MusicApril 21, 2011 at 3:30 am

Musicologists Sound Off

Sometimes a superficial listen to today’s pop music isn’t enough. For a more comprehensive take, we turned to Penn’s Music Department. Read on to hear what Professor Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. (who teaches an awesome class on jazz) and Thomas Patteson (a grad student pursuing a PhD in the History of Music with a focus on electronic music) have to say about today’s big pop songs. Turns out their standards are pretty damn high.

 

Prof. Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.
Rihanna, “S&M” (2 Stars out of 5)
Welcome to my world: a weekend of Mozart, Berlioz, Bernstein and Cole Porter at my daughter’s senior recital in Atlanta, Fela–styled West African pop in the car and jazz pianist Luke O’Reilly on the computer. It all makes Rihanna’s club banger “S&M” sound like good clean fun — the cheesy ostinato synth pattern in E–flat minor, the auto–tuned nasal grain of her voice, the inviting lyrics (“I may be bad, but I’m very good at it”), verse–chorus structure with — wait, do I hear an actual bridge — some harmonic relief, as she invites me, the listener, to give it to her strong? This song is perfect for me, the middle–aged, half–hip, music historian, to feel great in the moment when the dance floor is filled with ingenues, but a little guilty the morning after.

Ke$ha, “We R Who We R” (1 Star out of 5)
Is this the same songwriter with the same equipment? Another “hot and dangerous and going hard” young lady with sultry pics on Google Images, singing about being grown and sexy. Cyclic chord progression dressed up with echo effects, explosions and a lot of bass drum to keep your butt moving. I’d be really afraid for this girl — it’s dangerous out there, you know — but, alas, she’s got “Jesus on her neck–ah–lus” so I guess she and her posse will be just fine. I give it a “1,” sitting here in my sterile office with no dancers, no drink and not even a bridge section to break the monotony. Sorry Ke$ha, you Superstar, you. I Am Who I Is.

Thomas Patteson
Radiohead, “Lotus Flower” (1 Star out of 5)
Long gone are the days of the old white male sniffing after thematic correspondences in the string quartets of Johann Whogivesacrap. Today, we musicologists are working on the bleeding edge of contemporary musical developments. That’s why I was so excited to discover the song “Lotus Flower” by the fresh new British band “Radiohead” [sic]. This music really expresses the modern zeitgeist, as represented by phenomena such as Facebook, Twitter and so on. Look out world, because this band could really go places.

Kanye West, “Runaway” (2 Stars out of 5)
I find this song quite boring. It’s as if hip–hop has absorbed all the worst tendencies of mainstream kitsch–pop: the conventional musical structures, the old instruments and, worst of all, the confessional lyrical model. I get the sense that Kanye West is baring his soul here, yet I don’t really care. When will we get beyond the enjoyment of celebrity psychodrama? Until then, I’ll be listening to Immortal Technique, thank you.

 
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