Jon Pareles comes close to admitting it in this article: that dumb pop music is in fact boring because it is not well composed, something many of us non-pop types knew all along. Radiohead’s “Creep” is (slightly) interesting not because of Thom Yorke’s persona, but because of how it is composed: because of the B major chord that follows the opening G major – suggesting a secondary dominant, but not playing out that way; or because of the gunshot-like burst of distorted guitar (a sound that will dominate the refrain) that enters before the quiet verse is fully over, a tiny bit of dovetailing that enriches the formal shape.
It takes a composer, not a “producer”. That’s a funny word. At one time, the producer in the pop realm was someone who acted as an intermediary between the artist and the engineer, separate from the arranger, who actually created aspects of the musical content. (Frank de Vol arranged for Nat King Cole, he was not the producer of Cole’s records.) These days, the arranger has disappeared, and the producer is doing things that are more arranger-like. However, the musical content has more to do with the timbre of a synth, whether a sampled piano will be panned hard right, or whether to apply a slap-back delay to the guitar. The producer is arranging, but arranging is less like what the performing artist does, and more like what the engineer does.
I wonder what I am hearing when a Penn undergrad business major speaks of how she is interested in “music production”. Do she mean counting sixteenth notes or counting royalty checks? “Producer” has, of course, an echo of “mass production”, or “industrial product”, which is what all too much of pop music is about.