Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Who Is The Real Demi Lovato?

Accident at the pencil factory?

It has come to my attention recently that pop star Demi Lovato, singer of hit songs such as "Heart Attack", "Give Your Heart a Break", and "Skyscraper", is not a single, real person. She is, in fact, a rotating cast of actresses performing the role of "Demi Lovato". Sound ridiculous? Well, maybe it is. But, ask yourself: is it more ridiculous than believing that all of the following photos are of the same person?

Tan and trendy Demi Lovato

  Cute half-Asian Demi Lovato

TV Actress Chyler Leigh Demi Lovato

Blonde Demi Lovato

35-year-old Demi Lovato

the Filipino version of Rebecca Black Demi Lovato

I would just like to once again reiterate that every single one of those pictures is allegedly of "Demi Lovato". What I want to know is, which one is it that we hear singing those songs? Who is the real Demi Lovato?

could it be Instagram girl Demi Lovato?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

"Call Me Maybe" and the Mannheim School

I live in a featureless void with no chairs

Much has been written about the success of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe".  When a song captivates the world pop music market in such a profound way, it's only natural for us to ask why.  To this end, reviewers have tirelessly and exhaustively separated and analyzed the song's salient features, from its catchy string riff to Miss Jepsen's performance to the tone of the lyrics.  However, until now, no one (to my knowledge) has discussed the song's use of classical melodic devices.

A little music education is required before I progress further with this analysis.

The term "Mannheim School" refers to the compositional style that developed in Mannheim, Germany in the mid-18th century.  The musical devices employed by Mannheim-based composer Johann Stamitz caught on with other composers in the region before eventually spreading throughout Europe, becoming hallmarks of the classical period.  The Mannheim School technique of particular interest in this analysis is the Mannheim rocket, also known simply as a rocket theme.

A rocket theme is a melody that consists of a rapidly ascending arpeggiated triad — put more simply, an upward moving broken chord.  Rocket themes create immediate excitement, and are thus generally used to begin sections, as a means of engaging the audience.

The opening of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor is a textbook example of a rocket theme:

The opening of Mozart's Eine Kliene Nachtmusik, a broken, ascending G major triad, could be considered a sort of rocket theme as well:

Finally, the the first two lines of the chorus of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" form an ascending G major triad spanning a full octave, creating exactly the same sort of excitement as a rocket theme, beacuse, well, it is one:

Now, I doubt this exciting ascending melody was intentionally crafted as a rocket theme, but without the Mannheim School accustoming our ears to this sort of melodic motion, it's unlikely that this song would have been written the way it is.  So, next time you're rocking out to "Call Me Maybe", remember, you're listening to the end product of centuries of music history.  At least, that's what you can tell people if they catch you listening to it.

Also, Stamitz and Jepsen: long-lost cousins?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"I Feel Better" by Gotye

'Cause what's better than 8-layer blueberry cake?
Thanks to the success of "Somebody That I Used To Know", Gotye has gone from underground Australian indie pop genius to full-blown international star.  While it's clear that he will always retain the former title, whether or not he can hang on to the latter remains to be seen.  The chart performance of his next single "I Feel Better" will be a good indicator of whether or not Gotye has what it takes for long-term mainstream popularity here in the States.

It's tough to say how "I Feel Better" will fare.  "Somebody" was a killer tune, but its runaway success may have had more to do with its dynamic take on breakup angst (always a popular topic among the coveted youth demographic) than its raw musicality, although both certainly played a factor.  "I Feel Better" has plenty of raw musicality, but it's questionable if people will find a happy tune quite as compelling as a sad one.

 "Just change the name to 'I Feel Bitter'. Problem solved!" - Marketing
I think the song will do well, though, and not just because of its catchiness and brilliant sound.  To understand my line of reasoning, we'll have to take a closer look at the chorus lyrics:

I feel better
better than before
I feel better
much better
now I'm not down anymore

"I feel good" is a boring sentiment.  It is static, it has no motion.  "I feel better" implies movement, movement that accumulates with each additional iteration.  Add a "than before" after your "better", and suddenly the passage of time is established; a journey has been implied.

