Wub Wub

My brother has some dubstep on his iPod. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why; he frequently says that the genre can be described less as music and more as ‘sounds’, and would be the first to claim that it’s far from a paradigm of deeply emotional musical expression. Indeed, to some, dubstep is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with 21st century music; loud, brash and completely devoid of meaning.

I, personally, find dubstep more interesting than anything else. I don’t listen to much of it myself (my musical tastes tend to be more… lyrical), but find it inherently fascinating, purely because of the reaction people have with it. It’s a Marmite thing; people either love it or hate it, and some people seem physically incapable of contemplating why others enjoy it. Or, indeed, why it’s considered music.

So, let’s take my favourite approach to the matter: an analytical perspective. The songs that people remember, that are catchy, that stick in the mind, that become old favourite and/or the ones that the pop music industry attempts to manufacture in bulk, tend to have simple, regular and easily recognisable beats that one can tap or bounce along to easily. Their pace and rhythm too tend to be fairly standard, often being based approximately around the 70bpm rhythm of the human heart (or some multiple thereof). Overlaying these simple rhythms, usually based around a drumbeat (strength depending on genre), we tend to factor in simple melodies with plenty of repeating patterns; think of how the pattern of a verse or chorus will usually be repeated multiple times throughout a song, and how even the different lines of a verse will often follow the same lines of a verse. And then there are lyrics; whilst many genres, particularly jazz, may have entire libraries of purely instrumental pieces, few of these (film soundtracks excepted) have ever gained mainstream cultural impact. Lyrics are important; they allow us to sing along, which makes it stick in our head more effectively, and they can allow a song to carry meaning too. Think of just about any famous, popular song (Bohemian Rhapsody excepted; NOBODY can explain why that is both so popular and so awesome), and chances are it’ll have several of the above features. Even rap, where music is stripped down to its barest bones, bases itself around a strong, simple rhythm and a voice-dictated melody (come to think of it, rap is basically poetry for the modern age… I should do a post on that some time).

Now, let’s compare that analysis with probably the most famous piece of dubstep around: Skrillex’s ‘Bangarang’. Bring it up on YouTube if you want to follow along. Upon listening the song, the beat is the first thing that becomes apparent; timing it I get a pace of 90bpm, the same rate as a fast walking pace or a fast, excited heartbeat; a mood that fits perfectly with the intentions of the music. It’s meant to excite, to get the blood pumping, to infuse the body with the beat, and to inspire excitement and a party atmosphere. The music is structured around this beat, but there is also an underlying ‘thump’ similar to the bass drum of a drumkit, just to enforce the point. Then we come onto the melody; after an intro that reminds me vaguely of something the Jackson 5 may once have done (just from something I heard on the radio once), we begin to layer over this underlying sound. This is a common trick employed across all genres; start with something simple and build on top of it, building in terms of scale and noise. The music industry has known for a long time that loudness is compelling, hooks us in and sells records, hence why there has been a trend over the last few decades for steadily increasing loudness in popular music… but that’s for another time. Building loudness encourages us to stick with a song, getting us drawn into it. The first added layer is a voice, not only giving us something to (after a fashion, since the words are rather unclear and almost meaningless) sing along to and recognise, adding another hook for us, but this also offers an early example of a repeated lyrical pattern- we have one two-line couplet repeated four times, with more layers of repeated bassline patterns being successively added throughout, and the two lines of said couplet only differ in the way they end. Again, this makes it easy and compelling to follow. The words are hard to make out, but that doesn’t matter; one is supposed to just feel the gist, get into the rhythm of it. The words are just another layer. This portion of the song takes on a ‘verse’ role for the rest of it, as it repeated several more times.

