Pop Culture

Rant in Ab Major: Or, Why Your Favorite Pop Music Critic Is a Fucking Idiot

To be a food critic you have to understand a great deal about the composition of a dish and how it is prepared. You must be able to think and speak intelligently about the overall execution of what you’re eating. But, we don’t expect music critics to be able to do this with music at all. They can and do write the hell out of the napkins and the wait staff, but when it comes to the product itself we get little more than a political analysis of the lyrics and a middle-judge-on-Iron-Chef‘s intuition (it’s yummy!). This intuition alone is probably enough to pinpoint some of our best artists. However without more rigorous critique we risk the tendency to elevate some marginal work and denigrate or ignore some fabulous efforts. So here’s the controversial thesis of this article: if you are paid or entrusted in any capacity to criticize anything, you are ethically and fundamentally obligated to attempt a carefully objective critique of that thing, which for music necessarily includes—but is not limited to—formal and harmonic analysis.

I know I run the risk of appearing smug about having some expertise in the esoterica of music theory, but au contraire: there ain’t but twelve notes, and they’re all related. My hope is to encourage everyone that music is not math, and that harmony is as simple as tasting how nicely chocolate and peanut butter get along. Let’s put some time-honored names (and some figurative ones) to those tasty faces.

Understanding music begins with tonal harmony, and understanding and mastering tonal harmony to some degree is imperative to writing music criticism. Many of you may already be thinking to yourselves, but what about microtonality, dodecaphonic music, and non-Western musical systems? Good for you. Learn your ragas and slendros, but keep in mind that almost zero percent of all music of the last 100 years has achieved anything resembling mass popularity that cannot be harmonically analyzed through the Western tonal system. Rap music has tried (the wonderful Hell Hath No Fury comes to mind), but even all those efforts have harmonic precedent. Ignoring Western harmony is like ignoring General Relativity—it’s a thing whether you like it or not, and there’s no messing with cosmology without messing with General Relativity first. Besides, earthlings who understand the harmony in a Bach composition are just a Wiki page away from understanding that of the Balinese gamelan, and vice versa.

When folks talk about a band knowing only three chords, the chords they’re usually referring to are 1, 4, and 5.*** The 1 chord represents home—the key of a song—and the other two both provide an impetus to go back home (like school, or work). Listen to the beginning of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”: it’s 1 for one bar, and then a 4-5 split bar. Think of that 1 chord like waking up at home. For the purpose of this analogy, home is where we feel most comfortable, where we put on jammy pants and swizzle martinis with a butter knife. The 4 chord is school, which is a little more tense than home because we can’t walk around naked. While we’re at school, there is a natural longing to go back home. The 5 chord is work, which intensifies even more that longing to go back home because we have to behave professionally. This is how harmony works. A chord value change (not just the shifting of notes around the same chord) adjusts the tension between being home and being away, and the overall chord progression of a song creates what I like to call a harmonic narrative. The narrative of “Blitzkrieg Bop” begins with this daily grind (home home home home home home home home school school school WORK work work work). Simple, no? Interestingly, this song (when you consider the 2 chord in the B section—one more than just three chords, and a change of mode to boot!) is harmonically more complex than, say, “Supersymmetry” by the Arcade Fire, which is a true three chord song (excluding the sound collage album coda that follows). I’m not positing anything about aesthetic value here—I admire both tracks—but a listener should not confuse large orchestration, sweeping style, and long track running time for having formal or harmonic complexity. “Blitzkrieg Bop,” at least technically, boasts a richer harmonic narrative than “Supersymmetry.”

But I don’t mean the main point of this article to be a lesson in harmony. That task would require a little more bandwidth and a lot less style. Suffice it to say that for now, if you don’t adequately understand harmony, you are likely to miss out on when an artist does something really cool with it. Many of us probably think Kanye West is one of our greatest artists right now—I definitely do—but I’ve yet to read a single professional critic acknowledge exactly what’s so great about him. Allow me: he’s the first rapper to ever do anything meaningful with harmonic narrative, and he’s doing it as well if not better than any artist of the rock era. I can immediately think of a couple prior examples of this in rap (i.e. a couple cuts from Paul’s Boutique), but Kanye is the first rapper to do this consistently, expertly, and beyond just a rudimentary sense of how harmony works. For example, listen to “Mercy”: I’m pretty sure Kanye’s long verse cops harmonic ideas from Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse, but he also could have gotten it from 70s prog—either way, a cosmopolitan pull by rap’s harmonic standards. Listen to “Bound 2.” I’ve never heard in all of popular, classical, or jazz music the exact harmonic relationship between the two main sections of this song—and it works!

Remember the Pitchfork 500, that list of the greatest songs since punk? I decided to do some science with that old book and tally what and how much is said about music, lyrics, and biography/cultural context (about 15%-5%-80%, respectively). Considering my long-time disdain for what the New York Times Magazine once called the “best site for music criticism on the web” (which tells us something very bleak about the state of criticism, indeed), I was shocked that the results were atypical of much modern pop criticism in that Pitchfork actually devotes relatively more space to analyzing actual music. That’s good, right? Only kind of. The vast majority of the analysis involves superficial observations about idiomatic playing (mentioning a guitar lick, for example). That’s like going to the symphony and pointing out the nice horn soli (it’s a fucking orchestra—there’s always a nice horn soli). What’s worse is that the rare cases of deeper musical analysis are rife with imprecise language and flat-out mistakes. It may sound like I’m nitpicking, but to use the word “atonal” to describe something that is out of tune is nothing short of unethical journalism.

I believe almost all of our professional music critics to be utterly unqualified to publish on the subject in any capacity; almost none of them exhibit even a rudimentary intelligence about music. I implore all professional music critics to correct this—take a music theory class, take piano lessons, go back to college, etc. and then incorporate this newly acquired knowledge in your work. If that is not an option, then stand and be recognized for what you are: charlatans of pop. You are stooges for the fashion lobby, thugs of cultural anthropology. Laura Betzig recently wrote “CULTURE is a 7-letter word for GOD.” And just like God, people build their lives around culture, choose their friends and enemies over it, and define and establish their personas in accordance with it. Well, I’m agnostic, and I consider your dogma of cool to be as damaging and ignorant as any outmoded belief of the Religious Right. Worse, actually. At least the intelligentsia thinks those fucks are crazy.

***Each named chord indicates a triad, which consists of three notes each. Based on a standard major scale (think of “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music), the 1 chord consists of Do-Mi-Sol, or 1-3-5 (I prefer numbers); the 4 chord consists of 4-6-1 (notice how this chord contains a 1, which is why the 4 chord’s impetus toward the 1 chord is less forceful than that the 5 chord); and the 5 chord consists of 5-7-2.

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.