I posted this in response to Mat and AG
at the SNSD Free For All, their sense that, at the moment, Japanese pop music is allowed more chord changes than American is. (dubdobdee
has pointed out to me via email that "Death Rock 2000
" wrestles* with some of the integration-coalition-collage-disparity-c
ollision ideas I was juggling in the air in my previous two
I barely know anything about Japanese pop, and not all that much about current American pop either, actually. But I think the James Brown problematic that I set forth back at the start of "Death Rock 2000" may be relevant: the more syncopated your supposed "background" parts are (drums, bass, rhythm guitar), the more your supposed "foreground" (vocals, leads, melodies) has to adapt to and intertwine
with the background; this lessens or gets rid of the distinction between foreground and background.** To be a bit simplistic here, when you truncate or cancel the melody, you tend to be getting rid of chord changes as well.
It isn't that James Brown wasn't interested in melody — all the evidence is just the opposite! — but that he was also trying to do other things, and these other things limited his options.
I don't know if "syncopated" was the right word above, but anyway: funk
. But funk isn't the only relevant melody suppressor: Brown also pushed his songs towards call-and-response. You can hear in this live version
of the melody-rich "Prisoner Of Love" how, at about the two-minute mark, after lovingly taking care of the melody, James abandons it
to go call-and-response over a single chord. Really, what he does is to take the couplet "I'm just a prisoner, don't let me be a prisoner" and use it as a wormhole, crawling into another world. You can hear this in incipient form at the end of the single version
, which fades out into an implied never-ending groove.
This is one "solution" to the "problem," to segregate the melody sections and the groove sections, or the melody sections and the call-and-response sections. This was done in Cuba in the development of forms like the mambo; in American pop, it's become kind of standard to have a chorus-length call-and-response towards a track's end. Of course you can put things into separate songs, melody song here, groove song there.
There are other interesting analogues to the James Brown problematic. E.g., Bob Dylan would take a line in a song and vamp on it, making the vamp longer
in each consecutive verse. (As with "syncopated," I don't know if "vamp" is the right word.) Fascinating are the Kinks, who in the mid-Sixties were inspired by the Beatles to go more melodic and by the Yardbirds to go towards drones and rave-ups
, which tended to be less melodic, more groove, and so the Kinks tried to do both at once — or at least tried to be less segregated into "melody part" and "rave-up part": in "Situation Vacant
," you can hear at 1:12-1:20 how there seems to be a hard-rock groove that wants to explode out of the song but is held in check, then at 1:57 it actually does get the bit between its teeth, and it's off and running into a full rave-up at 2:20, fading out into a false ending and then returning at 2:55 as if to say "This could go on forever," as poor lead character Johnny falls perpetually downwards.
I'm curious what else
is going on in Japanese music. I can't imagine that all Japanese dance tracks or rap tracks are chock full of chord changes.
I think in America the tendency isn't so much anti
-melody or anti
-chord changes, but just that the prominence of hip-hop and dance tends to suppress melody in favor of beats. But it isn't because audiences are going, "Oh, there's too much melody and too many chord changes." I assume they'd be fine with lots of melody and changes. It's that they're drawn to the interesting rhythms, which throws us into the problematic. E.g., where's the room
for melody and changes in "Hit The Quan"?
From "Death Rock 2000":
So even the hard funk of Funkadelic and Kool and the Gang had a somewhat straighter groove, and in hip-hop and r&b you always—until recently—had a loud drum nailing down the backbeat, or even a one-two-three-four (the more discofied r&b), with the song or rap back on top and most of the funk relegated to the bass guitar or bass keyboard. With the backbeat/one-two-three-four anchoring whatever was on top, some of JB's propulsive tumble was lost. So I think the tension in much of the world's music in the next century will be: "We don't want to give up song form or the Euromelody tradition, or we don't want to give up an out-front rap, or an out-front guitar solo, or an out-front wall of noise, or an out-front dance collage, or _________ (from whatever music tradition), yet we also want to have the tumbling funk and never-ending groove, so what do we do?" I hope it stays a problem. I can't imagine it being "solved."
But I don't think U.S. pop is more into the rhythm-and-melody problematic now than it was in 2000. In fact, I'd say I was hearing more rhythm risks then than I am now, though I was paying more intense attention then than now, too.
*I'd say my Disco Tex Essay
wrestles with 'em even more, especially the "Bob Dylan plays mambo" ruminations.
**Btw, it was JYP joking around w/ James Brown poses and foreground-background that inspired my first K-pop post