Pop Musicology

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I’m a piano player, so I frequently lament the ever-dwindling harmonic content of commercial music. Three pieces I hear frequently on the radio, while not that complicated, at least have a few bits to dig into in terms of pitch collections.

What a horrible video! I hate looking at this singer. But, yeah, a catchy and funky tune, with a big diminished chord (a sound that has almost vanished in commercial music) that begins and closes the minor key four bar phrases of the verses. Then the chorus is in the relative major. At one point in the chorus the bass plays E natural: This should be a leading tone to F minor, but it goes back to C minor. Bad! Or: catchy?

Like most tracks in this genre, the harmonic content is four bars on a loop. What makes “American Boy” stand out is the light and shade in the harmony: The tonic is major, the rest is borrowed from minor. Minor plagal cadence to major? Estelle is from England, and Kanye even says, “Just touched down in London town,” so this “European” harmony makes sense. (Going to the absurd: Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day in London town” could easily be re-harmonized with this loop.)

So, this old thing that won’t die is superficially the blandest of these three tunes, but the harmony is actually arguably the weirdest, as the vamp cycles in the tonic from triad to major seventh to dominant to major seventh and back to triad. Huh. Can’t really remember hearing this effect in pop music before. One might even call it “Stravinskyian,” as the grammar is deliberately used incorrectly for gracious effect.

In the chorus there’s another surprise, a dominant that doesn’t resolve correctly. However, that “mistake” seems less interesting. Indeed, it is just plain wrong (Eb7 to F minor, yuck) and even less convincing than the incorrect bass motion in “This Love,” leading me to suspect that the composer of “Kiss Me” is just a lucky guitarist strumming away who doesn’t really know the rules before breaking them. (UPDATE: My complaint “Eb7 to F minor, yuck” is only valid in the key of Eb, of course it would be fine in Ab or when modulating elsewhere. If someone can find me tonic, tonic dominant, ii — all root position — anywhere in European harmony from Bach through Brahms I’ll give them $20. Admittedly, pop songwriting does not usually follow those old European rules, but tonic, tonic dominant, ii seems particularly egregious to me.)

On a related note, I learned about Adam Neely’s pop musicology videos because he linked to my Red Garland analysis:

I was quite taken with his personality and generally in tune with his ideas. There are many Adam Neely videos, he’s very popular, and I have no doubt a huge swath of the public is going to know so much more about how music actually gets made when he’s eventually done with this grand experiment. Of course I had to check out his latest, on the Real Book:

Adam has a diverse audience. Some of his fans started going after the elitism of jazz musicians in the comments, so (perhaps against my better judgment) I left a long comment of my own about the importance of race. Adam promptly pinned it. Thanks Adam!