And then, we hit the meat and drink of the song; with the word ‘Bangarang’, everything shifts into a loud mesh of electronic sounds passed several times through an angle grinder. However, the beat (although pausing for emphasis at the moment of transition’) remains the same, carrying over some consistency, and we once again find ourselves found by repeated patterns, both in the backing sounds and in the lyrics that are still (sort of ) present. It’s also worth noting that the melody of the electronica pulses in time to the beat, enabling a listener/partygoer to rock to both beat and melody simultaneously, getting the whole body into it. This is our ‘chorus’- we again have repeating stanzas for a while, but we return to our verse (building once again) after a while so we don’t get bored of the repetition. Then chorus again, and then a shift in tone; another common trick employed across all genres to hold our interest. We have a slight key change up, and our melody is taken over by a new, unidentified instrument/noise. We still have our original sound playing in the background to ensure the shift is not too weirdly abrupt, but this melody, again utilising short, repeated units, is what takes centre stage. We then have another shift, to a quiet patch, still keeping the background. Here the muted sounds offer us time for reflection and preparation; the ‘loud soft loud’ pattern was one used extensively by Nirvana, The Pixies and other grunge bands during the 1990s, and continues to find a place in popular music to this day. We have flashes of loudness, just to whet our appetites for the return to chaos that is to come, and then we start to build again (another repeating pattern you see, this time built in to the structure of the song). The loudness returns and then, just because this kind of thing doesn’t have a particularly natural end, we leave on some more unintelligible, distorted lyrics; because finishing on a lone voice isn’t just for ‘proper’ bands like, just off the top of my head, Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Notice how absolutely every one of those features I identified can be linked to other musical genres, the kind of thing present, admittedly in different formats, across the full spectrum of the musical world. The only difference with dubstep is that, unlike using voices & guitars like more traditional genres, dubstep favours entirely electronic sounds made on the computer; in that respect, combined with its way of being unabashedly loud and partying, it is the perfect musical representation of the 21st century thus far. In fact, the only thing on my original list that it lacks is a strong lyrical focus; in that respect, I feel that it is missing a trick, and that it could use a few more intelligible words to carry some meaning and become more recognised as A Thing. Actually, after listening to that song a few times, it reminds me vaguely of The Prodigy (apologies to any fans who are offended by this; I don’t listen to them much), but maybe that’s just me. Does all this mean dubstep is necessarily ‘good’ as a musical type? Of course not; taste is purely subjective. But to say that dubstep is merely noise, and that there is no reason anyone would listen to it, misses the point; it pulls the same tricks as every other genre, and they all have fans. No reason to begrudge them a few of those.

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“The most honest three and a half minutes in television history”

OK, I know this should have been put up on Wednesday, but I wanted to get this one right. Anyway…

This video appeared on my Facebook feed a few days ago, and I have been unable to get it out of my head since. It is, I am told, the opening scene of a new HBO series (The Newsroom), and since HBO’s most famous product, Game of Thrones, is famously the most pirated TV show on earth, I hope they won’t mind me borrowing another three minute snippet too much.

OK, watched it? Good, now I can begin to get my thoughts off my chest.

This video is many things; to me, it is quite possibly one of the most poignant and beautiful, and in many ways is the best summary of greatness ever put to film. It is inspiring, it is blunt, it is great television. It is not, however, “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER…” as claimed in its title; there are a lot of things I disagree with in it. For one thing, I’m not entirely sure on our protagonist’s reasons for saying ‘liberals lose’. If anything, the last century of our existence can be viewed as one long series of victories for liberal ideology; women have been given the vote, homosexuality has been decriminalised, racism has steadily been dying out, gender equality is advancing year by year and only the other day the British government legalised gay marriage. His viewpoint may have something to do with features of American politics that I’m missing, particularly his reference to the NEA (an organisation which I do not really understand), but even so. I’m basically happy with the next few seconds; I’ll agree that claiming to be the best country in the world based solely on rights and freedoms is not something that holds water in our modern, highly democratic world. Freedom of speech, information, press and so on are, to most eyes, prerequisites to any country wishing to have any claim to true greatness these days, rather than the scale against which such activities are judged. Not entirely sure why he’s putting so much emphasis on the idea of a free Australia and Belgium, but hey ho.

Now, blatant insults of intelligence directed towards the questioner aside, we then start to quote statistics- always a good foundation point to start from in any political discussion. I’ll presume all his statistics are correct, so plus points there, but I’m surprised that he apparently didn’t notice that one key area America does lead the world in is size of economy; China is still, much to its chagrin, in second place on that front. However, I will always stand up for the viewpoint that economy does not equal greatness, so I reckon his point still stands.

