Sounding out Pop: Analytical Essays in Popular Music

By Osborn, Brad | Notes, September 2011 | Go to article overview
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Sounding out Pop: Analytical Essays in Popular Music


Osborn, Brad, Notes


ANALYSIS Sounding Out Pop: Analytical Essays in Popular Music. Edited by Mark Spicer and John Covach. (Tracking Pop.) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010. [xiv, 265 p. ISBN 9780472115051 (hardcover), $75; ISBN 9780472034000 (paperback), $28.95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, discography, index.

Although the subtitle of Sounding Out Pop belies an analytical approach to popular music, the nine essays "range from historical to music-analytic, aesthetic to ethnographic, with several drawing liberally from ideas in other disciplines" (p. vii). Though most of the contributors, including both editors, are trained as music theorists, their approaches are as varied as their repertoires. Patient readers will find this diversity both enriching and stimulating, and those expecting only traditional music-theoretical approaches may be surprised. When specialized analytical techniques are introduced, whether standard in the musictheoretical literature (e.g., Kevin Holm- Hudson's neo-Riemannian transformations), borrowed from other disciplines (e.g., Lori Burns's narrative theories), or idiosyncratic to the author (e.g., John Covach's formal typologies), the authors are careful to introduce the methodology thoroughly enough for a non-specialist audience.

Essays by James Grier and Andrew Flory both address autobiographical connections to analysis. In "Marvin Gaye as Vocal Composer," Flory defines a style of composition that emerges around Gaye's increased studio production prowess in the 1970s. As a "vocal composer," Gaye records improvisations over finished rhythm section tracks, patching together the final product from many disparate takes, often in a manner not reproducible live. In connecting Gaye's composition with his role in the studio, Flory effectively shortens the distance between performer and producer, composer and improviser. Flory links this practice to black musical traditions, though it has become commonplace among musicians as home studio technology becomes increasingly affordable. Grier's essay "Ego and Alter Ego" explores the multivalent connections between Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. Arguably, McGuinn's musical pedigree is primarily as an interpreter of Dylan's songs, and Grier's analyses illuminate some very interesting differences between his covers and Dylan's originals. For example, McGuinn alters nearly every 34 Dylan tune to a more rockfriendly 44. Comparing the vocal melodies (p. 50) does much to illustrate these differences, but transcriptions and analyses of the rhythm section parts might help to clarify how other musicians, studios, and producers interface with these covers.

In "Leiber and Stoller, the Coasters, and the 'Dramatic AABA' Form," Covach argues that to understand The Coasters' "playlet" songs (written by Leiber and Stoller) we must examine their peculiar formal and narrative structure, which he calls the "Dramatic AABA" form. Through numerous examples, Covach demonstrates that the B section presents "the focus of the song-the point to which everything leads dramatically" (p. 9). If Covach's aim is to illuminate new possibilities for the AABA structure outside of its Tin Pan Alley archetype, one may wonder why he depends on the same prescriptive formal categories he has employed since his 2006 essay on rock formal structures ("From Craft to Art: Formal Structure in the Music of the Beatles," in Reading the Beatles: Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, and the Fab Four, ed. Ken Womack and Todd F. Davis [Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006], 37-53). Christopher Endrinal's recent work on the "interverse" (the climactic B section in a compound AABA form) in U2's music is particularly relevant here, yet goes without citation (Christopher Endrinal, "Form and Style in the Music of U2" [Ph.D. diss., Florida State University, 2008]).

Holm-Hudson's essay "A Study of Maximally Smooth Voice Leading in the Mid-1970s Music of Genesis" theorizes Tony Banks's unique keyboard voicings and their impact on the band's stylistic development.

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