Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Music (page 1 of 13)

American R&B songwriters are crafting K-pop hits

BTS in Shoreditch. (Usually there were KoreN tourists taking selfies in front of this!)

I discovered K-pop a couple years ago, and it’s slowly worked its way into my workout playlist, the music I listen to when I walk the dogs, etc. I don’t speak Korean (much to my grandmother’s disgust), but I’ve always appreciated the work that goes into the music.

Turns out, some of that work comes from American R&B writers who’be been pushed out of the US market: a decade ago,

paring down rapidly to keep pace with hip-hop, deemphasizing melodic complexity and embracing the austere loops and rhythmic cadences that often imbue rap with pummeling power. As a result, [writer Claude] Kelly remembers, “Suddenly, I didn’t have to write a bridge anymore.”

“People would say, leave that 16 bars, and we’ll get a rapper on it so we can make sure it gets on the radio,” continues Kelly. “Things that had a bridge, that were a little slower, that took more time to build and had more than two keyboard sounds, people got afraid of.”

Rap’s minimalist palette still rules much of American pop. But some writers with bridges to spare have found an unexpected – though not unwelcome – refuge in South Korea, where K-pop artists still treasure the songcraft that persisted in R&B’s mainstream until the early 2000s: Meaty chord changes, harmonic richness and a bridge that demands a singer demonstrate range and ad-libbing ability.

Another example of foreign companies taking our jobs, or appropriating African-American culture?

“Everyone is stealing from R&B; not everyone is giving credit to it,” says Kelly, who also wrote for Girls Generation. “I’m actually happy that the K-pop scene is so unapologetic about giving props to Nineties R&B for its influence – much more than our American pop does, much more than American hip-hop does, much more than American country music does.”

K-pop’s willingness to acknowledge its debts to R&B leads to an odd phenomenon for the genre’s ace writers – a feeling more familiar to American jazz musicians, who have long been valorized overseas and overlooked in their homeland. “It’s almost like you get more honor outside of your own country for what you do sometimes,” Kelly admits.

It’s also the case that, as is so often the case, the Korean product is more complicated than the thing that inspired it:

“Korean pop music likes differentiation and changes,” Bell continues. “The average American song is four melodies, maybe five. The average K-pop song is eight to 10. They are also very heavy in the harmonies.” “The one-loop beat doesn’t work over there,” adds [writer and producer Kevin] Randolph…. “You definitely get to stretch. No other style of music has that many parts in their songs.”

I also gotta check out songwriting camps, where people might generate a dozen demos in a week.

Maroon 5

This week I took my daughter and a friend hers to the Maroon 5 concert. In the Virginia of my childhood, concerts were raucous and druggy affairs; you could get a contact high taking a deep breath at a Doobie Brothers show (before Michael McDonald joined, anyway). Here, things are different. When we reached the HP Pavilion, the entrance was cordoned off; instead of walking right in, we had to go through a long barricade that diverted us away from the door, only to dissolve back into chaos once we got up to the entrance. 

HP Pavilion

“Typical crappy HP interface,” someone behind me said.

Welcome to a rock concert in Silicon Valley, where you can overhead offhand UX slams.

For those of you who have never heard them: take the pop sensibility of any single-named star, sonic elements of disco, Motown, and 1980s pop, contagiously singable hooks and some wonderfully unexpected bridges and transition, and you have Maroon 5. (Check out “Makes Me Wonder” as a perfectly-crafted song illustrating all of the above.)

Maroon 5
Maroon 5

As for the lyrics, well, they’re not Shakespeare. Most of their songs are about sex, and the rest sound like it. Adam Levine, like Amy Winehouse, is one of those singers who could make “pass the salt please” sound like a double entendre; fortunately his lyrical sensibilities are much closer to Cole Porter than Dr. Dre, so I’m more sanguine about my kids listening to them.

Maroon 5
Over here, Adam!

Part of their charm is that even their songs about heartbreak aren’t sad: the melodies and rhythms are as peppy as their songs about seduction and sex. If Taylor Swift sounds like she’s always surprised and hurt when a relationship fails, Adam Levine treats it as just another phase; he’s not at all cavalier or callous, but in songs like “Misery” and the fantastic “This Love” the downsides of relationships are– not to be enjoyed, exactly, but as much a part of romance as the good parts. You can be as passionate about the “she’s driving me crazy” or “I’m driving myself crazy because I drove her away by being so thoughtless” phase as the rest of it.