Next, we move on to insulting 20 year old college students, not too far off my own personal social demographic; as such, this is a generation I feel I can speak on with some confidence. This is, probably the biggest problem I have with anything said during this little clip; no justification is offered as to why this group is the “WORST PERIOD GENERATION PERIOD EVER PERIOD”. Plenty of reasons for this opinion have been suggested in the past by other commentators, and these may or may not be true; but making assumptions and insults about a person based solely on their date of manufacture is hardly the most noble of activities. In any case, in the age of the internet and mass media, a lot of the world’s problems, with the younger generation in particular, get somewhat exaggerated… but no Views here, bad Ix.

And here we come to the meat of the video, the long, passionate soliloquy containing all the message and poignancy of the video with suitably beautiful backing music. But, what he comes out with could still be argued back against by an equally vitriolic critic; no time frame of when America genuinely was ‘the greatest country in the world’ is ever given. Earlier, he attempted to justify non-greatness by way of statistics, but his choice of language in his ‘we sure as hell used to be great’ passage appears to hark back to the days of Revolutionary-era and Lincoln-era America, when America was lead by the ‘great men’ he refers to. But if we look at these periods of time, the statistics don’t add up anywhere near as well; America didn’t become the world-dominating superpower with the stated ‘world’s greatest economy’ it is today until after making a bucket load of money from the two World Wars (America only became, in the words of then President Calvin Coolidge, ‘the richest country in the history of the world’, during the 1920s). Back in the periods where American heroes were born, America was a relatively poor country, consisting of vast expanses of wilderness, hardline Christian motivation, an unflinching belief in democracy, and an obsession the American spirit of ‘rugged individualism’ that never really manifested itself into any super-economy until it became able to loan everyone vast sums of money to pay off war debts. And that’s not all; he makes mention of ‘making war for moral reasons’, but of the dozens of wars America has fought only two are popularly thought of as being morally motivated. These were the American War of Independence, which was declared less for moral reasons and more because the Americans didn’t like being taxed, and the American Civil War, which ended with the southern states being legally allowed to pass the ‘Jim Crow laws’ that limited black rights until the 1960s; here they hardly ‘passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons’. Basically, there is no period of history in which his justifications for why America was once’the greatest country in the world’ actually stand up at once.

But this, to me, is the point of what he’s getting at; during his soliloquy, a historical period of greatness is never defined so much as a model and hope for greatness is presented.. Despite all his earlier quoting of statistics and ‘evidence’, they are not what makes a country great. Money, and the power that comes with it, are not defining features of greatness, but just stuff that makes doing great things possible. The soliloquy, intentionally or not, aligns itself with the Socratic idea of justice; that a just society is one in which every person concerns himself with doing their own, ideally suited, work, and does not concern himself with trying to be a busybody and doing someone else’s job for them. Exactly how he arrives at this conclusion is somewhat complex; Plato’s Republic gives the full discourse. This idea is applied to political parties during the soliloquy; defining ourselves by our political stance is a self-destructive idea, meaning all our political system ever does is bicker at itself rather than just concentrating on making the country a better place. Also mentioned is the idea of ‘beating our chest’, the kind of arrogant self-importance that further prevents us from seeking to do good in this world, and the equally destructive concept of belittling intelligence that prevents us from making the world a better, more righteous place, full of the artistic and technological breakthroughs that make our world so awesome to bring in. For, as he says so eloquently, what really makes a country great is to be right. To be just, to be fair, to mean and above all to stand for something. To not be obsessed about ourselves, or other people’s business; to have rightness and morality as the priority for the country as a whole. To lay down sacrifices and be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good, to back our promises and ideals and to care, above all else, simply for what is right.

You know what, he put it better than I ever could analyse. I’m just going to straight up quote him:

“We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons, we waged wars on poverty not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbours, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men- we aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy.”

Maybe his words don’t quite match the history; it honestly doesn’t matter. The message of that passage embodies everything that defines greatness, ideas of morality and justice and doing good by the world. That statement is not harking back to some mythical past, but a statement of hope and ambition for the future. That is beauty embodied. That is greatness.

