Charlie Harding, a songwriter, and Nate Sloan, a musicologist, used to be snobby about pop music. Then, on a road trip, they heard "Call Me Maybe," Carly Rae Jepsen's 2012 earworm, and decided to lean into their backgrounds to try to understand the craft of the song.
"I think, by explaining some of these musical concepts, all the sudden I was able to hear the song in a way I wasn't able to beforehand," Sloan says.
They started dissecting big pop hits the way they might study jazz or classical. They launched a podcast called Switched on Pop, and now they have a book by the same name. Each chapter studies a basic principle of music through one omnipresent song.
On "Call Me Maybe," the first song to pique their interest
Sloan: It's perfectly constructed to give you this feeling of nervous, suspended animation in the act of asking someone out. We just came away astonished by the complexity and craft. I think the chorus of the song captures a lot of the musical excellence here. She doesn't start on the downbeat — she waits a moment before delivering the first lyric. There's a little pause, and then she says, "Hey!" It surprises us. The "one" is the downbeat; it's where we expect the first lyric to arrive. But she denies that expectation and it gives us the sense that she's nervous, she's almost working up her courage to say this thing, to say "Hey, this is crazy, but call me maybe?"
On sonic signatures and their modern master, Taylor Swift
Sloan: There's this three-note melodic motif that we like to call the "T Drop," because it descends. You can hear it on an early track, like "Mean," right on the lyric "I can't sing." It comes up in one of her biggest hits, "You Belong With Me," right at the pinnacle moment of the song where she says "You belong with me-e-e."
Harding: She's someone who's constantly criticized for "Does she write her music?" — and we think that these are very gendered criticisms. As she's changing her style from country to pop, we can continue to hear a consistent melody, which says, "Hey, Taylor is here throughout." Maybe you don't notice it consciously, like Nate and I do, but subconsciously, you get a sense of Taylor Swift because you know that sound.
On the practice of "text painting" in "Despacito" and earlier music
Harding: Right when Luis Fonsi sings "despacito," the song actually gets slower. What he's doing there is a perfect example of what we call "text painting," where what's happening in the lyric and the music are aligned to bring greater meaning to the song.
Sloan: This goes back to the Middle Ages. You can find the 12th century troubadour, Bernart de Ventadorn, and his composition, "Can vei la lauzeter mover." It's Old French for "When the lark beats its wings." And right on the word "mover," Bernart de Ventadorn shakes his voice, almost like a fluttering bird.
On what studying pop music offers us
Harding: In the world of contemporary music, it still seems that we're allowed to say "I like this music, but that music is bad." I think what we're trying to do, with both the show and the book version of Switched on Pop, is to provide the essential musical knowledge that helps you listen to things that might feel uncomfortable, so that you can better get to know them. We feel that when you have those building blocks of music, that it can help open your ear to hear the world in a new way.
Sloan: I think about the line, "If you really want to know someone, walk a mile in their shoes." I wonder if you could say, "If you really want to know someone, listen for an hour through their ears." I think that's what we're trying to do.