Noël Coward was so right that his words have become a cliché: it is indeed extraordinary how potent cheap music can be. Its potency, however, is not innate. Amanda Prynne, from Coward’s Private Lives, would not have been especially struck by ‘Some day I’ll Find You’ had it been playing on a wireless in a shop; its impact came from hearing it as she again encountered her ex-husband. For cheap music to be potent, context is everything. Without a wider meaning, a cheap little pop song is just notes and chords. With meaning, the most throwaway frippery can become an object of fascination.
That much becomes evident listening to an array of podcasts that have considered songs as individual artefacts, rather than bricks in the wall of an artist’s career. The long-running Song Exploder series takes one song at a time, and offers what are in effect monologues by the makers of those songs about how they came to pass. When it’s a song you care about, it’s fabulous — I had shivers listening to Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koening talking about ‘Harmony Hall’, my favourite track of last year, and demonstrating how it had evolved from him first dreaming up a single melodic phrase. When it’s a song you don’t care about, though, it’s nothing: for me, at least, hearing about the bass tones on ‘Money Machine’ by 100 gecs holds the same level of excitement as reading the instruction manual of a Black+Decker angle grinder.
But the worst of songs — ones so unbearable that reading the instruction manual of a Black+Decker angle grinder promises substantially more pleasure than listening to them again — come to life when located within wider culture. The shining example of that is the Wind of Change podcast — discussed in these pages last week — in which the Scorpions’ 1991 hit of that name is pondered across eight episodes in the context of the CIA’s use of pop-cultural soft power during the Cold War.
It is, of course, possible that you don’t want to devote the best part of eight hours to learning all about a mediocre power ballad, no matter how fascinating the details. Two other podcasts, though, offer single-episode tales of single songs that are marvels of storytelling. Earlier this spring, the Reply All series ran an episode called ‘The Case of the Missing Hit’ that was, according to some reviewers, the perfect podcast. The song at the heart of it was one that a single listener had rattling around his head for more than 20 years, believing it to have been a hit. The only problem was that no one he knew had ever heard it. The Reply All team set about identifying it — consulting music writers, musicians, producers, and assembling a full band to record the song as the listener remembered it. Along the way, the nature of memory, the workings of the music industry at a time when it was flush with money, musical trends, and the precise moment at which it was hip for pop writers to mention Bettie Page were discussed. It is a marvel.
Almost as good was May’s edition of Slate’s Decoder Ring podcast, which discussed one of the most reviled songs of the 21st century. Rebecca Black was 13 when, in 2011, her mother paid a third-rate production house called ARK Music several thousand dollars to help her make a single and a video. The song, ‘Friday’, was awful, and so was the video. So awful were they that they travelled the world via YouTube, and Black became the object of vicious online mockery, the epitome of talentlessness.
The wider story, though, was sadder. The ARK Music Factory was the creation of Patrice Wilson, a Nigerian immigrant in California, who was himself trying to find any way to break into the music business. Black wasn’t a spoilt rich kid but the daughter of a Hispanic single mother who paid for the video in the hope that it would give the girl a head start when she applied to college to study music. Black herself was devastated by what happened to her, and speaks about it with charm and eloquence. You listen to these people, none of them rich or famous, just trying to achieve one small thing, and curse the online world that turned them into pariahs. ‘Friday’ became the most potent piece of cheap music ever recorded, and no one even liked it.