There are so many things to love about summer: the sun, the beach, the long days, the pop songs we'll hear a gazillion times. But how durable are those songs that will be blasting out of our cars, iPods, and deck stereos for the next three months? We asked a panel of music and writing professionals about three of the hottest singles right now. And because they're professionals, they dutifully separated the celebrity from the song and picked apart the lyrical and compositional elements of each. Party poopers? Maybe. But even Dylan had his critics.
"Till the World Ends"
Steven B. Smith, poet and former publisher of the Cleveland 'zine ArtCrimes, says there's no flow, story arc, or connectivity in the lyrics from section to section in Britney Spears' apocalyptic dance-floor jam. Still, he points out that the line "tongue tied in knots" is a phrase used in B-movies to refer to fellatio. So Brit gets points for that.
Then there's the line "You know I can take it to the next level baby." "You know, I've heard that so much," says Katie Daley, a performance poet and writing teacher. "I've heard that from guys in bars 20 years ago."
As for the music itself, Steven Mark Kohn, a composer and composition teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music, calls "Till the World Ends" just plain boring. But he gives the song a little credit for being "sonically powerful." "The skeleton is basic and simple, and there ain't much there," he says. "But what is done around it is rather ingenious."
"Born This Way"
Smith says the first single from Lady Gaga's new hit album "could easily have been a so-so poem I'd hear at an open-mic poetry reading." While shallow and obvious, Smith says, "Born This Way" has "a good message with a few dark hints of transvestites and drag queen shadows tossed into the mix."
Daley, however, uncovers a little more depth in the song. "[This] could be an anthem to people who are feeling way outside — especially sexually, and I think that's needed," she says. "I appreciate that in the song, that there's a little bit of a story with specific details on the speaker's experience, as opposed to getting on the dance floor and whatever."
Kohn gives kudos to the arrangement, vibrant synthesizers, and Gaga's voice, but he doesn't find the music fresh or interesting. "The same four chords repeat," he says with a sigh. "A key change might be nice, but that might also throw people off who are hooked on the hypnotic groove."
"On the Floor"
Smith likes the crude, animal-like energy of Pitbull's opening blasts on Jennifer Lopez's comeback single. But her response is pretty lame — especially considering she uses the word "floor" 25 times in 52 lines. "Jennifer's lines are witless entreaties to drink and dance and vomit and fuck," he says. "As song and poetry, it's insipid."
Daley agrees. "I found absolutely nothing surprising, specific, or moving about this," she says.
Musically, "On the Floor" has even less appeal, according to Kohn. "Harmonically static," he says, noting that the entire chorus is made up of one chord. However, he calls the four-chord verse "lovely" and acknowledges that it's an arresting song. Still, it's a musically uninteresting piece.
So how will summer 2011's most ubiquitous pop songs fare in the long run? "They seem like cheap replicas manufactured by formula in a used Barbie Doll factory," sniffs Smith. "They lack heat, head, or heart. But they're making folks rich, so what can I say?"
Daley thinks it all comes down to how they're sold. "It's a very highly sophisticated science that people, adolescents — whoever is the biggest part of the buying public of these songs — are responding more to marketing than they are to content," she says.
"I'm not going to slam these artists," says Kohn. "I have respect for people who are hardworking professionals. There's excellence even in these songs. [But] if we were just analyzing the music — notes on a page, not even the arrangement, just the notes played on a piano — this shit is all boring as hell."
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