Pictured: a Journey, being more than implied

Continuing on, we have the addition of a "much" before a "better", bolstering the already accumulating intensity of the comparative adjective.  This bring us to the closing line, "now I'm not down anymore".  This line lets us know that the movement has been completed; he got better and better and now he's... good?  No!

Now he's "not down anymore".  And this is the key.  In both music and lyrics, we're not interested in "good", or even "great", all the time.  Otherwise, this would totally be just as good as this.  We're moved by the journey, the shift from mood to mood, the exposition and development of themes, both musical and lyrical.  "I Feel Better" is not compelling because it's a happy song.  It's compelling because it tells the story of somebody who feels better - better than before.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

What Is Great Art?

In my daily life, I listen to a lot of music. I do this primarily because I love – have always loved – listening to music. However, that is not the only reason I listen. I also listen in order to understand the ways in which various artists employ the five basic elements of music – melody, rhythm, tone color, harmony, and form – to further their artistic goals.

As I broaden my musical horizons, I begin to see patterns - commonalities - in the way people combine these elements, whether the composition in question is 200 years or 2 days old. There are certain things expected of a composer regarding how musical ideas are presented and developed, stated and repeated that remain constant in almost all music. Music for which these expectations are not met is either intentionally contrarian or the product of a lack of skill in dealing with musical subjects.

You may be thinking that I am referring to atonal music, noise music and the like in that last statement, but I am not. These musics, like any others, obey the rules of form and treat their subjects with the same reverence as any other sort of music. I made this mistake once - I remember hearing snippets of Penderecki's famous "Threnody" and dismissing it as formless noise music. It was only when I heard the piece in its full, ten minute form that I understood it as I understood any other piece of music.

It is a curious thing then, given this universality of form among compositions, that certain compositions can still strike me as transcendent. When I examine these compositions further, I am always amazed by how consistently it is precisely the way in which they alternately fulfill and subvert the rules of form and composition that excites me. A purely theoretical example: when a return to the first theme of a piece is expected, a quick flourish introducing a short melodic variation on the second theme surprises and delights, but would be disorienting if it were not followed by the expected return to the first theme. This is what I think of as Great Art.

I have had conversations with people who believe that Great Art should be understandable and recognizable by all people. I disagree. The fact is that people are not able to understand a piece of art in the fullest sense until they understand, through experience, the ways in which the expectations of the craft have been fulfilled and/or subverted.

I will give an example. Suppose I had never seen a movie, or any sort of video narrative. Given that fact, wouldn't I be quick to proclaim any sort of half-decent film as truly transcendent art upon first viewing? The problem is that I am not acquainted with the history of film, and therefore do not recognize any of the various cinematic and storytelling devices used or not used in the film. What makes Great Art great is how it exists within its lexicon, as outside of a particular lexicon there are no standards by which it can be objectively judged.

While I don't believe in truly universal art, I understand where the perspective comes from. Most of you reading this are well acquainted with American culture, and therefore many of us have experienced a good portion of the same art. This gives us similar perceptions of what expectations said art should fulfill. Therefore, we end up heaping acclaim upon many similar things. This might lead us to believe that our collectively favorite pieces of art have complete universal appeal, when in fact our mutual admiration of it is more of a comment on our own similarities than any universality inherent in the art.

Universal art would need to mean the same thing to anyone, from any place, from any period of time since the invention of art. When the requirements of universal art are stated this way, we clearly see the impossibility. Language barriers are the most obvious obstacle. As lovely a piece of prose as this article is, only a select group of humans throughout history could make any sense of it. Even perceptions of human beauty, one of the things we would most expect to tie us all together, have changed over time.