The Interesting Instrument

Music has been called the greatest thing that humans do; some are of the opinion that it, even if only in the form of songs sung around the campfire, it is the oldest example of human art. However, whilst a huge amount of music’s effect and impact can be put down to the way it is interpreted by our ears and brain (I once listened to a song comprised entirely of various elements of urban sound, each individually recorded by separate microphones and each made louder or softer in order to create a tune), to create new music and allow ourselves true creative freedom over the sounds we make requires us to make and play instruments of various kinds. And, of all the myriad of different musical instruments humankind has developed, honed and used to make prettyful noises down the years, perhaps none is as interesting to consider as the oldest and most conceptually abstract of the lot; the human voice.

To those of us not part of the musical fraternity, the idea of the voice being considered an instrument at all is a very odd one; it is used most of the time simply to communicate, and is thus perhaps unique among instruments in that its primary function is not musical. However, to consider a voice as merely an addition to a piece of music rather than being an instrumental part of it is to dismiss its importance to the sound of the piece, and as such it must be considered one by any composer or songwriter looking to produce something coherent. It is also an incredibly diverse tool at a musician’s disposal; capable of a large range of notes anyway in a competent singer, by combining the voices of different people one can produce a tonal range rivalled only by the piano, and making it the only instrument regularly used as the sole component of a musical entity (ie in a choir). Admittedly, not using it in conjunction with other instruments does rather limit what it can do without looking really stupid, but it is nonetheless a quite amazingly versatile musical tool.

The voice also has a huge advantage over every other instrument in that absolutely anyone can ‘play’ it; even people who self-confessedly ‘can’t sing’ may still find themselves mumbling their favourite tune in the shower or singing along with their iPod occasionally. Not only that, but it is the only instrument that does not require any tool in addition to the body in order to play, meaning it is carried with everyone absolutely everywhere, thus giving everybody listening to a piece of music a direct connection to it; they can sing, mumble, or even just hum along. Not only is this a wet dream from a marketer’s perspective, enabling word-of-mouth spread to increase its efficiency exponentially, but it also makes live music that other level more awesome (imagine a music festival without thousands of screaming fans belting out the lyrics) and just makes music that much more compelling and, indeed, human to listen to.

However, the main artistic reason for the fundamental musical importance of the voice has more to do with what it can convey- but to adequately explain this, I’m going to need to go off on a quite staggeringly over-optimistic detour as I try to explain, in under 500 words, the artistic point of music. Right, here we go…:

Music is, fundamentally, an art form, and thus (to a purist at least) can be said to exist for no purpose other than its own existence, and for making the world a better place for those of us lucky enough to be in it. However, art in all its forms is now an incredibly large field with literally millions of practitioners across the world, so just making something people find pretty doesn’t really cut it any more. This is why some extraordinarily gifted painters can draw something next to perfectly photo-realistic and make a couple of grand from it, whilst Damien Hirst can put a shark in some formaldehyde and sell it for a few million. What people are really interested in buying, especially when it comes to ‘modern’ art, is not the quality of brushwork or prettifulness of the final result (which are fairly common nowadays), but its meaning, its significance, what it is trying to convey; the story, theatre and uniqueness behind it all (far rarer commodities that, thanks to the simple economic law of supply and demand, are thus much more expensive).

(NB: This is not to say that I don’t think the kind of people who buy Tracy Emin pieces are rather gullible and easily led, and apparently have far more money than they do tangible grip on reality- but that’s a discussion for another time, and this is certainly how they would justify their purchases)

Thus, the real challenge to any artist worth his salt is to try and create a piece that has meaning, symbolism, and some form of emotion; and this applies to every artistic field, be it film, literature, paintings, videogames (yes, I am on that side of the argument) or, to try and wrench this post back on-topic, music. The true beauty and artistic skill of music, the key to what makes those songs that transcend mere music alone so special, lies in giving a song emotion and meaning, and in this function the voice is the perfect instrument. Other instruments can produce sweet, tortured strains capable of playing the heart strings like a violin, but virtue of being able to produce those tones in the form of language, capable of delivering an explicit message to redouble the effect of the emotional one, a song can take on another level of depth, meaning and artistry. A voice may not be the only way to make your song explicitly mean something, and quite often it’s not used in such an artistic capacity at all; but when it is used properly, it can be mighty, mighty effective.