Did James Corden do Adele a favour ?

Having read about all the brouhaha surrounding James Corden’s curtailing of Adele’s acceptance speech at the Brits, I decided to look for the infamous moment on YouTube, and see what had actually happened.

Having watched the incident, it seems to me that Corden actually did Adele a favour. Clearly, once the singer began speaking, Corden suddenly thought: ”Oh my God: she’s actually a) got nothing worth saying and b) she surely won’t want her fans hearing her speak, surely ?”

Articulate and poetic: image credit The Metro

You see, as soon as popstars start speaking, quite often the bubble is burst. Far from being a tortured genius, giving voice to the anguish lurking inside our innermost and private souls, we find they are mindless, inarticulate morons, for whom the act of speaking in public actually lets them down.

Even the Speaker of the House of Commons is reported as saying he is ”disappointed” at Adele’s speech being cut short. Then again, that’s probably because, had Adele continued her presumably erudite and witty speech, he would have looked even better in comparison.

Bravo, James Corden: in cutting Adele’s doubtless winningly articulate and profoundly insightful speech short, you did her (and her Marketing Machine) a great service. If I were her management team, I’d be thanking you.

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Had my Phil: how Phil Collins ruined my life

Well, that’s not entirely true: Phill Collins didn’t exactly ruin my life. But he did lead one of my favourite prog rock groups astray from the path of Prog Rock Geniuses to Pap Pop Peddlars, and also filled most of my youth with unremittingly awful covers like ‘You Can’t Hurry Love.’

You only have to listen to Collins and Chester Thompson, the second drummer on the live album Seconds Out, playing together to hear how good a drummer Collins was. There’s some deft work on early albums like Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot – both albums with Genesis at the height of their powers.  Collins drums subtly, sympathetically, but with great craft and assurance, moving effortlessely through ever-changing time-signatures with great ease.

And then: Peter Gabriel left, followed a few years later by guitarist Steve Hackett, and Genesis went from Prog Rock geniuses to being Collins’ backing-band; then the group broke up, unleashing Collins’ solo career in the 80’s and a wealth of banal pop tunes and covers.

It’s a real shame, because Genesis were brilliant, and Collins’ contribution was an essential part of that. But to go from that to sixties’ covers of outstanding banality and some ultra-safe, middle-of-the-road album-making – unforgiveable.

Finding a profound melancholy in Katy Perry

For several weeks, I’ve been haunted by a distinct sense of overwhelming melancholy. In a song by California’s hottest current export, Katy Perry. I realise this may be unusual, but it’s true. That’s the trouble with pop, and also perhaps its greatest strength: sometimes, even the most unassuming track can reach its fingers into your soul.

Listening to Firework repeatedly, I think this sense is created by the fact that, in the chorus, the melodic line never sits on the tonic at the same time as the bass-line; it’s as though the two parts are striving to coincide, but are never able to meet.

The contours of the melody in the chorus means that the line dwells on the supertonic – a Bb – a lot. It hovers between the tonic and the major third of the chord, unable really to settle on either and thereby establish the home key of Ab major. The supporting harmony moves to the relative minor, F minor and never allows the melody to assert Ab major in its constant motion to other keys whenever the melodic line tries to establish the home-key.

The overall effect is to create (if you’ll excuse the unintentional pun) dischord between the top and bottom parts; always trying to work together, never able to.

Additionally, there’s the detached crotchet ostinato in the violins that begins in the bridge section (‘ignite the light and let it shine’, beginning at 46”) and carrying on into the verse – the repeated falling figures C-Bb / Db – C / Bb – Ab – which revolve unendingly in between a melodic line that’s struggling to ascend but can’t escape and ends up falling backwards, and a throbbing bass-line cycling through the same harmonies over and over again.

Finally, there’s the moment at the end of the bridge section where the melody lands on an F – the last syllable of ‘fourth of Ju-ly,’ creating a descending shape C – Ab – F; the harmony moves from F minor to Db major, the notes of the melody can exist in both keys, and the C has changed from being the fifth note of F minor to being the major seventh of Db major. There’s always a bittersweet feeling about major-seventh chords, to my ears at least, and the move from minor to major (sorry, Ella Fitzgerald), and major seventh chord at that, has a real emotional pull.

Of course, this is a very analytical way of looking at what the music is doing, and doesn’t quite fully explain how, or why, all these elements work together to create that melancholic sense. And that’s another of music’s strengths, too: the more you try to analyse what’s happening and how a particular emotional response is created, the more it slips through your fingers (sorry, Princess Leia).

(Alas the bubble bursts at 2’50” when the lyrics suddenly let the song down and rhyme ‘Boom, boom, boom!’ with ‘moon, moon, moon!’ I mean, come on, that’s just sheer laziness; and don’t blather on about half-rhymes, either: boom and moon just do NOT rhyme).

Public spats with Lily Allen aside, there’s something to be found in Perry’s song. Listen for yourself.

Seize the moment: the appeal of pop music

Everyone knows the old arguments: classical music is written for posterity, pop is ‘here today, gone tomorrow;’ classical music has greater longevity, pop evaporates when the fad passes; classical has more cerebral appeal, pop speaks to the heart but the heart moves on.

Was posterity a consideration when Vivaldi was working at the Ospedale della Pietà, or when Mozart was writing his symphonies in the eighteenth century ? His piano concerti, which he himself played and for which he often improvised suitably dazzling cadenzas: were they written with future fame in mind ? Did Bach envisage his music lasting for hundreds of years when he was recycling instrumental works for the Sunday services each week as Kapellmeister ?

The answer to these is, probably not; Bach was writing as part of his job requirements, a salaried post; Mozart was writing to commision, to keep himself afloat and cope with his gambling. Posterity was less important than the next pay-cheque.

Pop music, as its title suggests, is written to appeal: to be ‘popular.’ It does so – at least, when it’s doing its job successfully – by capturing something of the moment, hooking into the zeitgeist and turning something of the prevailing moment into music. Pop music, like fashion, has phases, and its music appears in response to them, fading when the phase passes and is replaced by something else perhaps equally as short-lived, but nonetheless vibrant.

It’s perhaps unfair, though, to hold this against pop music, to use it as a criticism, or to cite it as a reason for its inferiority compared with classical music. Pop music’s strength lies, like that of jazz, in its very ability to re-invent itself to respond to the surrounding cultural climate, to shed its skin one moment and clothe itself in the Emperor’s New Fashion for a few brief but dazzling moments.

The mammoth strivings of Mahler, locked in his little lakeside hut in Steinbach, to write his epic symphonies are all well and worthy, but it can be just as difficult to write a successful pop song. As the poet Simon Armitage points out in a a slightly different context in All Points North, writing is a solitary task; and Stravinsky said there was nothing more daunting than sitting down in front of a blank piece of paper. Like writing poetry, writing music is a difficult task – whether it’s classical or pop. Whether you are Cathy Dennis writing for pop princess Kylie Minogue or George Benjamin, it’s a challenge whichever sphere in which you’re composing. There’s room for both.

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