Posts Tagged ‘popular culture’

A Beach Boys Canon

August 10, 2014

It distresses me when people scoff at the Beach Boys!

I presume when it happens that the scoffer is in error, that they’re projecting the popular image of the Beach Boys – beachy, surfy, voicy – onto a richer version of their history.

Maybe that’s wrong. Maybe it’s all a simper too far for some. But I can’t help but feel that the myth has overtaken reality. For the ‘Beach Boys’ is an acephalic entity missing one of its most important parts, that is, the rich vein of music that happened After the Fall, the 12 or 13 stone cold classic albums that come after the much-mythologised Brianian Collapse. These albums are concentrated in the 6 or 7 years after those post-Pet Sounds difficulties, but plenty of decent music carries on through the years, right up until the closing late-style suite on 2012’s That’s Why God Made the Radio. And maybe into Brian’s next solo album, where, who knows!, the duet with Zooey Deschanel might be great!


Anyhoo, this is the best music – for me – the best. I wouldn’t want to run a thread through all of it, through the rich imaginary of beaches and cars, the heart-dear ballads, the teenage – broken – symphonies, the mystic Weillian cantatas, the slowtime death-songs of the twilight period, the revenant but sometimes vital stuff of the postlapsarian 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s. But there’s a hardly fathoming stainlessness in the voice/s of this music that seems to me to be unique, or rare, in the history of music up until that point.

Of the many mechanisms of exclusion that structure musical and cultural history – class, gender, race, personality, happenstance – the fact that music before the recorded era needed at some level to be publicly voiced in one way or the other, that it needed to anchor functions or gatherings or whatever on the one hand, or that it needed to pass through technologies of power and representation to become a testimony of absolute music on the other, meant that the small moment, the diary entry, the miniature catastrophe or wonder, had to remain of personal note, lost to immediate exposure or to private joys.

But with recording, with the exposure and thickening of voices that are meek and weightless and the inscribing of forms that seem insubsutantial and transitory, you get something entering into the public record that feels new, or, again, rare. It exists beyond the ether of folksong and traditional music, where such ‘small’ feelings thrive, and also beyond the grand suffering of romantic classical musics that need a social stage to burn, despite their interior claims. Not all of the Beach Boy music works in this way – the big surf songs, for instance, are brashy in the public-facing way familiar to us – but some of the later examples (‘I Went to Sleep’ or ‘All I Wanna Do’, say) are so wispy that they almost fail to exist, and others (‘Surf’s Up’, ‘Til I Die’, ‘All This is That’) play with sonic or emotional frailty and tenderness in such a way as to expose something deeply unexpected. Others, like ‘This Whole World’ or ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ are utterly joy-making.

So to a degree this music responds to and creates a new public, a new kind of listening, whilst also simply existing as great popular music. And found in much of it, public-facing or not, is a vulnerability that flickers like candlelight about to go out.

So why on earth are we here today?

In the interests of anyone who might potentially care, I’ve collected together my own personal canon of Beach Boys/Brian Wilson music. Personal bias, accident, inadequacy and so on all acknowledged. I’m in the castle of fandom here, firmly inside it!

This list is, hopefully, a shortcut to bliss. Every one of these tracks is in that category, you know the one, the imperishable, five-star, four-of-these-on-an-album-and-it’s-a-hall-of-famer category.

Any names in brackets denote not-Brian authorship. Other notes are at my whimsy. I’m not posting links cos the internet doesn’t pay me enough.

