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A Plague Of Soars - Warps In The Fabric Of Pop
Daniel Barrow , April 13th, 2011 07:31

Daniel Barrow explores "the soar", which he says is the defining trope in pop music in recent years

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It's second nature now: clubs, radio, ringtones, house-parties, shop soundtrack loops – it saturates our soundworlds such that we almost forget that pop wasn't always thus. Let's call it, for want of a better term, the 'Soar': a move that's been creeping into ubiquity in pop songwriting – that surge from a dynamically static mid-tempo 4/4 verse to a ramped-up major-key chorus, topped, in the case of female singers, with fountaining melisma; the moment the producer deploys the riff, the synth-gush, the shouted vocal-hook for which the whole of the rest of the song is a mere appendage, a prologue and epilogue that only the chorus validates. If you've heard it – and rest assured, you have – it's because it developed, as a trope, in some of the most inescapable songs of the last few years: 'I Gotta Feeling', 'Empire State of Mind' (both Jay-Z-enhanced and solo versions), 'Tik Tok', Flo Rida's 'Club Can't Even Handle Me Yet', 'California Gurlz'.

Choruses, of course, have always required shifts in key and tempo, have always been central moments of excitement – but it seems we're witnessing an historic shift in the nature of the chorus, and, more strangely, in the nature of pop itself. For it seems with the 'Soar' that the writers and producers believe the chorus, and its expected affect – pop's overpowering and seduction of us – can be started as if one were flicking on a switch; the sudden, vertiginous leap of the pre-chorus to something like Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream' seems designed to elicit a purely Pavlovian response, like an electroded corpse twitching when the current's switched on.

Another factor that differentiates the 'Soar' from the time-honoured pop chorus is the way it implies a rhythmic restructuring of song: the curiously unearned bursts of euphoria that puncture 'I Gotta Feeling' seem unrelated to what surround them; the song's individual parts begin to resemble plastic modular bits to shuffled around at will. It's a structure that denies any room for complexity or thought, verses compressed and claustrophobic, lyrics walled-in by the migraine-hammering beat, as they hurry towards the hands-in-the-air moment, to the central message – "Tonight's gonna be a good, good night" – delivered with hectoring force. The clumsy delivery of Akon on David Guetta's 'Sexy Bitch' – declaring he's looking for a description of a woman's attraction "with-out be-in' dis-re-speeect-fuuuuuul", the phrases trailed and elongated over the start of the 'Soar' – confounds any notion of rap 'flow' – and, indeed, the horizontal rhythmic slippage hip-hop implies is replaced here by a profoundly inorganic structure, a monotony of eruptions. It's a structure that resists the rewind impulse: the listener is shunted from start to end of the track, from opening to verse to chorus to verse to middle-eight to etc. as if on a moving pavement, leaving nothing to reinvestigate, no space or lacunae, no opportunity to track back in memory; nothing lingers. It exemplifies the problem that Neil Kulkarni identified in these pages: that contemporary (read: post-modern) pop can only present us with what we already know, "the endlessly prescriptive, dully didactic cheese shot out by the agony aunt/uncle", that it seems incapable of generating new affects, of re-presenting the shocks that shake our real lives. It realises the old elitist saw about pop: that the industry thinks we're simpletons.

All this is explainable if you're willing to swallow it: by the increasing influence of mainstream dance music – house and especially trance – over pop. Apparently hip hop and R&B, which, as a schoolboy, I remember magnanimously suffered to share the charts with dance stragglers like Ian van Dahl, Zombie Nation and Darude, has given up its position of commercial and formal dominance to the latter. The anxieties were already there in Simon Reynolds and Sasha Frere-Jones' (perhaps premature) notes on 'the death of hip-hop' in 2009: its exhaustion as a creative and market force was evidenced by the fact "that rap producers are abandoning swing and syncopation for more pulse-based club rhythms (house/trance/electro-pop), resulting in a shift to a European rather than African-American feel", demonstrated by Flo Rida's Hi-NRG sampling 'Right Round', a track with one hell of a soar.

