New Country is Boring Me
My early music education was in classical and jazz. Through orchestration classes, composition, Baroque theory, etc., I learned a lot of music rules. Some of them have stayed with me, even though I don’t write music on a regular basis. In jazz improv, never sit on the fourth scale degree. In orchestration, don’t cross your voices. In composition, never repeat a melody more than three times in a row, and don’t let a modulating sequence go more than three repetitions. I believe this is based on the assumption that listeners might marvel at the first repetition, be familiar by the third time around, but be utterly bored at the fourth attempt.
I have these rules in my head, and sometimes notice when they’re being used – or broken – in the music I hear around me. A recent change in my morning routine has added a 20-minute CMT viewing set to my day (I’m trying to stay on top of the music, but whether this is good or bad I have yet to decide). One day I saw this video and the song stuck in my head for awhile:
Soon after, I saw this one:
Their similarities struck me, and not in the way you’d expect. Being one to not notice words the first few listens through, I was paying attention to the singers’ delivery of the melodies, and felt the two songs were connected by a relatively dull approach in this arena.
So I decided to look up CMT’s Chevy Top 20 and listen to a few other songs, all of which suffered from the same infraction: repetitive melodies and symmetrical phrasing:
Now, it’s unfair for us to expect current Top 40 country to be talking about anything other than partying, flirting, and hooking up, because it’s Top 40. It automatically tends towards what will make the most people happy in the shortest amount of time. Besides, we have new country elders like Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks addressing issues like domestic abuse, and alt-country artists tackling politics and history, so that leaves hook-ups wide open for Top 40 country. As such, I don’t want to beat down the genre for its subject matter in this post.
Let’s take a look at the four examples I’ve got up here. Each of them follows the standard composition rule of not repeating anything more than three times. Sometimes, as in the case of “Pass It Around”, that repetition is eased by only repeating twice before moving on to a new phrase, only to return to the “Pass It Around” hook at the end of the chorus. In “Good Time”, we get two repetitions of the exact same phrase in the verse, and then the only thing that changes the third time around is that it’s gone up in pitch. In “Get Me Some of That”, there are two long phrases pretty much repeated verbatim making up the verse. That’s okay – it happens in lots of music, and of course to some extent repetition is valuable because it locks a song into our minds faster and makes us remember it.
Break Rhett’s phrasing down a bit more, and what you might notice is that it’s largely regular. In fact, that first small melody of about three pitches is repeated three times in rhythmically regular one-bar packages, which then lead to a longer phrase to finish off the first round. In the chorus, we get three repetitions of a one-bar phrase again (“money maker”/ “heart breaker” / “college major”) and again (“soul saver” / “favourite flavour” / “now and later”). Bryan is a far worse violator in the phrase regularity department, in my mind, because his phrases in the chorus are two bars long and right on the beat – nothing jarring happening at all – and repeated almost exactly the same way three times before finishing off with a half-bar conclusion.
I suppose we shouldn’t expect a song called “Beat of the Music” to do anything but follow the title. Here we have four phrases in the chorus. The first three are exactly the same in pitch, delivery, rhythm, everything, with the exception of the one raised pitch in the second phrase on the word “know”. In case we weren’t inundated enough with repetition, the last half of the final phrase finishes the same way as the rest of them.
That’s enough analysis. I’m getting bored typing it, so I can’t imagine how you feel reading it. No doubt there’s value in repetition (I can hear the minimalists wholeheartedly agreeing with me over their fifth gin and tonic), and we can’t expect too much else from a three- or four-minute popular song. But, my point here is that this kind of even, regular phrasing and repetition is what makes new country boring, whereas when one takes a little bit of a chance in melodic delivery and composition, one jerks a song out of the realm of predictable (and I suppose sometimes radio-playable):
I’m not trying to knock down the Nashville songwriters who, whether they went through classical training or not, have figured out somewhat of a melodic formula for the songs they sell to Top 40 artists. I’m not necessarily trying to privilege songwriters in non-mainstream areas of country or other genres either, because they, too, often fall back on these compositional tricks. Nor am I trying to say “all new country is bad country”, because there are too many counter examples to generalize like that. I think, though, after we push aside the annoying references to tight jeans and long work days and the facilitating force of alcohol, we can actually find some real musical problems with the sound of contemporary Top 40 country.
I’m leaving lots of other things out of this discussion: instrumentation, vocal delivery, the sparser first verse that goes through a build to an explosive chorus, a tactic that plagues songs of every genre. I’m ignoring the costuming and posturing of the men on this list, the ill treatment of women through their costuming, and roles as one-dimensional objects of male desire that country fans reconcile by referring to the “romantic” lyrics. Yes, these are all problems with new country. But, what if we just asked songwriters to push the melodic boundaries a little and get out of the habit of repeating symmetrical phrases? While they may get people up and dancing, while they may help you remember the lyrics, after 20 minutes of it, the music really does all start to sound the same.