Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I Got (1) Feeling.

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.


Glenn said...

I'll have to explore more BEP because none of that sounded random or aleatoric to me. Fergie's interjections seemed perfectly predictable. "Random" would have her reading the Emancipation Proclamation I think. But maybe I'm misunderstanding your point?

PMG said...

[oops, sorry, somehow I missed seeing your comment earlier!]

Aleatoric is definitely rhetorical excess on my part, but you are making me re-think what I mean by random. You're right, of course, that as a matter of timing, Fergie's responses make sense, and as far as content go, there is some loose association between the call and the response. (Cup/Drank, Mazel tov/l'chaim) Loosely. I do think the processing of each interjection is somewhat off kilter--I can't follow the logic of why each response sounds the way it does. But that's a small thing.

So what's random? Part of it is just the overall spectacle. I don't know if you've ever seen any of their live video clips, like at the last Grammys, where they just pile all these crazy things on top of each other so fast that it is impossible to keep up with it. Nothing new for pop music except for the rapid pace at which they pile up, but it's enough for me to lose whatever conceptual thread I'm trying to follow in their performance.

But to return to the small example of this song, I think it's again a question of the form--they do such an apathetic job of building up the dance-floor tension that any building up of layers that occurs, such as when these interjections surface, that I want them to be more significant, and can't figure why they are so...insipid.

Overall though, it's interesting how often we and many pop listeners use the word "random" as an analytical category without having actually theorized what that means. It reminds me a little bit of Bob (Fink)'s taking apart the meaning of the word uber-postmodern term "whatever" in the music of Beck--a seemingly small linguistic tic that is actually an important analytic vocabulary word.