Aside from the weird essentialism of that argument (the whole black electro sound that post-2000 hip-hop reactivated evolving from Bambaataa playing Kraftwerk) and even if we don't accept a narrative of decline, it's difficult not to cop the change from the period when the ripple-effect of the relentless turnover in rhythmic innovation of Timbaland, the Neptunes, Organized Noize, Mr. Collipark, Mannie Fresh and others was felt in even the furthest reaches of the charts – whether in the Numanoid electro sleaze of Sugababes' 'Freak Like Me', the glistening spaces of 2-step, the glorious cellphone racket of Wiley and Dizzee's early work, or even the swarms of interchangeable neo-soul singers (anyone remember Mary Mary?) You could track the entire shift in one singer's career: the distance between the Kelis of 'Millionaire' – a warped-angled architecture of metallic 808 rattle, sharp pointillist synth and groaning robot noise – and the Kelis of last year's '4th of July', produced by Will.i.am cohort DJ Ammo, where she strains to do her Eurodiva impression during a sudden (but repeated) piano-house breakdown before riding the verses with a straight face. But even that masks the suddenness of the transition: even in 2008 a production like Beyonce's 'Single Ladies' or the melancholy snap of M.I.A.'s 'Paper Planes' could define the chart soundworld; even as late as last year, with the 'Videophone'/'Telephone' exchange between Beyonce and Lady Gaga, there seemed still some room for manoeuvre – a hope now cut off by the raging soar driven through the middle of 'Born This Way'.

But hip-hop's unseating leaves unanswered the question: why the 'Soar', and why now? Some answers can be found, perhaps, in the dancefloor: the demands, it seems, we make of pop have changed. Productions like Aaliyah's 'More Than a Woman' or Tweet's 'Oops (Oh My)', Beyonce's 'Upgrade U' or Outkast's 'So Fresh So Clean', were sci-fi reveries, strange fluid structures whose rhythmic logic exerted a libidinal compulsion almost by stealth, shunting and invading the body as if in the midst of seduction; as Ben Beaumont-Thomas, writing on Notorious B.I.G.'s 'Nasty Girl' (2006) said, it "compels your waistline rather than your hands". By contrast, something like David Guetta/Rihanna's 'Who's That Chick' seeks to tyrannise you, forcing hands to go up and legs to jump, writing itself in bodily motion as the state once wrote its domination on the body of the criminal. It's a vertical and hierarchical impulse, hands up to the pulpit of the DJ booth or (as in the video for J-Lo's 'On the Floor') the pop-star's privileged place at the centre of the club (or Pitbull's overlooking, ho-stuffed private box), rather than the horizontal, rhizomatic congress of the dancefloor. Though to point the finger of blame at mainstream dance ignores the overdetermined, corrupted form its dynamic tropes take in the 'Soar': house, centred around seemingly infinite rhythmic plateaux, never had choruses this body-builder grotesque.

It's a crude, overdetermined excess, as if pop were forcing itself back to its defining characteristics – chorus hooks, melody, 'accessibility' – and blowing them up to cartoonish size. A viral anxiety pulses through the steroided architecture of these tracks, a need to give the listener the pay-off, the sonic money-shot, as soon and as obviously as possible, a desperation for transparency and reassurance. It is, perhaps, that of the industry, struggling more than ever to make money off a pop economy made up of Youtube views and Spotify plays rather than singles sales. But we, too, are in the midst of fear. Joshua Clover detects a similar excess in the pop world of 1989, in George Michael's 'Freedom '90', and Roxette's 'Joyride' and 'Listen to Your Heart', as an historic victory for western capitalism that was, in no small part, a propaganda triumph, a false ending to history, generated a compensatory "excess whose dark double is a world without actual events, without direction, without change".

