Pop Music In Disguise

I have met many people in my life who self-identify as metal heads. It’s rare to encounter another in the wild, so this leads to excitement, and hope that the person shares similar music tastes to my own. So I ask them, well what bands are your favorites? Too often I hear these names:

Disturbed

Linkin Park

Five Finger Death Punch

Aveneged Sevenfold

Radio music.

Hmmm, metalhead, “you keep saying that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

There isn’t anything wrong with liking those bands, they are incredibly popular for a reason. Their music is angry, yet approachable, heavy, yet melodic, and sticks to a familiar song structure. In other words, its easy to like these bands. They stray just far enough from pop music style that its edgy to listen to it, but not jarringly different enough to make a listener uncomfortable.

That is why I cannot relate my music tastes with fans of these hard rock radio metal bands. It’s not that the bands are inherently bad (although I think they suck), it’s the reason that people like it. It’s angry, heavy music, but it’s still pop music in disguise.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09LTT0xwdfw

A radio metal classic, this song was and is wildly successful. We have all done our best “UUUWAH AH AH AH” impression every time this song comes on. Its fun, its heavy, and it has a memorable chorus. A little in-depth look reveals it’s the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure that every Taylor Swift or Nicki Minaj song has, but this is a different style than those songs. The rock band instrumentation, the harsh vocals, and the chugging guitar lines set it apart from the likes of the dance floor hits. The lyric themes are also drastically different, they are about self-loathing and a deep-seated depression that becomes unbridled anger with the state of life (you’ve woken up the demon in me; Come on get down with the sickness). I bet most people have never felt quite this irate, but everyone has been mad about something. Those of us who find themselves angry more often than not can relate with what the vocalist is saying, the lyrics are heavy with emotion, but that’s not the only thing that makes it heavy.

There is a particular harmonic interval that is used a lot in this song (guitar riff during chorus), the half step, specifically between E (the root) an F natural (an accidental, meaning a note out of the key signature). Most of the guitar work uses these two notes, alternating in different rhythmic ways throughout the tune. This interval is called a diminished second, which is a dissonant interval. This dissonance is what makes the guitar riff sound “heavy”. Almost every modern era pop style song is in a minor key, because minor keys make it easier to portray strong emotions music. This takes the minor key just a step farther, or rather, a half step farther. This creates a new type of emotion contained in the music, one that is significantly different. That’s what makes Disturbed’s music sound angry, in addition to the lyrics. Add in the use of double kick drum and the pieces all come together.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEEasR7hVhA

In the opening riff of this song, you can hear the same interval (in a different key) as it builds into the first verse. It gives the same edgy, dissonant feel to drive the emotion of the song before the first verse. Also notice the kick-snare drum pattern during the chorus. We talked a little about harmonics, now lets talk more about what makes the rhythms sound just a little different from the norm.

There is a natural flow to the kick snare pattern that has caused it to nearly monopolize every genre of rock and even some electronica. Dubstep is known for its half time, kick snare feel, drum and bass is similar but faster, but its the other drums that make of the nuances that set the genres apart.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPf0YbXqDm0

what makes it funk is the high-hat cymbal on the off beats, in between the kick-snare. It’s really soft in the mix, but just noticeable enough to give it the funky bounce.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJtDXIazrMo

This one has an even more subdivided rhythmic pattern, if we look at each beat as a series of 4 sixteenth notes its like this: kick-__-__-kick Snare-__-kick-__ __-kick-_-Snare. The 3rd downbeat of the measure doesn’t actually kick on the downbeat, it kicks on the upbeat, which is just a small difference from the main pattern, but it completely changes the groove.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DelhLppPSxY

This song has a really straightforward hard rock kick-snare pattern. the difference is the ride cymbal. Listen carefully and you can hear it playing eighth notes, subdividing up each measure. This helps drive the beat, making it sound more aggressive, or should i say ‘heavy’.

I have been avoiding the most obvious thing about music that people listen for: the vocals. As humans, naturally the thing that stands out in music is the persons voice. Since a majority of the population never takes a single music class and an even smaller percentage takes a music theory class, a listener will mostly notice the one thing that their brain can actually understand.

Going back to the first example, Down With The Sickness, there is a distinct character to the singer’s voice that is recognizable instantly by any fan of the group. The verse is more melancholy and lyrical, but during the chorus, he adds this certain harshness to his voice which makes it sound as if he is yelling, while still retaining its harmonic content. I don’t like disturbed, but I have to admit it is a cool skill to be able to hold a melody while also having a more throaty growling sound to it.

But it HAS a melody. It sounds angry, like he’s shouting, but it still has a melody, like he is singing. This is the what makes Disturbed’s music so popular and like-able.. His lyrics are articulate and clear, unlike the vocalist of Aeon. Their fans want angry, edgy music, but they really want to be able to sing-along because otherwise its TOO FAR from the pop music style. It’s just a little different, but it changes the overall sound.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3u22OYqFGo

How did Iggy Azalea become so popular? The attitude. I don’t mean her actual attitude, pop artists are expected to be tact and loving of their fans, I mean the attitude in her voice. Her whole style is I.D.G.A.F. This song is also an angry song. It’s not just tee lyrics that give this away, its the way she says them. The song is completely a run of the mill pop formula song, but the harsh nature of her delivery of the lyrics puts the feel into them (even though they are terrible). Disturbed and Iggy are completely different styles of music, but they both have a distinct vocal style that sets them apart, even if it’s just slightly different.

These ‘radio metal’ bands aren’t all that different from the pop music. They take the same minor keys, and change it a little. They take the same base rhythm, and add to a little. They take the same vocal styles, and give it a little character. All of these small differences make the music sound completely different, but in the end, it’s very similar. It’s within the comfort zone. We grow up in a world engulfed by the music that is played on the radio. The music that is played on the radio has to conform to specific rules in order to have a broad audience, because it has sounded this way for decades. The fans of this music want to like heavy music, but they also don’t want to leave this comfort zone. They really just like pop music in disguise.

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