'Switched On Pop' Podcast Turns Accessible Music Analysis Into A New Book

Dec 26, 2019
Originally published on December 26, 2019 8:00 pm

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," Harding 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.

NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke with Sloan and Harding about a few of those concepts and the music that accompanies them, including songs by Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift and Luis Fonsi.


Interview Highlights

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.

Dave Blanchard and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Cyrena Touros adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Charlie Harding and Nate Sloan used to be snobby about pop music. Then, on a road trip, they heard this earworm by Carly Rae Jepsen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME MAYBE")

CARLY RAE JEPSEN: (Singing) I threw a wish in a well. Don't ask me. I'll never tell. I looked at you as it fell, and now you're in my way.

CHARLIE HARDING: It was this amazing aha moment.

SHAPIRO: Charlie's a songwriter. Nate's a musicologist. And so they leaned into their backgrounds to try to understand the craft of the song.

HARDING: I think by explaining some of these musical concepts, all of a sudden, I was able to hear the song in a way that I wasn't able to beforehand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME MAYBE")

JEPSEN: (Singing) Hey. I just met you, and this is crazy. But here's my number.

SHAPIRO: 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 explains a basic principle of music through one omnipresent song. When they came into our studio, I asked Nate, why was "Call Me Maybe" the song that broke through their snobbery?

NATE SLOAN: It's perfectly constructed to give you this feeling of sort of nervous, suspended animation in the act of asking someone out. We just came away astonished at the kind of complexity and craft.

SHAPIRO: Suspended animation in the act of asking someone out, complexity - these are not words that one would associate with this earworm. Explain what you mean.

SLOAN: I think the chorus of the song really captures a lot of the musical excellence here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME MAYBE")

JEPSEN: (Singing) Hey. I just met you, and this is crazy.

SLOAN: 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.

SHAPIRO: If we're counting one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one...

SLOAN: Hey.

SHAPIRO: She's not saying hey on the one. She's saying hey on the two.

SLOAN: Exactly, yeah.

SHAPIRO: And what does that do?

SLOAN: 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 sort of nervous. Like, she's almost working up her courage to say this thing, to say, hey; this is crazy, but call me maybe.

SHAPIRO: The book starts with simple building blocks of music - melody, harmony, tempo - and it moves its way through the more complex stuff. One of the first things you talk about is kind of a sonic signature that somebody can use to identify themselves.

SLOAN: Yeah. This is something you hear in classical music. For instance, the composer Bach created this little signature based on the initials of his name - B, A, C and then H in German was B natural. So B is the B flat, the A is an A, the C is a C and the H is a B natural.

SHAPIRO: I know you've got a keyboard there. Can you show us what you mean?

SLOAN: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Not an obvious melodic line.

(LAUGHTER)

SLOAN: Kind of a funky little signature - but you can find that in his compositions, including one of his most well-known ones, "The Art Of The Fugue."

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAUDIO COLOMBO PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "DIE KUNST DER FUGE, BWV 1080: FUGA A TRE SOGGETTI")

SLOAN: There it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAUDIO COLOMBO PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "DIE KUNST DER FUGE, BWV 1080: FUGA A TRE SOGGETTI")

SLOAN: This is actually something you can also locate in the oeuvre of a modern pop master, Taylor Swift.

SHAPIRO: Not the exact same sequence of notes, but also a sonic signature.

SLOAN: Exactly. There's this three-note melodic motive that we like to call the tea drop because it descends.

SHAPIRO: This is your name for it?

SLOAN: Yeah, this is our name. And it sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SLOAN: So you can hear it on an early track like "Mean" right on the lyric, I can't sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEAN")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Drunk and grumbling on about how I can't sing.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

SLOAN: A crystalline example of the tea drop.

SHAPIRO: And where else does it come in?

SLOAN: It comes up in one of her biggest hits, "You Belong With Me"...

SHAPIRO: Oh, sure.

SLOAN: ...Right at the sort of pinnacle moment of the song where she says, you belong with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU BELONG WITH ME")

SWIFT: (Singing) You belong with me.

SHAPIRO: And there's even more than just those two. Like, it's in "State Of Grace"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATE OF GRACE")

SWIFT: (Singing) Busy lives and all we know...

SHAPIRO: ..."Welcome To New York"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO NEW YORK")

SWIFT: (Singing) I could dance to this beat forevermore.

SHAPIRO: Some people who don't like pop music might dismiss this as lazy songwriting. You say no. It's a really advanced move.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO NEW YORK")

SWIFT: (Singing) The lights are so bright, but they never blind me.

HARDING: Yeah, this is Charlie. I think that what she's showing here is that she has command over her song. You know, she's someone who's constantly criticized for - does she write her music? And we think these are often very gendered criticisms. And 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.

SHAPIRO: Let's conclude by looking at one of the most popular pop songs of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPACITO")

LUIS FONSI: (Singing in Spanish).

HARDING: That moment is so perfect.

SHAPIRO: You mean the word despacito the first time he sings it?

HARDING: Yes, right when Luis Fonsi sings the word despacito. Now, I'm not a Spanish speaker, but I do know that despacito means slowly. And as he sings the word, the song actually gets slower.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPACITO")

FONSI: (Singing) Despacito.

HARDING: What he's doing there is a perfect example of what we call text painting, where what's happening in the lyric and music are aligned to bring greater meaning to the song.

SHAPIRO: Is this a real music theory term? This is not like the tea drop that you invented.

SLOAN: Oh, yeah. This goes back to the Middle Ages. I mean, you can find the 12th century troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn and his composition "Can Vei La Lauzeta Mover," which means...

SHAPIRO: Can we listen to that?

SLOAN: Yeah. Let's spin it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN VEI LA LAUZETA MOVER")

DUO ENSSLE-LAMPRECHT: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: OK, so how is he doing the same thing that Luis Fonsi is doing centuries later in "Despacito?"

SLOAN: Sure. So "Can Vei La Lauzeta Mover" is, like, Old French for "When The Lark Beats Its Wings." And right on the word mover, Bernart de Ventadorn kind of shakes his voice almost like a fluttering bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN VEI LA LAUZETA MOVER")

DUO ENSSLE-LAMPRECHT: (Singing in non-English language).

SLOAN: So this is the same idea of text painting, making the lyrical meaning apparent in your musical choices. And then we can flash forward to 2016. Luis Fonsi's doing something very similar. He takes the meaning of that word, despacito, and actually puts it into the music, slowing it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPACITO")

FONSI: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: In the end, what do you think studying pop music in this way can offer us?

SLOAN: You know, in the world of contemporary music, it still seems that we're allowed to say, hey; I like this music, but that music is bad. And I think what we're trying to do with both the show and 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. Maybe that music is serving someone. It has something to say. It is worthy in its own right. And really, if when - 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.

HARDING: 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 an hour through their ears. I think that's what we're trying to do...

SHAPIRO: Listen their playlists.

HARDING: ...In this book. Yeah, exactly. Listen to their playlist.

SHAPIRO: Well, Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding, thank you for giving us an excuse to get these songs stuck in our listeners' ears.

SLOAN: Any time.

HARDING: This has been so much fun.

SHAPIRO: They are hosts of the podcast and now authors of the new book "Switched On Pop: How Popular Music Works And Why It Matters."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU BELONG WITH ME")

SWIFT: (Singing) You belong with me. Standing by and waiting by your back door all this time, how could you not know, baby? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.