As the economy in Britain and America grinds towards a threatened double-dip recession and late-capitalist culture trembles with ongoing crisis, might we not be confronted with a need for reassurance, a redoubled demand for pop to fulfil its function of serving our desires, in the crudest and most direct way possible, that warps the fabric of pop itself? Certainly, after the disturbing glimpses of possibility pop gave us in the last decade, it now seems intent on assuring us it's business-as-usual: in Jessie J's 'Price Tag', while the chorus expresses sentiments about non-quantification, the joy that can't be gained by exchange, in the soar's hook of "Money, money, money" we still hear the brash, repeated clanging of the cash register. And the bludgeoning insistence with which Jennifer Lopez delivers the hook of 'On the Floor': on the huge house soar, she disappears into pop's signature glossolalia, "la la la la", as if her artificial joy were bursting the constraints of language; it insists that the reality of what Greil Marcus called "economic terrorism" is escapable – "Live your life and stay home on the floor". But we know now, in the strain of that chorus, that paradise is false.

John Calvert
Apr 13, 2011 12:06pm

just a brilliant brilliant article. nailed contemporary pop writing on the head. I think the worst example of 'the soar' has to be Black Eyed Pea's - 'The Time'. it is like you put it 'a monotony of eruptions'.'The verse' is so often a flat, incongruous amble now that my brain has stopped paying attention.

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John Calvert
Apr 13, 2011 12:13pm

Just as a separate point, I think the current predominance of the 4/4 in pop can be traced back to Sam Sparro's 'Black And Gold'.

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Jonsi
Apr 13, 2011 12:28pm

In reply to John Calvert:

Almost all pop ever has been 4/4. You and the writer of this article mean four-to-the-floor.

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John Calvert
Apr 13, 2011 12:36pm

In reply to Jonsi:

yep sorry, like the house beat Jonsi is what I meant.

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Ian Chung
Apr 13, 2011 1:19pm

In reply to John Calvert:

More inclined to finger producers like RedOne for the ascendancy of four-on-the-floor though. Sonically, 'Black and Gold' feels comparatively muted to most of the tracks embedded in the article.

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Mars
Apr 13, 2011 1:53pm

Fantastic piece. I've heard little of this (well, I'm positive I have but I've not paid enough attention to suss out who did what) but from what I have - you've really captured what I find so grating about it. They may as well just have one short verse that builds to a 2 1/2 minute repetition of 'The Soar'. And said verse is just so you know that a new song has started.

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Tim Russell
Apr 13, 2011 3:02pm

What they said. Great piece. You've put your finger on what I find so grating about so much contemporary chart music. It's almost as if pop has so much other noise to contend with these days that it's shouting louder than it has ever had to, and becoming more & more obnoxious in the process.

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ROPED
Apr 13, 2011 5:45pm

You missed an element: the Americanization of Soccer. This all started, as far as I am concerned, with US college kids in the late 90s learning to go OLE OLEOLE OLEEYYYYY... OLE...OLE! Ultimate soarage. The Venga bus is coming, and everybody is in fact jumping up on it.

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Neil
Apr 13, 2011 9:42pm

I think you're right in a lot of this article - although I've heard arguments that hip hop's post 2000 drum machine direction was due to a more restrictive sampling climate as much as anything.

Also, the 'soar' can have more utopian and subcultural dimensions. It's partly the video but Christian AIDS are a good example.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBE4on7QEOc

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dog latin
Apr 14, 2011 1:07am

The most puzzling thing to me is why pop, r'n'b and hip hop producers are choosing to base their songs on a style of music that became horribly outmoded only 10 years ago, i.e. Ibiza Trance.

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Alex_D
Apr 14, 2011 9:46am

Amazing piece. @doglatin, good point actually, what's that all about I wonder?

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Rory Gibb
Apr 14, 2011 6:41pm

Great, great piece. Moves some way towards thinking about, as doglatin says, why pop producers are still recycling outmoded, outdated and overblown styles for the same weary pay-offs.

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The Corinthian
Apr 14, 2011 10:08pm

Yes! I KNEW I wasn't the only one who hated all this stuff. And this article has eloquently described just how and why that is. And it didn't even mention the seemingly ubiquitous horror that is autotune!
Great, great piece. Thank you!

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The Loud Index
Apr 14, 2011 11:27pm

In reply to dog latin:

it is surely linked to the habit of recent pop acts to look to the past to score some points with both young and old. simon reynolds posted a response to this article in the guardian today (http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2011/apr/14/balearics-ibiza-pop) and he mentions this - in fact it appears he is writing a book on retro trends in pop.

i think this article is right about the emptiness of the payoff as it comes so easily. its like orgasm after orgasm, petit mort after petit mort.