The Authoritative and Not At All Bullshit Stephen-Canon of Beach Boys and Brian Wilson Music


Surfin’ U.S.A – 1963

‘Farmer’s Daughter’
‘Lonely Sea’

Surfer Girl – 1963

‘Surfer Girl’
‘In My Room’

Shut Down Vol. 2 – 1964 (…holy shit we’re hotting up now)

‘Don’t Worry Baby’
‘The Warmth of the Sun’

All Summer Long – 1964

‘I Get Around’
‘All Summer Long’
‘Hushabye’ (Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman)
‘Girls on the Beach’


Beach Boys Today! – 1965

‘When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)’
‘Dance, Dance, Dance’
‘Please Let Me Wonder’
‘Kiss Me, Baby’
‘She Knows Me Too Well’
‘In the Back of My Mind’

Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) – 1965

‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’
‘California Girls’
‘Let Him Run Wild’
‘And Your Dreams Come True’

Bonus: ‘Guess I’m Dumb’, written for Glenn Campbell


Pet Sounds – 1966

‘Wouldn’t it Be Nice’
‘You Still Believe in Me’
‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)’
‘I’m Waiting for the Day’
‘Let’s Go Away for Awhile’
‘Sloop John B’ (trad)
‘God Only Knows’
‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’
‘Caroline, No’ (despite reservations about the lyrics)


Smile – the bootlegged version, the version released by Brian and his band in 2004, and the Smile Sessions from 2011.

Every single fucking second of these blessed albums, my favourite/s ever, beamed in from genius town. Many songs appear on subsequent albums in different forms, anyway, so I’ll include those by way of specificity.

Smiley Smile – 1967

‘Heroes and Villans’
‘Little Pad’ (the only one here not originally from Smile)
‘Good Vibrations’ (!)
‘Wind Chimes’

Bonus: ‘You’re Welcome’, ‘Their Hearts Were Full of Spring’, ‘Can’t Wait Too Long’

Wild Honey – 1967

‘Aren’t You Glad’
‘Country Air’
‘Here Comes the Night’
‘Mama Says’

Friends – 1968

‘Meant For You’
‘Wake the World’
‘Be Here in the Mornin’
‘Anna Lee, the Healer’
‘Little Bird’ (Dennis’ first song!)
‘Diamond Head’


20/20 – 1969

‘I Went to Sleep’
‘Time to Get Alone’
‘Our Prayer’ (Smile)
‘Cabinessence’ (Smile)

Bonus: ‘Breakaway’, ‘Walk on By’ (Bacharach)

Sunflower – 1970

‘Slip on Through’ (Dennis)
‘This Whole World’
‘Deirdre’ (Bruce Johnston with Brian)
‘All I Wanna Do’
‘Our Sweet Love’
‘At My Window’
‘Cool Cool Water’ (Smile)

Beach Boys - Surf's Up  DS249f front

Surf’s Up – 1971

‘Disney Girls’ (Bruce)
‘Feel Flows’ (Carl)
‘A Day in the Life of a Tree’
‘Til I Die’
‘Surf’s Up’ (these two songs are everything, the second is from Smile and is my favourite song)

Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” – 1972

‘All This is That’ (Carl, Al and Mike, uses ‘Jai guru deva om’ in the lyrics, but is much better than ‘Across the Universe’)
‘Cuddle Up’ (Dennis, it’s always boggled my mind how this isn’t worshipped)

Holland – 1973

‘Steamboat’ (Dennis)

Bonus: The whole of ‘Mt. Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale)’, a wonderful little curio of a drugged children’s story thing.


15 Big Ones – 1976

‘That Same Song’ (mainly for that priceless performance on YouTube)
‘Just Once in My Life’ (Carole King, Goffin and Spector)

Love You – 1977 (like Holland, this is an interesting album, but with only one standout)

‘The Night Was So Young’ (honorable mention to ‘Mona’)

M.I.U. – 1978, starting to get straggly here, but ‘My Diane’ and ‘She’s Got Rhythm’ are worthwhile, if not canon-standard!

LA (Light Album) – 1979, ropy too, but ‘Good Timin’ benefits from the unmatchable Brian and Carl combo, and Bruce’s disco-fication of ‘Here Comes the Night’ is always worth a laugh.

