I've long struggled to figure out the Black-Eyed Peas. It's the kind of music where so much information is pumped into you at such an immense pace that effective criticism is hard to accomplish. Their tourette's aesthetic means that you never know what's important and what's just pure random; sounds, catchphrases, grooves, and snippets of melody spark out at you with haphazard ferociousness. Take "I Got a Feeling." (I cut out the actual video, since we're just talking about the music here.)
Around 3:15 is I think the purest example of that aesthetic. will.i.am is singing a repetition of the lines "Fill up my cup / Mazel Tov / Look at her dancing / Just take it off." Fergie responds to each line with some electronified stream-of-consciousness retort. Listen to it, it's just so...random.
But the randomness isn't just random, it's a choice by will.i.am, who I gather is the musical brains behind this outfit. And as I listen to this song in particular, I notice that it results from his very unique approach to structure. "I Got a Feeling" is, like most of their material, a dance tune. As such, it draws upon the usual formal devices of post-disco dance music. It has the accretionary beginning, where the feeling of getting ready for a party is evoked by a gradual building up of instruments and voices, and then the buildup of tension to be released at particularly ecstatic moments. The sort of stuff Chairman Bob writes about. And yet, it does this very perfunctorily. The initial buildup ends when the beat comes in at the one minute mark, and it's distinctly underwhelming. Probably the best such release is the one at 3:46, but again, it's nothing so spectacular. I think the biggest problem is that the harmonic movement at the end of each repetition, going from C to G, is quite flaccid. That's the spot in the progression most often aligned with a movement of release, and it's hard to care that much about a perfect fourth.
So I was pleased to read in a recent issue of Rolling Stone an interview with Will.i.Am that talked a little bit about his musical logic. Unfortunately, it's behind a paywall so you can't read it without a subscription. But in it, will.i.am says quite forthrightly that he is not interested in the usual structural mechanics of either a pop song or a longer electronic dance music set. Instead, he argues for what he somewhat amorphously calls a "unique sound" to a song, instantly recognizable on the radio. That doesn't seem all that different from any musician trying to find their sound, but I sense that he means this actually quite structurally: his goal with these songs is to make sure that if you happen to tune onto a station playing "I Got a Feeling", you have have 99% chance that you will be listening to this unique sound--not some a bridge, not some varying material, but just the unique, recognizable sound. There is no musical development over the course of the song, because development requires an old-fashioned way of listening where you actually listen to the song from beginning to the end. In shades of Michael Fried, will.i.am wants you to apprehend and absorb the totality of the pop tune in one instant.
He admits in the interview, forthrightly and apologetically, that his model here is the music of television commercials, where you similarly need to create a musical impression in a compressed amount of time, and where any formal structure in the original song will be chopped up beyond recognition. That's why, he says, the Black-Eyed Peas have been so successful in placing their music in commercials; it's working purposefully for that aesthetic. Late capitalism, yadda yadda yadda.
Interesting, I thought! And whatever you think of that compositional approach, I think it helps to explain the rather aleatoric aspects of their music that confound me so--as any composer will tell you, when you don't have a clear structure in the music to orient yourself to, any musical choice (that doesn't take away from the overall sound) does indeed become quite random.
4 days ago