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andre
Apr 15, 2011 1:49am

@ dog latin, Alex_D, The Loud Index

I live in San Francisco but went to Ibiza for the first time in 1998 and a few times subsequently. Around that time I picked up my first Mix Mag and I've followed dance music ever since. As to the question why American r&b producers are using late 90s commercial trance for their songs, and not seeing it for the outdated sound that it is, you have to understand that dj culture, dance music (the type that grew out of acid house) never really caught on in the US. Of course, big cities have their dance club scenes etc, but it never became mainstream. The idea of a Chemical Bros record debuting at #1 here is simply unfathomable. The irony is that this is especially true as far as young black Americans were concerned; they mostly listened to modern soul (Thriller-era Michael Jackson) until hip-hop came along.

So, this euro-trance sound is completely new to most young people in the US, especially the young, r&b-inclined black people.

The funny thing to me is, after seeing dance music being marketed by the major labels as The Next Big Thing around the release of Dig Your Own Hole and You've Come a Long Way Baby - and seeing it fail to gain mainstream traction, dance music is finally becoming mainstream now. It is being ushered in by commercial hip-hop/r&b stars like BEPs, Chris Brown and . . . ehr . . . Usher. Which tells you how conservative America is when it comes to embracing new forms of music: either a new music style must take on the aesthetics of Rock (Run DMC 'Walk this Way'; BBs 'Fight for yr Right') or it must be packaged in a very familiar way. Dance music is becoming mainstream in the US because it is delivered with all the current r&b lyrical/vocal cliches. It'll be at least another decade before a track like Born Slippy can hit the collective conscious - unless the remix offers anecdotes about hitting da club with louis vuitton, big rims, keeping it real bla bla bla

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John Calvert
Apr 15, 2011 9:33am

In reply to andre:

You remember for a time in the early 2000's hip-hop/ r'nb artists started taking ecstasy? and there was a small influx of the tropes cited above? see Missy Elliot's '4 My People' (and subsequently Basement Jaxx's remix).

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Daniel Cohen
Apr 15, 2011 11:19am

'Teenage Dream' is an interesting example of what's changed in the pop music that doesn't take so many cues from hip-hop. It's produced by Dr. Luke and Max Martin, and it rips off their work on Kelly Clarkson's 'Since U Been Gone'. The Clarkson song has a chorus that soars, certainly, but it earns it - it has a genuine sense of catharsis and is nicely balanced by the verse. Five years on, everything other than 'the soar' has become pure afterthought.

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Joe Webb
Apr 15, 2011 11:36am

In reply to John Calvert:

Which, ironically, was a song that was actually about something and seemed at least a little bit creative.

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Johnny Nothing
Apr 16, 2011 12:01am

The disco beat is in and the funk beat is out for pop music right now. As is squashing eight minutes of club track (complete with breakdown and drop) into three and a half minutes of single and then shoehorning a couple of verses in as an afterthought. Back to the nineties I guess. Thing is, at one in the morning in a sweaty beer-soaked bar in Camden with a walk-up crowd, it works just fine and you can quickly move on to the next cheap thrill. It's only going to take one or two big singles doing it differently and the template will change again.

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Matt Lindsau
Apr 17, 2011 8:46am

Aren't a lot of the symptoms of pops current malaise a consequence of how we listen to music ? The violent compression of most records and how they sound on an iPod and via a computer. The erosion of any nuance or subtlety would seem to be a rueful necessity in today's fragmentary, inattentive listening landscape. Consequently, the actual form of the music has responded by making itself as dysmorphically muscular and fracturing as the context through which it is heard

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Christian Adofo
Apr 18, 2011 12:37pm

Been banging on about this for some time and you've summed it up most eloquently. Thank you.