Maroon 5
During “Stereo Hearts”

Maybe that’s why a significant proportion of the crowd on Wednesday night was, as my daughter noted, recently-divorced middle-aged women: this is music that takes an easy attitude to the consequences of poor judgment, while also tapping into middle school memories of listening to their older sisters’ copies of Off the Wall and Songs in the Key of Life.

I’m glad I got to take my daughter and her friend. It suggests that maybe as we get older it isn’t inevitable that I become completely alienated from them.

And as you can tell from the pictures, the show was awesome. Just incredible. And the only thing smoking was the dry ice.

Ain’t we got fun

"The rich get rich and the poor get nothing
In the meantime
In between
Ain't we got fun….

It's funny, or merely ironic, to hear Alma Cogan's "Aint' We Got Fun" while on hold with a credit card company.

…And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness

Working on job applications and book proposals this morning, I set Olafur Arnalds' …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness on repeat, and have been plowing away. It's really great music, not quite as dense as his fellow Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, but still very good– simpler and more romantic.

“We aren’t looking for blood any longer. We’re just looking for music.”

This 1968 profile of The Band is great. The last two lines of this Robbie Robertson quote really speak to me.

"We were so exhausted that everybody said this was a time of rest. When we went up to Woodstock, we stopped listening to music for a year. We didn't listen to anything but what you didn't have to listen to, like opera. That's why we couldn't play things like the Monterey Pop testival. We weren't – and we aren't – looking for blood any longer. We're just looking for music."…

The Band sings in the rough-hewn harmonies of honest mountain air. The music from Big Pink has the taste of Red River cereal. It has the consistency of King Biscuit flour. It rings with the now-ancient echo of John R, broadcasting from Nashville over Radio Station WLAC, 1510 on the: dial, its signal faintly received but eagerly listened to by an audience that took root in Stratford, Ontario, and Elaine, Arkansas, all with the same passion…. If it sounds traditional, the reason is that it has nothing to do with fads. If it sounds gritty, the reason is that it's full of road dust. If it sounds real, the reason is that it is….

It is music which comes from a band that has nothing but music to offer. The Band doesn't even have a name.

How the West Was Won

I've been working today to Led Zeppelin's "How the West Was Won," a recording from two Southern California shows they played in 1972. I'm not sure I need more than one 24-minute version of "Dazed and Confused," but it's interesting to have one.

“Real time” and Jóhann Jóhannsson

I'm working this morning on a section of the book about the idea of "real time"– how the concept got started in computer science, how it's multiplied and diffused through the financial sector and Web and social media to color our perception of time, and finally how unreal it is, compared to spiritual or religious ideas about and experience of time.

I've got Jóhann Jóhannsson's Fordlandia blasting on the stereo, mainly because it's a pleasure to listen to something that's so beautifully crafted and passionate. Jóhannsson has turned into a hero of mine. He composes works about machines (the Ford assembly line, the IBM 1401 computer), and he's technically brilliant, but his work is lush and passionate. You get the sense listening to his best work that nothing of him is held back. That's what I want my readers to feel.

The Way Up

I’m listening to Pat Metheny Group’s 2005 CD The Way Up while I work on Paper Spaces 2: Dead Man’s Chest. What have I been doing these last five years that was more important than listen to this? It may be Metheny’s best work ever, and that’s saying a lot.

[To the tune of Pat Metheny Group, “Part One,” from the album The Way Up (a 4-star song, imo).]

Wait ‘Till

The De-Phazz remix of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Wait ‘Till You See Him” (on Verve Remixed) is one of the most fabulous things I’ve ever heard. Wow.

[To the tune of Ella Fitzgerald, “Wait ‘Till You See Him (De-Phazz Remix),” from the album Verve Remixed (It’s a 4-star song).]

Conversation in the car this afternoon

I was driving the kids home from school when the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” came on.

Wild Thing, I think I love you
But I wanna know for sure…

I said, “Hey like, wow, man, that’s like, cool,” in a dazed hippie voice.

My son, who’s nearly eight, said, “Is that old-fashioned talking?”

You damn kids. Get off my lawn.

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