‘Baby Blue’ (Dennis – Breaking Bad missed a trick using the Badfinger song instead of this glorious thing in the final episode)

That’s Why God Made the Radio – 2012

‘From There to Back Again – Pacific Coast Highway – Summer’s Gone’ (the closing suite on what’s likely to be the last BB album, great they got such a strong and apt send-off)



Brian Wilson – 1988

‘Love and Mercy’
‘Melt Away’
‘Rio Grande’

All of Orange Crate Art (1995) is worth checking out, not least for VDP’s wackedness.

Imagination – 1998

‘Your Imagination’
‘She Says That She Needs Me’
‘Lay Down Burden’

Gettin’ in Over My Head – 2004

‘Saturday Morning in the City’

That Lucky Old Sun – 2008

‘Can’t Wait Too Long’ (Smile)
‘Southern California’


That’s it! I would argue you’re mean if you don’t enjoy the music above.

Before I go, okay, maybe one clip:


Writing and authority

April 26, 2011

What is happening when we abandon rockist channels of authority and circuits of creating-meaning (writing/producing), which say broadly that those responsible for writing are responsible for meaning and value?

Let us look to some examples that might help in developing a position. Clearly the rockist framework is displaced and intensified in the situation of singers such as Tony Bennet or Ella Fitzgerald – or, to take a random example, Roberto Alagna – who are engaged in the interpretation of standards, where both the original writer/s, and the new one, are being celebrated. But when we are faced with artists such as Britney/Kylie/Girls Aloud/Elvis, who all make consistently strong work but rarely ‘write’ it (in the limited sense of either composing formally or composition-in-performance), an abandonment similar to the one suggested in the opening is required of us.

This abandonment raises some questions. How is there consistency to the above mentioned artists’ music, and how have they consistently made things of value? Does the consistency simply result from the constancy of the voice and the ‘author function’ (the biographical-psychological retinue that the audience brings to the music) in the work? Or is it also, or rather, in the constancy of writers/producers, or, more interstingly, is it in a certain strange effacing of any sense of authorship in congress with the acsession of the voice?

Some level of consistency is obvious in the case of Girls Aloud, due to their team being relatively constant – though here I’m reverting to the old model of critique that sees consistency and integrity in a closed circle of collaborators and authority in only the most obvious form of authorship – but the others work or worked with a wide range of producers/writers.

Might we say, in seeking this consistency, that these artists, in addition to having access to a wider range of resources than others in their position have, simply exercise great discretion, and that they thus produce stronger output, and/or might we draw attention to the importance of the auto-cursive nature of singing, of its affective superposition in music?

My feeling is that both of these observations are important: of course a greater range of resources will lead to stronger work, and it is also obvious that the voice in pop music is the most important element and thus will produce at least a surface level of consistency in an artist’s work. But we are working with a deeper level of consistency here than that, in support of which we could adduce these artists’ consistently high standards.

Something else is needed, then. Could we displace models of creativity to include performance and/or personality, or another some such object petit a? Could we, in addition or alternatively, insist on an incomplete methodology: a disorder that ends in a sort of order, or at least a discourse? This would give us access to a more complex notion of authorship, one anchored in personality, performance, ‘writing’, and, above all, in the strange synthesis that squares the circle of performer, writer, and listener.

If we don’t leave room for this type of remainder then we are ought to make silly conclusions that do things like doubt artists’ contribution to their own music. This is nearly always the most reactionary and least interesting of positions. We could always, in seeking to understand these artists’ consistency, follow an evidence-based chain by comparing the outputs of their writers/producers in those writers/producers work with other artists, and determine whether a significant quality is present in the relevant artist but not in the other/s with which we have built our comparison. We might reasonably then conclude that it is in this ‘significant quality’ that the artist’s own contribution lies.

But that is to subscribe, after a fashion – in looking for a direct causality that I suspect would be incongruous considering the amorphous nature of musical creation -, to the same model of meaning as is being employed by the rockists mentioned above (and the rockists are only foot soldiers in an army that traces back through the centuries).