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Claire
Apr 19, 2011 10:50am

Great article! I think this has happened because the music industry has given unlimited powers to a small group of hip-hop and dance producers. It's true that Timbaland, Neptunes et al. have put out some brilliant stuff, but yes, in the last couple of years, it all sounds like early 90s eurodance (and David Guetta has become an international star...he's been a national embarassment here in Paris for the last couple of decades so I've no idea how that happened). As far as I know, the first track to sound like this is 'Please don't stop the music' which to me sounded more like nineties Cher than RnB.
I remain optimist, it's when music is this bad that kids get angry enough to invent something new.

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Kieran Fairweather
Apr 19, 2011 12:14pm

Great article, put into words exactly what I've felt about boil in the bag chart music for the past 5-6 years. All the same

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Gary
Apr 27, 2011 8:13am

In reply to dog latin:

7 - 13 year old kids won't remember Ibiza trance from 10+ years ago

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John Calvert
Jun 9, 2011 4:22pm

soar-spot report!

Katy B's 'Louder' is the perfect example.

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Angus Finlayson
Jun 26, 2011 10:01pm

Really glad I finally got around to reading this. Brilliant article.

I doubt anybody's reading this any more but what you say about the parallels with pop in '89, the "excess whose dark double is a world without actual events, without direction, without change", reminds me of a bit of the Paul Virilio I was reading today; the idea that culture is self-destructive through the dizzying heights of its own accomplishment, that its (perceived) success is kind of its own death. When it comes to pop production I'd say that's certainly true.

Also "the horizontal, rhizomatic congress of the dancefloor" is a spectacular phrase, if there are any Zs left in our alphabet magnets then it's going on the fridge.

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DC
Jul 1, 2011 12:17pm

The 'soar' is the musical equivalent of the battle of the bulge.

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Tristan
Jul 4, 2011 3:43pm

I may be wrong here, but could it be that Ed Banger & the likes have had a profound influence on today's producers' sound design? It always struck me that they were the first to popularise those monstrous bass or synth lines that make you feel like being punched in the face in a 4/4 beat. That has nothing to do with choruses per se, their melody etc., but this fat sound that they cultivated may have made it easier to 'flick on a switch'.

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Neil 2
Aug 23, 2011 10:06am

In reply to Neil:

Your right on the sampling thing. The only people that can afford to do it seem to be Kanye West, Wu Tang, and MIA.

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ivy
Sep 20, 2011 12:53am

In reply to Tristan:

It's absolutely the Ed Banger (and, more generally, the Electro House sound) that pop is reflecting. This was big with the hip, young demographic the labels like to chase three or four years ago and it has slowly been filtering into the mainstream as a result. You can see this trend repeating itself with Dubstep's rapid ascent into mainstream music as well.

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Jim Lumpkin
Jun 20, 2012 7:49am

Not one of these 'songs' holds a candle to half of what was on the charts from '65 to '83. Yep.

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Sparrow
Jun 20, 2012 6:47pm

I was thinking about this article for a while, and it occurred to me that the technical term for the feel of "The Soar" might be "Valse" or "done in one beat." I think the chorus of Pocketfull of Sunshine by Natasha Bedingfield exemplifies this. It feels almost structureless because instead of accenting every beat, she starts to just accent the 1 of every measure, with beats 3 and 4 done softly to lead into 1st beat of the next measure.
I was actually wondering the other day if valse feel would ever catch on since dub styles are getting so popular -- but it seems as though you've found that valse feel is already a staple of pop choruses. Nicely done.

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Darryl Wright
Jun 21, 2012 5:05am

Brilliant a refreshing piece of writing - well done. Honestly, so much of what I've read on the net lately is such tripe. This was as entertaining as it was spot-on.

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Jun 21, 2012 11:19pm

In reply to andre:

Don't forget a possible bastardization of Two Months Off.

This article is one of the best I've read in terms of pop's characterization relative to actual musical pleasure...you know, the type of pleasure that is accessible only through the thought, the concept of the song. Listen to Amon Tobin or Trentemoller...their songs are like stories. So many dynamics and interesting ideas, not to mention the actual QUALITY of their sound ("Surge", off ISAM: I still haven't heard bass usage this clever and this destructive)

Over the many attempts to accurately portray the evolution of club based dance music, I have yet to see an attribution to DJ AM and the mashup movement, which, IMHO, was THE driving catalyst for the proliferation of the form of the pop that's polluting the radio today.