Since Great Art is not universal, how much more should we strive to learn the tenets of our respective cultures' art forms, that we might become more cognizant of the nuance and beauty contained within the minds of our fellow human beings? That, my friends, is truly the purpose of Great Art.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

P!nk vs. Katy Perry - "The One That Got Away"

Skin by Fondant

With Katy Perry's "The One That Got Away" climbing the charts for a potential record 6th #1 from her "Teenage Dream" album, I thought it would be fun to see how it stacks up against another pop diva's song of the same name. P!nk's "The One That Got Away" was never a chart-topper (it wasn't even a single), but it definitely holds its own against Perry's. How is that, exactly? Well, read on...

P!nk: Soulful, dynamic, improvisational
Direct, powerful, carefully planned

Perry's song has much less musical space than P!nk's. The consistent, driving beat and simple arrangement force the melody to occupy a very specific set of notes and rhythms. P!nk's song is more open, allowing her free reign to bust out her blues chops. While Perry's performance is strong, there's no nuance in the arrangement to support it, and it ends up bearing too much of the song's weight. There are advantages to both approaches, but here, P!nk comes out on top.

Hang on, P!nk, it's not time to celebrate yet

Key lines about different lives:
P!nk: "I'll look for you first in my next life"
Perry: "In another life, I would make you stay"

It's safe to say that both singers have given up on "The One" in their current life, but the subtle difference in how they address the way they would approach the situation, given another chance, is interesting. P!nk would take the burden on herself to find her lost love, whereas Perry would simply force the departing party to "stay".

How Katy Perry views men

P!nk: Acoustic guitar, backup vocals
Perry: Dance beats, keyboards, strings, backup vocals

While I've already mentioned the persistent beat that provides the foundation for Perry's song, I would be shirking my duties not to mention the lovely blues/rock acoustic guitar playing that anchors P!nk's. Moreover, the backing vocals in P!nk's song constantly reiterate and reinforce the title phrase, lending credence to lyrics like "you'll always be mine, in the back of my mind". In contrast, the bouncing quarter note piano line in Perry's song moves too quickly and robotically to capture the vulnerability that lines like "It's time to face the music, I'm no longer your muse" exhibit on paper.

Things often work better on paper

Fishing references:
P!nk: none
Perry: none

I cannot stress enough how much of a wasted opportunity this is.

Katy Perry's "The One That Got Away" is undone by its attempts to fulfill the roles of both energetic dance number and melancholy ode to what might have been. P!nk's slower, stripped back approach comes much closer to capturing the longing feeling associated with lost love. P!nk's tune feels more sincere, but Katy's brings the party. In the end, it comes down to which characteristic is more important to the listener.

I'm gonna have to side with Linus on this one

Friday, September 23, 2011

Lady Gaga vs. Queen - "You and I"

"You" referring, of course, to the Surgeon General

Lady Gaga has made it quite clear that she is very influenced by Queen, which raises the question: how does her new song "You and I" compare to Queen's song of the same name? Let's find out...

Number of times the phrase "You and I" is sung:
Gaga: 15
Queen: 7

Clearly, Gaga outdoes Queen in this department, ensured by a repeated bridge consisting mostly of the phrase "You and I". If the city of Imperial, Nebraska started a school and called it "University of Nebraska at Imperial" just so they could use Gaga's bridge as their fight song, I would not fault them for it.

Your move, Imperial.

Quality of Brian May's Guitar Solo:
Gaga: Short, simple, and spastic
Queen: Short, witty, and smooth

That's right, both songs feature a Brian May guitar solo! However, there is a vast disparity in the quality of the solos. According to Brian May, his solo performance on Lady Gaga's track was cut up and rearranged after the fact. It definitely shows - his phrasing isn't nearly as fluid as on Queen's "You and I".

Another issue is the mixing. The strength of Brian May's guitar tone has always been its warmth and fatness, and on the Gaga track all of those low, meaty frequencies are taken up by the huge drums and keyboards. This robs his tone of a lot of its unique quality, which is really unfortunate. It's like getting one of the world's most famous guitarists to appear on your track, then doing everything in your power to make it sound like some unknown guy.

Yes, this situation is a metaphor for itself.

