Once, in an interview, I asked a Beatles expert whether he listened to any modern Top 40 hits. “They’re fun, they’re great to dance to, but there’s not a lot of meat there, in my opinion,” he said, citing the “loops and repetitive patterns” as evidence of Top 40’s inferiority. “The intention of the music is to get people to dance, largely, and [these songs are] fun, but I don’t think they’re creative masterworks by any means.”
I wasn’t surprised by his answer. When you turn on the radio today, it’s easy to get the impression that most of the songs are just trying to replicate the success of last week’s hits, a self-exhausting cycle of musical carbon decay. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t examples of creative sophistication, if not necessarily originality, to be found. The Beatles were great pop innovators, and wrote with incredible compositional complexity. But repetition isn’t always a process of diminishing returns; sometimes, the simplest ideas are the most powerful.
The current fad of dance-oriented pop is, I think, epitomized in Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence. But it’s TRUE.) “Teenage Dream” is a candy-coated celebration of young love that tosses off lines like “We will be young forever” with unironic flare. The song starts innocuously enough: two electronic notes, a major third apart, marking a quick, steady beat. (For those of you unfamiliar with music theory, a major third is a nice, harmonious interval: in this case, “do” and “mi” on the major scale.) Then the top tone jumps down one scale step, and suddenly you have two notes, one whole step apart, ticking in unison. You don’t have to know any music theory to understand dissonance: out of context, it sounds ugly, unharmonious. Employed strategically, it creates a feeling of tension, a sense that the music needs to move, lest we be stranded forever between two mismatched notes.
And sure enough, the top tone moves back to its original place, and harmony is restored. This little riff, rocking between harmony and dissonance, loops continuously throughout “Teenage Dream.”
A sparse synth beat enters at the same time as Perry’s vocals, sung delicately in her upper range. After one verse the bass line sneaks in, quietly at first. It’s just three long, low tones, but it fills out the chords outlined in the melody and the riff, establishing the song’s primary chordal motif. And like the passing tonal dissonances that loop throughout the song, that motif is simple, yet tension-filled. It relies on two chords: the four and the five. But never once does it resolve to the one chord.
Non-musicians may be lost at this point, so let me give you some context. “One, four, five” is the rock musician’s mantra, and the basis of Western music. The one chord is the same as the song’s key—in the key of A, the one chord is A—and it is the chord that a typical progression inevitably finds its way back to. One leads to four, four leads to five, and you can’t hear a five chord without feeling, instinctively, how much it yearns to return to one. Like dissonance, chords bring movement to music. In “Teenage Dream,” that movement bounces back and forth between four and five, with the one chord implied at times in the melody but never fully expressed. (Music nerds might notice, among other things, that there is a quick six chord implied on the way from four to five.) This imbues the song with a propulsive, growing tension that circles around itself, reaching towards resolution but never truly achieving it. It’s a fiendishly simple concept, and in “Teenage Dream” it’s milked for all it’s worth.
When you think about it, it’s amazing that the song’s composers were able to build an exciting, catchy piece of music with several different melodies—verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and a kind of bridge—without ever diverging from one very simple harmonic idea. Why someone like the Beatles expert would point to this as an example of how pop music has become unsophisticated has nothing to do with what’s happening on a purely musical level.
The truth is that music is unavoidably tainted, or perhaps enriched, by experiences both cultural and personal. I can only guess that a baby boomer Beatles fan would have specific, unconscious biases towards a song like “Teenage Dream.” Maybe it reminds him too much of disco, the music that heralded the end of the breathlessly experimental ‘60s. Maybe he thinks Katy Perry is vapid and annoying. Maybe he just hates dancing.
Historically, cultural practices that are viewed with distain by the cultural elite are dismissed as simplistic and unsophisticated. The pushback comes when someone attempts to legitimize these practices by elevating them, however problematically, to high art. All manner of popular American music, from blues to hip-hop to Appalachian balladry, has been redeemed by its systematic collection and analysis by academics and cultural critics. Some may call this appropriation, others salvation. But the end result is that no one thinks that the rigid, repetitive structure of blues is unsophisticated.
I can think of plenty of reasons to criticize or dismiss “Teenage Dream.” The fact that it was written by a team of hit-makers who receive little public recognition. (Perry receives a writing credit on the song as well.) The fact that it is the product of a struggling music industry that is increasingly unfriendly to independent artists, yet rewards a tiny minority with outsize wealth and success. The possibility that Perry may have singlehandedly set feminism back fifty years with her last album cover, in which she is splayed out suggestively on a bed of cotton candy clouds.
But unsophisticated? Uncreative? Hardly. At times, this music is downright magical.