I would prefer to cleave to a methodology of incompleteness, and think instead of this music as being a part of a sort of a system, a system in which the named artist is likely the most important element, give or take. This system would simply seek to recognise the aporic space of authorship that persists in (pop) music, without ignoring the writerly contributions of relevant parties. I do not know precisely how this system would play out in practice, but it seems a valuable starting point nonetheless. This aporic space might give, depending on the circumstance, a sort of intelligibility at a remove from meaning that could help us organise better our relationship to music.

Review round up

April 5, 2011

Some recent articles and other stuff by me:

At the Journal of Music, on lo-fi music. This piece was prompted after listening to Lady Lavender and reading David Toop’s Sinister Resonance.

At the Journal again, on a concert of Martin Creed’s. Creed’s great strength, as an artist and a musician, is his reframing of the relationship between an idea of the aesthetic and one of the everyday. Each collapses into the other in the hands of Creed, but not without preserving what is individual in each one at the same time. Reminds me a little of Gabriel Orozco, whose show I saw the other day at the Tate. What is most vivid in each artist is their insistence on the flexibility and the fluidity of the category of the aesthetic.

At Musical Criticism, on an interesting and engaging concert of works by or inspired by Xenakis, the latter category including new pieces by Roger Redgate, Michael Finnissy, and Haris Kittos.

I also saw Kylie last week, and, apart from the sore lack of ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, she was awesome. Especially ‘Get Outta My Way’.

Boring This Way

March 4, 2011

I really do love Lady Gaga – the way she so determinedly tries to make something happen, to eventalise all our lives; the way she is so barefaced in her minor plagiarisms; the way she sticks two fingers up to the misogynists by not only making great music but also by doing so barely dressed, tempting them to dismiss her for what they might perceive as superficiality. That she does all this with a queer, awkward aggression that mounts everything she does in gothic oddness is the icing on a fascinating cake.

But I just can’t get with ’Born This Way’, despite much effort. The lyrics are horrible; inelegant, plain, offensive. All of this is obvious, and indeed fast becoming a matter of public record (though I commented elsewhere that ‘For me, the lyrics are hyperbole. Taken literally, they become quite troublesome indeed’). But a greater problem is the music. Great art steals – this is a truism for which we find proof anywhere we care to look. But something new needs to happen that somehow sunders the artefact from its context, that leaves only a stain or a trace of the original, thus making enjoyment of each thing possible without both constantly being in the others’ pocket. Even a situation as blatant as the one we have with ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’ and ‘Hung Up’, despite the overtness of the steal, serves to enliven each track, giving happy resonance to every hearing.

But when I listen to ’Born This Way’ all I can hear is ‘Express Yourself’. It is not just that the style is broadly sympathetic and that the melody is similar. Gaga has taken (roughly) the entire chord progression (I – bVII – IV – I), exact harmonic rhythm and all, and simply shoved it into a new setting. This is too much for me. The way I hear and think about music is dictated by harmony, and as such all a steal like this can do is serve as an erasure of each track’s autonomy. When I hear one I hear the other, and to neither’s benefit (though obviously ‘Express Yourself’ is guilty only by association).

I’m offering an imprecise, subjective argument, admittedly – one person’s happy borrowing is another’s miserable theft – but the whole situation has left me rather annoyed, and also rather worried about Gaga’s new album. The track seems self-consciously to pursue broad, mainstream, vacuously anthemic tropes: I hope this is not the case for the rest of the album. More ‘Telephone’, more ‘Dance in the Dark’, more ‘Just Dance’ please!

Pop without the lyrics, or, vice versa

December 12, 2010

My piece in The Guardian.

The Truth about the X Factor

December 12, 2010

Out of The X Factor’s many annoying qualities it is perhaps the disconnect between what happens on stage and what is then said in the judge’s comments afterwards that is the most life-crushingly annoying one.

Song after song and week after week we are subject to litanies of ‘you made that song your own’; ‘you owned the stage’; ‘I could see for the first time you were nervous up there’; ‘you sounded so contemporary’, and so on, when what we have actually witnessed on stage seems to directly contradict these appraisals. The judges may as well make their comments before the actual performances commence such is their apparent total detachment from happens in them.