Gaga: programming, samples, piano, backing vocals
Queen: bass, drums, backing vocals

Gaga's track goes one step further in saluting Queen by sampling the stomp-stomp-clap beat of "We Will Rock You" (a May-penned composition) and incorporating it into the song's beat. Whether you prefer the instrumentation of the Gaga tune to the Queen one comes down to whether you prefer electronic-sounding instruments to the sound of an organic, real band. Each approach has its pros and cons, but in the Queen camp sits the rather compelling pro of John Deacon and his bass playing, which is exquisite throughout the entire track.

Pictured: Lady Gaga's bass player.

Gaga: Lady Gaga
Queen: Freddie Mercury

Gaga's voice has been compared to Mercury by a fair number of people, but I just don't hear it. Not to say that they're not both great singers - they are - but I don't really hear much similarity in their vocal styles. Gaga gives a powerful, straightforward performance on her song, while Mercury has a more understated way of going about things. While nothing Gaga does is quite as wondrous as the melismatic phrase Mercury sings going into the fade-out on his track, she brings more excitement throughout. Looking at only the tracks in question, I'd say this is a toss-up.

When mustaches are factored in, however...

Both songs are well-written and well-performed, but there are some major differences in the manner of their appeal. Gaga's "You and I" has much more of a mega-hit feel to it; its goal is to assault the listener with hook after hook, constantly maintaining fever-pitch intensity. Queen's "You and I", being more or less an album track, is content to move between subtler sections, allowing every layer of the song to be developed to its fullest. Personally, I'll be listening to Queen's version long after Gaga's has left the charts, but I wouldn't look down on anyone who prefers the Gaga version - especially if they attended the prestigious University of Northern Iowa.

Actually a real place

Monday, September 19, 2011

Carpenters vs. All American Rejects - "Top of the World"

Introducing a new Sounds Like Japan feature, "Same Name, Different Song"!

"Reviewers, your work here is done"

Rarely are two songs with the same title so different in tone. Carpenters' "Top of the World" is ostensibly about being as happy as one can possibly be. The All American Rejects' version is a hard, angry rocker about the perils of greed. How do they stack up? Well, let's see...

Key lyrics:
Carpenters: "You're the nearest thing to heaven that I've seen"
Rejects: "Don't be so greedy, a dollar's a penny to you"

Both bands seem interested in characterizing the individual being addressed. Carpenters are primarily interested in this person's proximity to a location that, depending on one's beliefs, may or may not exist. Of course, this brings up the question of how one would determine the distance between a person and said location. Meanwhile, the All-American Rejects have determined that the object of their song has had their perception of currency altered such that all values are perceived with an implied 1/100 multiplier.

Don't be so greedy, a year is like 7 to you.

Who wins this round? I'd say the All-American Rejects - there's a certain amount of respect I have to give them for including such mathematical precision in their lyrics.

Carpenters: Karen Carpenter
Rejects: Tyson Ritter

Karen Carpenter, more or less a musical legend, brings practically limitless sincerity and warmth to her tune. Tyson Ritter uses extreme quantities of charisma and attitude to sell his song, but remains genuine in his delivery. I'd have to say the advantage goes to Karen Carpenter, but I'd like to point out that neither singer could really do the other's song any degree of justice. Tyson Ritter also loses points because his name is an anagram of OTTER TRY SIN, which sounds like a bad internet photo caption.

I can't believe this picture already existed. Wait, yes I can.

Featured Instruments/Arrangement:
Carpenters: electric piano, slide guitars, backing vocals
Rejects: acoustic and electric guitars, backing vocals

While the Carpenters shuffle along with soft colors and slide guitars, the Rejects surge forward with a straightforward power pop arrangement. The Carpenters get points for having a more nuanced arrangement; the Rejects use simpler tricks like a flamenco-style intro to grab listeners. I'd have to give the advantage to the Carpenters here for the layers built into the song, especially the harmonies in the chorus.

Pictured: a similar concept, applied to cake

I think Carpenters win this round, but I suppose that's what happens when you stack up a #1 hit against a promotional single. Either way, "Top of the World" is a worthwhile listen.