro is just long enough to hear a rhythmically stabilising analogue synth-type hook line (against an energetic drum groove), but being only 8-bars long it doesn’t make the listener wait too long before the vocals enter.
Current trends in arrangement rely on the need to generate almost instant limbic reward. Hooks and melodies need to be almost instantaneously appealing, there is no space for dead bars, competition is high, and simply put it is ‘survival of the fittest’ in musical format. Runga achieves this via the combination of nostalgia mixed with a modern twist.
Vocals are mixed in front (a modern norm to allow for a satisfactory performance on any device). The major sub-dominant chord employed in the piece lifts the mood if you subscribe to theories of musical equilibration, which is congruent to a positive lyrical semantic, even though the piece is in a minor key. Very clever work. Harmonic expectations are thwarted via the lack of cadential movement in bars 7-8 in each 8-bar hypermeter. This is an attention grabbing device, and a way helping perpetuate the forward motion of the strophe.
Chelsea Jade’s Life of the Party contains an interesting backbeat-focused accompaniment heard in the verses by finger clicks and vocals on the 2 and the 4 – but at the same time the supporting groove is very 8th note-based, echoing the pulse-like-ness of tunes reminiscent of the 1980s. The chorus is extremely catchy and syncopated and cleverly stated instrumentally during the intro of the track, so that when you hear the chorus for the first time, you feel you already know it.
Prolific songwriter Max Martin uses this device to help aid the listener’s sense of perceived familiarity, a precursor to limbic reward. The clinical sounding root- and fifth-focused melodic line is reminiscent of the trend heard by singers such as Taylor Swift and Lorde, as we currently favour a simpler harmonic and melodic palette compared to earlier decades. Another salient feature of this track is Jade’s use of ‘cockney’ accent-type phrasing over the lyrics, ‘Got gravel embedded in my hands’ in the bridge. This affected singing technique plays a distinct part in this track.
In Horizon, the elephant in the room is Aldous Harding’s prominent vocal style, reminiscent of Edith Piaf, a popular French singer in the mid 20th Century. This strong vocal vibrato is unapologetic in nature and requires an equally unapologetic accompaniment, provided by effected strings and piano. Harding’s accompaniment further adds to the boldness of this track via a simple, deliberate, and economic production style.
Again, if one were to subscribe to musical equilibration then use of the harmony derived from the natural minor mode creates a sense of courage, adventure, tension, danger, severity, a challenging situation (think music to Game of Thrones here), which is resolved in the chorus to a major tonality, alluding to a sense of narrative success inferred by the lyrics, ‘here is your princess, here is your horizon’, providing prosodic congruence.
Richard by Nadia Reid immediately breaks taboos for a folk musician, firstly with the choice of snare sound and drum groove throughout providing a modern take on an established feel; and secondly the verse length, practically devoid of phrasing space for surprising long 8-bars!
This device is heard in The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel, to some extent, and is unusual as it doesn’t allow for lyrical reflection by the listener. Perhaps this is a deliberate move as ironically, the first lyric is, ‘Richard liked the sound of his own voice…’ Nadia Reid’s Suzanne Vega/Tom’s Diner-esque inspired lyrics again borrow from an older time, and the hypnotic state that one reaches as a result of the repetitive snare drum and ethereal guitar (Sam Taylor – guitars and male vox) juxtaposes the over-active vocal line. Genius.
Finally, Lorde’s Green Light resembles the economic-ness of Taylor Swift-like melodies, but adding a touch of spice by employing some well-crafted surprises, providing the quirky backdrop that Lorde’s vocal and stage persona requires – another singer with a remarkably unique voice.
Green Light contains the kind of production mastery of successful Top 20 hits, but Lorde is afforded the opportunity to take more risks due to her astronomical fan base. I am referring in this case to the jarring effect of the syncopated piano and vocal heard at the end of each line of the verse, which is particularly audacious due to the sparseness of the arrangement.
The temporal density of the pre-chorus is perhaps a reaction to the lyrics, ‘Those great whites, they have big teeth’, almost like the notes are trying to run away from a dangerous animal. The chorus transfers into a dance track just after the lyric, ‘How we kissed when we danced on the light up floor’, and Lorde borrows harmonic movement from tunes like Hey Joe (Jimi Hendrix) and Hush (Deep Purple), with the use of major chords descending in fourths. The pre-chorus is also reminiscent of brisk Bollywood melodies consisting of an anapaestically-derived rhythm (two semiquavers followed by a quaver).
So it does seem like the secret of writing critically acclaimed tunes in the current climate requires:
Dr Mark Baynes is the Programme Manager for the Bachelor of Musical Arts degree at MAINZ, Auckland; a degree program that fosters students’ ability to find their own musical voice, culminating with the creation of a capstone project such as an album, film score or music for game audio.