It is not that we could expect a show as populist and as (frequently) demagogic as The X Factor to employ actual trained music critics on its judging panel. No, that would be so Strictly Come Dancing of it. But when a show features as a vocal coach someone so clearly bereft of musical discernment as Yvie Burnett is, then something constructive really needs to be said in opposition.

I won’t bother raking up past judging howlers here. I’ll instead limit the focus as much as I can to the four remaining contestants in this year’s competition: Matt, Rebecca, One Dimension (sorry, One Direction), and Cher.

Let’s start with the contestant who almost Bachically transcends criticism, Rebecca. Rebecca seems like a charming woman whose stage presence flirts with charisma without ever quite attaining it, and whose voice flirts with the notes she’s supposed to be singing but only rarely hits them. It’s a rare event indeed when she manages to seize the centre of the note, and rarer still when she is able to produce any sort of modulated colour to her singing. Of course I’m exaggerating for effect here. Rebecca is a good and interesting singer, but it’s frustrating to watch the praise heaped on her week after week without any hint of a remark being made about her not insignificant vocal problems.

That praise is given largely, it would seem, because Rebecca’s Billie Holiday-recalling voice is so different to the archetypal modern pop vocal style of forthright dynamics and outlandish melismas. She benefits from her difference rather than because of any particular vocal richness. Unlike last year’s winner Joe McElderry, I might add, whose broadly common voice bears an unapproachable richness, a combination apparently not as popular with the buying public as it was the voting one.

I don’t have too much to say about Cher. Her voice has been horribly exposed these past few weeks in terms of sheer timing, pitching, and intonation, but I don’t think that’s her point. Out of all the contestants Cher is regularly the most interesting to watch. She prowls around the stage with no little fluency, injecting spunk into the songs through lazy phrasing and vocal mannerisms that come straight from adolescence. Whether she holds attention through talent or sheer force of arrogance it is hard to say, but that she can perform with so much confidence at 17 is surely notable. Cher is also a passable rapper.

Matt, the favourite, has this year’s best voice. His range extends up in the head voice to at least a B above Middle C, comfortably and without much loss of vibrancy in the upper notes, whilst his falsetto rises up to the gods. His ability to produce fully-rounded notes in the range an average mezzo would strain just a little in is remarkable. But is this quality enough? I don’t think it is. It’s not that Matt’s voice is totally lacking otherwise.
But there is little culture to his voice production. He has the notes, but not the emotion. Or, rather, he has way too much of one type of emotion. Still, Matt to win.

Now, One Direction. Again, they seem like nice boys, and are lovely to look at. And I can see why they’ve created all the fuss they have – it’s rare to get a group that seems as cohesive as they do, especially one manufactured by the show as they were. But they can’t sing together. Admittedly Harry’s voice shows some character, and Zain’s, apart from his head-wobbling, has a tonal quality that is immediately appealing. Put the five of them together, however, and things fall apart quite quickly.

Their Viva La Vida was a horrorshow of missed entries, shaky ensemble, and tuneless backing. I have yet to hear them attempt much more than unison singing – which they even manage to mess up quite regularly – and their performances frequently benefit from massed vocal backing tracks. Doomed band Belle Amie, by contrast, were for almost all of their songs left without backing tracks and with tricksy two and three part harmonies (which they coped with rather well). All of this and One Direction have not once been in the bottom two. Their presence in the programme has come to embody so much that is wrong with it.


November 11, 2010

The preponderance of ‘mashups’ on Glee and the X-Factor is starting to pall very badly. The latest Glee features ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ soldered to ‘Start Me Up’ without rhyme or resonance (see above). This horror is sung by the girls. The boys, meanwhile, get a similarly unconvincing crosshatch, this time of ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ and En Vogue’s ‘Free Your Mind’. Last week’s X-Factor, a dud edition all round, blundered its best performance, Paije’s spirited and fun ‘I’m a Believer’(although listening to it after the over-produced Glee video, it may appear a little ramshackle), with a snatch of the verse and refrain from ‘Hey Ya’. What did this interpolation add to the crisp and punchy spirit of the original, other than to distract it from its course?