It's a societal-cultural shift that moulds the sounds we hear today as well. Life is getting faster. People are getting more impatient, and "younger"...this generation doesn't have time to listen to builds, anticipatory structure, and the drama of a well written and structured song.
It wasn't uncommon for Euro trance DJ's to drop fluffy trance at both clubs and festivals, the type of saccharine, hands to the air anthem style (think 99-01 PvD, Oakenfold, Armin, Tiesto, Ferry, etc...). But as the sound shifted towards "harder" and more mechanical, colder sounds, progressive trance/house (housey sounding trance/trancey sounding house) took over as the "it" form of EDM(electronic dance music). Then came minimal. Then came the renaissance of classic/detroit/SF/NY house, fused with more modern techniques, combined with the public's sudden fascination with the 80's gave way to what is now chillwave/synthpop/nu-disco.
But these aren't "new" either. Enter the mashup.
Mashup combined the "new" sounds of house with the existing sounds on the radio...there are 3 points supporting this:
1) The skyrocketing popularity of Coachella
2) Daft Punk's reunion in 2007.
3) Cheaper, and more accessible music production technology, and the Cloud.
Coachella's attendance doubled almost every year. Artist realized that Coachella was their platform for new music, because the crowd was receptive new discovering new bands. This is the appeal of Coachella: hundreds of relatively new, and or upcomers, placed with commercial heavyweights that draw both purists and mainstream audiences. Coachella also gave way to what is the closest thing to the Rapture: Daft Punk's 2007 performance. Both in terms of musicality and technical production, the Pyramid was a Monolith in terms of it's influence.
Daft Punk's sound more resembles what is popular today than what was popular at trance's height in 99-2000. The mystique of the DJ was dispelled with YouTube. Producers popped up everywhere because of the migration to DAW-based production rather than conventional physical hardware setups. The sharing of music, and the limitless space for storing that music means everyone has access to everything. MP3 based turntable interfaces removed exclusivity based on having that hot vinyl just off the press that's 1/50 advanced promo whitelabels only the likes of Sasha can get their hands on - or even know about.

With everyone remixing everyone, and everyone knowing about, it was only a matter of time before dance music became the next musical trend, even though it's been as popular for many years before.

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Simon G
Jun 27, 2012 7:18pm

In reply to :

I agree with the point made earlier that when music reaches a certain extreme (be it of plasticity or authenticity) it pisses people off enough to change it...although, that's a bit romantic. I look forward to reading lines in interviews like "All that was around when we were growing up was all that David Guetta shit, so we were just unconsciously rebelling against that..."

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Joe
Jun 28, 2012 4:33am

This is ridiculous. The author is caught up in an "us versus them" idea of musical interaction that depicts the music "industry" as a malevolent, condescending capitalist entity designed to rob the world of "authentic" musical expression. It doesn't paint anything close to the full picture. Saying that today's pop has a "tyranny" over us and our movements is absurd. Yes, structural elements like melisma and soaring choruses have an effect on us, but it's about playing with expectations rather than some evil manipulation of the listener. I don't think the author would suggest that the known-new negotiation that takes place in AABA songs like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is evil.

I think the fact he believes people are enslaved by pop music makes him the real elitist. Saying such a thing implies that there is some more "authentic" and "true" form of music out there that is more truly "our's". All music is our music. He criticizes another critic's essentialism while displaying it himself later in the article when he digs into the song "Who's That Chick", saying it basically compels us to move in some kind of uncontrollable primitive motion. I'm sure he'd think twice before saying something like this about something like Haitian Vodun drumming. American pop is a musical culture. It's full of good and bad music and reoccurring thematic elements. It might be designed to hook us and make us move, but isn't that what music does anyway?

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Jonah Dempcy
Jul 3, 2012 7:42pm

I would like to hear 'The Soar' linked to narcissistic elation.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissistic_elation

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Hope
Aug 23, 2013 1:00pm

I'm a little confused as to why this is a trope of 'recent years'. Surely 'the soar' has been a staple of pop for decades? What's the argument here, that it's more pronounced now? What about 80's pop, some Motown?

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