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Song interpretation in 21st century pop music

Song interpretation in 21st century pop music
Song interpretation in 21st century pop music

After long last the first text of mine has been published and that got me to break the silence on the blog here. As a co-author of one of the articles in this collection I’m not going to the review the book here but to provide some insights into how the book came to be.

Song interpretation in 21st century popular music is a result of a week-long workshop on new methods to analyse popular music under the title ASPM International Postgraduate “Methods of Popular Music Analysis” Summer School. The workshop took place in Osnabrück, Germany in September 2011 and brought together a group of young scholars to explore and experiment on methodologies that would best suit analysing contemporary popular music. This endeavour was guided by a group of guest lecturers (see end of the post) – or “professors” as we called them. Each of them also contributed a chapter to the book.

The book aims at putting the (whole) song first instead of using fractions of songs to exemplify a theory or support an argument. The editorial choice of separating the contributions of the guest lecturers (“Listening alone”) from the group efforts of the workshop participants (“Listening together”), however, points to another one. While collaborations are not out of the ordinary in music studies, or humanities in general, single authorship still remains the norm. In this book the guest lecturers first introduce and apply their methodological toolbox of which the workshop participants then draw in their subsequent group efforts.

Group working has its challenges, especially when people who have never met and come from different cultural and scholarly backgrounds are thrown together and are expected to produce something in a short time. Some of the groups indeed had some difficulties on the way but I was very lucky to find myself in a group of like-minded young scholars in different points of their careers. Our group dynamics worked well and our interests and areas of expertise complemented each other.

The setup of the workshop was, in my opinion, a very successful one. The guest lecturers were each concentrating on sharing their expert knowledge about certain aspects of music or music-making (e.g. rhythm, harmony, music production) as well as their specific methodological tools. Each day of the workshop the groups were joined by one of the professors to help us fine-tune our ideas about the song we were analysing and point out things we missed.

Listening together Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope”

Next I would like to share with you something of my experience participating in the workshop and analysing a song in a group. The whole workshop had about 30 participants and they were divided to groups of 5-6 people based on their musical interests. Each group were then given a song in their preferred genre to analyse.

My group (see the end of the post for more) was “r&b” and we were assigned Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope” (The ArchAndroid 2010) to analyse. Our group consisted of two American and four European scholars with specialities varying from music theory to literary studies. My own contributions came mainly from contextualising our study in terms of African American musical and cultural discourse, especially regarding interpretative strategies.

What we did first was to give everyone some time to get acquainted with the song – which for most of us was a new one – and get some first impressions based on our individual encounters with the song. At this point I’d recommend you to listen to the song before reading more about our findings. Below is the official video of the song but I’d recommend you to first listen to the song without watching the video to get your first impressions without the storyline of the video.

The first impression most of us had with the song was that it’s full of references to other African American musical genres and styles, most notably funk and James Brown’s funk specifically. Such stylistic references became the core of our analysis as we proceeded to find “meaning in/of” the song. In addition to formal and textual analysis we also studied productional aspects and their contributions to creating – or rather suggesting – meanings. Rather just analysing the music and lyrics we also studied the above video as well as some live performances of the song to “test” our interpretations. For instance the stylistic references to James Brown were “confirmed” by Monáe’s stage performance as she gets the James Brown signature cape laid over her shoulders. Also aspects of her fashion and dance moves support the argument that these references are intentional homage to the past artist – although by no means only that.

Within our group we also had lengthy discussions about meaning in/of music in general and questioned our own (and each others’) claims and arguments. There were some in the group who were less interested in find meanings in music but still interested in musical analysis. However, most of us thought that analysis should have a purpose and we came to agree that the song and its performances, as discussed above, can be viewed as suggesting many possible interpretations – ways of hearing the song.

In our article we present some interpretations and aim to show that these are open-ended ones, i.e. we don’t attempt to tell you “what this song means” but suggest some possible ways to interpret the song. “Tightrope” Signifies in the sense the black literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s has described as “start[ing] the chain of signifiers”; instead of pointing at a “signified” such as James Brown and his style of music and performance the song, and Monáe’s performance of it, draw from a broad scope of musical heritage – not only Black music but also e.g. film music and popular music in a broader sense – to make a personal statement about coping with fame (using tightrope as a metaphor for its pressures). The “message” of the song is, however, open to other interpretations as well and the official video presents one such proposing the “tightrope” as a metaphor for sanity or personal integrity. Simultaneously it’s also a cultural reference and a tribute to past musical heroes Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix who also stayed in the “Palace of the Dogs” where this video takes place.

The video also points to the storyline of the album the song comes from. ArchAndroid is the first album of a “Chase Suit” trilogy telling a story of an android sent back in time to free the society of tyranny. The storyline mirrors Fritz Lang’s classic film Metropolis (1927) to which the album cover also refers to. The theme and performance style draw also from the Afro futurism of the 1970s.

"Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid album cover" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia
“Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid album cover” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia
"Metropolisposter". Via Wikipedia
“Metropolisposter”. Via Wikipedia

In the article we point at many more significations e.g. in the song’s melody, rhythm, harmony, instrumentation and production to suggest “chains of signifiers” – or ways of hearing the song.

Much more could be said about our article and the workshop in general but I’ll leave it at here for now. However, I would like to take this opportunity to thank once more Frederike Arns, Mark Chilla, Esa Lilja, Theresa Maierhofer-Lischka and Matthew Valnes for the great work during the workshop as well as after it finalising the article. I wish you the best of luck in your careers! I’m also grateful to Ralf van Appen, André Doehring, Dietrich Helms and ASPM for organising this workshop and editing the book as well as the guest lecturers Allan F. Moore (also editor of the book), Simon Zagorski-Thomas, Anne Danielsen and Walter Everett for sharing their vast knowledge and inspiring us on our efforts.

Cheers, Mikko

Charlie Haden – Part 2

When I first began writing this piece about Charlie Haden I could only think of the above-discussed duo album with Pat Metheny that I really know of Charlie Haden. But while browsing YouTube for his music I was reminded of three other albums on my shelf he plays on. These are from somewhat different eras and bring out different sides of Haden’s bass playing and career and worth a few more word, in my opinion. Again I leave the more extensive biographical commentary to others and discuss here my experience with Haden’s work as sideman on these albums.

The first one is a trio recording Somewhere before with the pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Paul Motian, recorded live in 1968 at the Shelly’s Manne-hole in Hollywood. The second is 80/81 (1980) with Pat Metheny and third Michael Brecker from Michael Brecker. None of these albums have had so profound effect on me and my playing as the first discussed duo album with Metheny, but there are certainly remarkable albums on their own account. I also find it interesting to see the connections between musicians and how their careers evolve and cross each other. A long career such as Haden’s provides a great opportunity to retrospectively “witness” a slice of jazz history being made.

Somewhere before (Keith Jarrett Trio)

As mentioned, different sides of Haden’s playing can be heard on these albums. The trio album with Jarrett and Motian is a very free flowing one. Jarrett and Haden make a good match musically as they both like to keep things open to work freely on their melodic ideas without too many structural boundaries set by the composition. Haden always wanted to break out of the confines of bass playing and play melodies and counter melodies rather than just keep time and mark the harmonies. With Jarrett he’s able to do that and you can hear how they’re both “just ears”, playing off of each other.

The record itself is producer George Avakian’s selection of performances recorded during the groups stay at the Manne-hole. Here’s a performance of the same group a few years later which, I think, illustrates my point pretty well. In this one Haden also, rather atypically, play very high on the bass – but for a very clear musical reason.

80/81 (Pat Metheny)

According to Haden in the liner notes to Beyond the Missouri Sky, he first met Pat Metheny in 1973 when Metheny, age of 18 at the time, came up to introduce himself after Haden’s concert with Ornette Coleman (with whom they were collaborating a decade later on the Song X album). It was, however, during the extensive touring with the 80/81 project that they became friends. In addition to them, this group consisted of the saxophonists Dewey Redman, with Haden had played in an Ornette Colean project in the  above-mentioned Jarrett group in the early 1970s, Michael Brecker, with whom Metheny had played at least in the Joni Mitchell group of the late end of 1970s, and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

80/81 is also a rather free oriented album. The opening track Two Folk Songs is a 20 minute long elaboration of two folk song like melodies, one from Metheny and the other by Haden, tribute to both artists’ Mid-Western routes. Ornette Coleman is also tributed in the form of his blues Turnaround. This features a hard-swinging Haden demonstrating the power of walking bass line, not only in providing the rhythmic and harmonic foundation, but also as creatively and interactively participating in the musical conversation between the musicians.

When I was still learning the basics of jazz bass playing I was picking up a lot of stuff from bassists I heard. The “walking” motion in a walking bass line is a result of regular, on the beat, rhythm and continuous scalar melodic movement. While Haden indeed swings like no other, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear him repeating some notes in his lines occasionally. But then again, this is not a conventional bebop context and Haden’s lines contribute rhythmically as well as melodically to what’s happening in the music; he’s taking part in the conversation, in a language, one might say, that is not strictly bebop.

Michael Brecker (Michael Brecker)

Michael Brecker’s album Michael Brecker is in a way continuation of the collaboration we saw/heard on 80/81; but now Brecker as the leader. Apart from Kenny Kirkland on piano and the absence of Dewey Redman, this is the same group. By this time Brecker was already a very established jazz musician with e.g. a discography dating back two decades. He was perhaps best known of his fusion jazz groups Brecker Brothers and Steps Ahead.

Considering the rather prominent fusion sound on this album the choice of Haden as a bass player might seem a peculiar one. Together with the music production technology/philosophy of the 1980s, it’s often hard to hear the “rainforest” in Haden’s sound (see Part 1). On the other hand, it’s one more example of Haden’s versatility as a bass player and musician. Nothing Personal is a good example of this. It’s a minor blues featuring a bit fusion-like bass figure on the first part of the form and walking bass on the second part and under the solos. Haden’s walking bass lines are in the highly chromatic style he played on 80/81 as well; adding a sort of Coleman-style free jazz element to the fusion. The repeating notes in his lines can be heard here as well.