These are just some examples out of many. The intent, clearly, is to appear ‘relevant’. But what is relevant about artistic bankruptcy of this sort, about sheer laziness that bypasses bravery and work for collage?

The frisson that one felt at first hearing, say, a 2 Many DJs mix, at hearing a mainstream bootleg (the European name for mashup) such as ‘Smells Like Bootylicious’ or ‘A Stroke of Genie-us’ (and away from the barely-there compositional skill of the new mashups, these at least displayed some felicity of conjunction and juxtaposition, revealing something new by the mix), has expired. The only reaction that is possible now is weariness.

Far from the component songs in mash-ups being enriched by the equation, we are merely deprived of the possible vitality of each, making 1+1 not equal 2, or even more, but rather, actually, less than 1. This is postmodernism at its most limp – assemblage standing in for creation, for actual work.

Borges’ remark that ‘Life itself is a quotation’ is as pertinent as ever, it seems.

And he was happy!

October 10, 2010

Why was Wagner (I hope his name doesn’t cause confusion) much more interesting than most of the other acts on the first live show of the 2010 X Factor, despite being markedly less vocally accomplished?

He is older, and this is certainly important. Notwithstanding heart-stopping talent, it’s invariably more interesting to watch a 50-year-old sing (communicate emotion, situate a technical code within the context of a life) than a 17-year-old. This is particularly the case when the environment is one directed so aggressively away from diversity and age, towards constricting consensus. Wagner’s comparative lack of investment in the prize of the programme and thus his closer proximity to the real of each contestants’ abilities and experience is likewise crucial. Pure theatre, meanwhile, combined from these elements but consisting in more, is the true injunction of Wagner. And he was happy!

With John and Edward last year, and Wagner this, The X Factor is at least opening itself to an injection of the kitsch sublime (albeit one easily subsumed). The X Factor may now be entering its ‘late’ phase. Embrace the madness, as even Cowell interjected last night.

I wrote in the Journal of Music earlier this year that the power of the programme lies in the crosshatching of unisonality as experienced through music with the intensity of the collective gaze, as opposed to its wild pageantry, its consensual hearkening to an abstract ‘now’, or its deleterious ‘narratives’. When people are singing better, the X Factor is generally more engaging (except when it is embracing the madness). Mary’s, not least because of its vocal power, was the most engaging performance last night. Music is powerful, and the music on The X Factor is often overwhelming in its combination of aesthetics and collectivism. This is why the programme lays such a strong and, at this moment, seemingly universal claim on the emotional economy of so many people’s weekends.

Amongst the infuriating ephemera last night, meanwhile, particularly wearing were the false dramatics of the ‘difficult’ rehearsal, the judges’ inveterate ability to whitewash a performance with whatever critical narrative suits the needs of the programme (see One Direction), and the repeated appeals to candidates’ ‘uniqueness’ (how many ‘uniques’ before the concept becomes meaningless?).

Something else that seems unresolved. What tense does the X Factor happen in? When does the X Factor actually happen? When a performance is complete, it is spoken of in almost canonical terms – the memory of The X Factor is short-term, and one hour is a life time in this universe. Virilio’s dromology, the logic of late capitalist speed, the hypermodern implosion of humanism, captures perfectly the effect. We can’t make much purchase on the ‘nowness’ of a performance before it is sublimated by the irresistible force of the past tense. But the other way, protentive time, is warped in this space too. Events seem pre-ordained, the judges’ comments warmed up in the crucible of the ill-informed (except Danni) before the event has taken place. Perhaps this last is merely a result of the judges’ (not Danni) astonishing rhetorical vacuousness, a vacuousness which begets the comments’ seeming generative contour.

When knowledge could have happened without human volition, originating before its human mediation, it bears a spectral relationship to time, is almost adjunct to it. Wagner, again, was so refreshing because the judges still don’t have a code with which to blandish him (he also looks like the joyous older brother of Javier Bardem).

