It Takes a Composer

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.

3 thoughts on “It Takes a Composer

  1. I always thought that the power – and appeal – of Radiohead’s Creep had everything to do with the super simple contrast between quiet verse and loud chorus (Nirvana’s Teen Spirit and Heart Shaped Box and Rape Me used the same quiet/loud formula). You can see it’s impact on kids in YouTube concert video from back in the early 90’s when that tune came out. When Jonny Greenwood kicked his pedal into the chorus the kids went nuts. It didn’t hurt that the lyrics appealed to the “losers” – the kids that weren’t jocks and weren’t cool, the depressed, lonely adolescents. Most of us felt that way at some point in our teen years. It was a right place at the right time hit. That first Radiohead album as a whole is just an ok rock record, but they obviously went on to do better and greater things (current uber-hype taken I to consideration).

    Pop music in general seems to go up and down – we’ve been complaining about the dumbing down of pop music for years. But it really does seem to go in waves. Maybe as a whole we are in a trough right now. And if so, maybe something (a great producer?? 🙂 ) will come along to lift us out to ride another wave for a little while.

    I’ve been enjoying your blog for some time – thanks!

    1. Thanks for your comment and for reading the blog!

      You are right, of course about the words, etc. of “Creep” creating much of the song’s impact, but I was trying to be a little contrarian by emphasizing the role of old fashioned formal values in appreciating the piece.

  2. It reminds me of what William Gibson said in “Pattern Recognition”, that too much effort has been put in marketing rather than creating. Pop music is mostly about marketing, hunting the latest trend among teenagers, searching for “coolness” before it becomes a pattern.

    By the way, I feel that the Wharton kid was talking about marketing music as a commodity.

    On another note, thank you for all these blogs. I enjoy reading them. Please continue updating!

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