In Cost of Living we get Haden really in his element again with his familiar “wooden” sound as well as a beautiful solo. With Metheny on acoustic guitar on this track there’s something of flashback (or flashforward, really) to the duo album I discussed in the previous post.


This concludes my ruminations on Charlie Haden. Much could also be said of his philosophy of life and music, but I’ll leave that for others at this point. As you see here my musical acquaintance with Haden hasn’t been the most extensive one, but I’ve been able draw quite a few lessons from his music. I think we should all consider ourselves lucky to have had such a remarkable person and musician amongst us leaving his legacy for us to enjoy, study and learn from. So hats off and hands down to Mr. Haden!

Charlie Haden – Part 1

"Charlie Haden" by Geert Vandepoele from Gent, Belgium - Charlie Haden. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Charlie Haden” by Geert Vandepoele from Gent, Belgium – Charlie Haden. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The passing of this great bass player on July 11th brought up some thoughts about studying and making music, I’d like to share with you. I’ll leave the writing of more extensive and well deserved obituaries and tributes to Charlie Haden for those who are better acquainted with his life and career. As my modest tribute to this pioneer of bass I’ll reflect here on my “musical encounter” with him and what it meant for me.

Institutional study of jazz mostly begins with learning the basics of bebop; swinging on one’s instrument, alone as well as in an ensemble, bebop harmonies and building melodic lines on them according to the voice leading principles, repertoire, etc. Why bebop has been chosen as the centre of the jazz universe in the educational institutions has to be discussed another time. However, we have much to be grateful for to Charlie Haden for showing us “the shape of jazz to come”; showing all the wonderful things the music could and can be – whether one would call it jazz or something else.

To me this world began open when my bass teacher of the time Ari-Pekka Anttila gave me a tip to check out the then fresh duo album of Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny Beyond the Missouri Sky (1997). 15 years later that album continues to touch me and has now become part of the “soundtrack of my life” bringing back many memories. I’m also happy to have had the chance to see the maestro playing live once on his tour with Pat Metheny in 2003.

I’d suggest you to go ahead and listen to the following track at this point. Below I’ll say a few words about this track, how I hear it and what it has meant to me, but I’d recommend you to listen to it first so you’re not “primed” by my views of it. You’re then able to compare your own experience of it with mine and see/hear for yourself whether you agree with me or find my description useful in any way.

Our Spanish Love Song

Charlie Haden is the bass player who stays down low, who plays only the notes that are necessary. He is quiet, in a sense, even as he has a resonant sound, a singing, distinctive tone that speaks of the wood of the instrument, the flesh of his fingers on the strings, the intelligence of man who is thinking his way though the songs he plays and the humanity of a man who can hear the lyrics in his heart with every measure. Will Layman (

When I play, it’s very important to me to bring out the wood – like the tree – of the bass. I like to sound like a rainforest. Charlie Haden

Musically the lesson I was trying to learn from Haden was to say what I had to say with less notes. I find the duo performances with Haden and Metheny very effective in driving that point home. Pat Metheny is a master of playing long, elaborate, melodic lines. Forming a continuous flow these lines draw a firework-like picture rich in colours and details in dynamics, timing and harmony for the keen ear to pick up. Charlie Haden, on the hand, plays a few carefully chosen notes executed with equal mastery, cherishing every note, every stroke of his musical brush, embracing the very touch of the canvas, the creation of a musical space for the audience who is invited to share it with him. This is the musical being-in-the-world in a Heideggerian sense I’ve talked about before.

Our Spanish Love Song, from the above-mentioned album you’ve just heard is a great example of what I’m trying to say here; as well as a tune I spent a lot of time studying in attempt to emulate Haden’s approach. The bass solo in the studio version is nothing short of haunting in its beauty and simplicity. The ascending melodic line breaths through the harmonies of the song, marking the changes and building up the tension towards the last part of the form where he resolves it with some arpeggios on the finishing cadence of the form.

In short, Haden has taught me much about the sound of the instrument and the effective use of it in self expression in a way that is economic rather than flashy, and emotional rather than “academic”.  My first teacher at the Conservatory of Amsterdam Arnold Dooyewerd also helped me a great deal in this search,  more specifically advising me to try and bring forth the “Spanish” in this song.

The closest I got in my own playing to realising the lessons from Haden, in my opinion,  can be heard on Rauhaton Rinta from the Finnish-Dutch group Aina.

Rauhaton Rinta from Aina – Leino (2005).  Composition by Izak Boom, lyrics by Eino Leino

When I first began writing this post I could only think of the above-mentioned duo album with Pat Metheny that I really know of Charlie Haden. But while browsing YouTube for his music I was reminded of three other albums on my shelf he plays on.  See Part 2 for my thoughts about/around those albums.