I know The X Factor did happen, and it did so last evening, but I’m still incredulous as to its purchase on time.

These are some of the many confusing tensions one experiences when watching The X Factor.

Songs of Innocence

July 12, 2010

Genuine crossover, where genres are placed in a productive alliance that serves primarily artistic concerns, is rare. In Hannes Loeschel’s setting of William Blake’s visionary-pastoral Songs of Innocence we have genuine crossover, in this case between Improv, rock, Noise, and English folk. The result twists and turns along with the imagery and fluent contours of the texts. Phil Minton, known primarily for his improvisational abilities and for his Feral Choir project, does a stunning job of inhabiting these settings with a gruff, grainy vocal persona that has much to say. Exit Eden, yet more musicians accustomed to Improv, fill out the musical textures with various reminiscence of Earth, Bohren und der club of gore, Bellowhead, Wyatt, Radiohead, and many others. My full review is here at Musical Criticism.

Waiting for a Chord to Fall

July 10, 2010

The eighties is the reflection of the sun on the water here, and Shannon Rubicam’s shades. The song, too.

This is one of a number of seemingly rote, clichéd pop texts that actually features a fiendishly inventive use of tonality (and, as a result, structure). Without ever straying from the home key (until the middle eight, that is, when we shift in to the parallel minor, and then endure a false modulation up a tone for the final chorus), the song uses its whole range of primary triadic resources with a fluency that plays out in a sense of irresistible insouciance. After the initial burst of sun-kissed verse, we’re pushed through a series of tonal displacements, propelling forward with a sense of questioning and yet buoyant harmonic drive that perfectly matches the ‘waitings’, ‘tryings’, and ‘wishes’ of the lyrics.

The first of those displacements comes with the B section of the verse, on ‘I wish I didn’t feel so strong about you’, where we move to a dominant chord elaborated and stabilised in parallel to the tonic from the beginning. With the shift through ii7 and iii7, we feel as if we’re modulating to the relative minor, but on the bridge we unexpectedly pivot back once again to the dominant, this time in a tricksy, somewhat enigmatic sequence in which harmonic rhythm itself takes over the dramatic progression of the song’s form. For the final, sustained phrase of the bridge, transitioning in to the chorus, a stable ii – V cadence occurs, but yet again we move from there into an unexpected IV as chorus orientation.

The harmonic sequence in ‘Waiting for a Star to Fall’ uses the inherent expectations of tonal hierarchy to promise affirmation, but resolutely, playfully, holds it back in favour of a submerged mirror of the love games of the lyrical surface.

This is one of plethora of pop songs that makes use of traditional, common-practice harmonic and voice-leading practices, but irreverently reconfigures them in a way that echoes the manner in which their composers learn and practice their trade; orally, informally, freely. ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, with its Gospel-derived three chord vamps in the verse (even there we get a cheeky shift up a full step), and its irresistible series of pivots into bIII for the chorus, comes to mind, but there are thousands you could choose from; play through ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and ask whether it would be anything without those head-spinning, almost grace-giving modulations that continuously come, ramping up tension and atmosphere at each new tonal plane. Much of The Beatles’ output portrays this very process of (sometimes) gauche invention. This attribution of gauchenss is not to suggest, incidentally, that those with classical music educations have any valid claim to expressive authority over popular musicians, it is merely to admit that the two use form, harmony, and texture, in immanently different ways.

And who knew Boy Meets Girl’s Merrill and Rubicam wrote ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’? Yet another song, incidentally, that derives much of its impact from a toying with tonality, in this case an anticipatory, beautifully weighted delayed resolution into the tonic, which only comes finally with the jubilant chorus.

Modern pop may be largely without the sophisticated chord substitutions and added notes of Broadway (or jazz), but its cheekily realised and surely deeply sophisticated tonal designs add as much spark to common practice as anything else currently being offered under that often tired regime.