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Ready for the breakdown

Derek Walmsley

A study reported in The Guardian, suggesting an inverse relationship between complexity in pop and fluctuations in the stock market ("Beyoncé's new single spells economic doom") is the kind of thing that gives studying pop music a bad name. Apparently, Phil Maymin, New York University's professor of finance and risk engineering (the job title is intriguingly vague whether he's pro or anti risk) suggests that the prevalence of singles with "low 'beat variance'" often coincides with the stock market being due for a fall.

The most obvious flaw in this is that Beyonce's new single is actually, in a post-Timbaland style, actually pretty sophisticated. There's a lurking sub-base in there, an offbeat (and atonal) keyboard lick through the verse, and a Joey Beltram style Mentasm stab in the chorus. The dance moves it demands are the kind of elliptical hip swaying of the video, not some kind of skinhead stomp. It almost makes me wonder if R&B; might have some new ideas left after all; compare the track to the lumpen hiphop of 50 Cent and it's almost polyrhythmic. Anyway, who says what actually is the beat? In R&B; of the last decade, the rhythm had long ago started to provide the melodic, textural interest, and the off-beat melodies tend to move the hips as much as the beats.

Some of the references in the article don't quite ring true. How could a-ha have predicted the stock market turbulence of the mid-80s, when the song was made in 1984, and had already held an MTV music award for a year when the stock market crash finally happened in late 1987? The music of the UK recession of the early 90s was rave, then undergoing huge chart success, yet tracks like The Charly’s "Prodigy" or SL2’s "DJs Take Control" are as jagged and complex as anything King Crimson came up with. Well, compared to the disco hangover of 80s dance music, at least. In the UK, the soundtrack to the bleakest times of the late 70s/early 80s was "Ghost Town" by The Specials, surely one of the weirdest singles ever to get to number one.

Maymin argues that "If it's a steady beat, the same beat, no matter if it's fast or slow, that's a low beat variance song,". The majority of pop tracks probably fall into that category. Are plodding stadium ballads 'low variance'? The nervous, repetitive pulse of Joy Division or The Fall? Ragga? All are regular in a sense, but become irregular on an, erm, pretty regular basis. The more regular a track is, the more it has the ability to sound irregular. The regularity is what gives the leverage for a track to really throw your spine out of joint. That's the essential truth which gives pop music its motor. The idea that simplicity somehow reflects things grinding to a halt is one that you'd think we'd got way past by now.

There's probably some truth in the idea that some people yearn for a certain musical simplicity in turbulent economic times, but it's hard to argue there's a systematic dumbing down at work – certainly not on the level of rhythm. Becoming a teenager in the relatively comfortable late 80s, it was the stifling sense of social consensus in 80s pop music that I felt House music kicked against. The faux maturity of music like Phil Collins or Sting gave it a platform to show off a certain virtuosity, but in terms of surprise, it was deathly dull. Unpredictability was always heavily signposted, like a tom drum roll before a hackneyed key or tempo change. Compare it to my current listening, a selection of Jeff Mills DJ mixes as The Wizard from the late 80s, where Acid, House, hiphop and funk are thrown into the mix in breathtakingly inclusive fashion, a mix and match which completely dissolves generic boundaries (although the beats are kinda regular), and you start to realise that rhythmic regularity can be the engine room of pop, it gives it the essential torque necessary to mix cultural references together.

Beyond spotting one or two novelty singles in tough times, surely it's impossible to come up with some aggregate measure of how 'complex' the pop charts are, any more than we can measure if literature or art is currently in a 'regular' phase. Attempts to do so suggest pop can be measured as easily as blood pressure, which does the artform a disservice.

*** UPDATE 20/1/09 ***

Phil Maymin himself pointed out in correspondence that he actually hasn't analysed the Beyonce song – it seems The Guardian have suggested that fits with the theory, which seems rather shoddy journalism to me, although titillating, I guess (though pop music should be so much more...)

Maymin's data on 'beat variance' comes, it seems from a body called, a third party which provides data by this measure. It's not clear what this data is generally provided for – market research reasons, perhaps? In any case, the objectivity of their findings must be a little under question.