Burning Question: What can we learn from Britney and Madonna?

Students have always loved popular music, and in recent decades music scholars have been giving it more serious attention. Old dichotomies like highbrow-lowbrow are fading as groups like the Beatles enter the musical canon. Is this simply a debasing of culture, or is there value in studying pop? We asked Assistant Professor of Music Victoria Malawey.

It's wrong to assume that mass appeal and musical excellence are mutually exclusive. Numerous pop stars produce music that is just as worthy of analytic attention as centuries-old masterpieces, and many musical techniques are ubiquitous in Western tonal music--regardless of style.

Consider the hit "Bills, Bills, Bills," by the now disbanded pop singing group Destiny's Child. The song uses a common chord progression based on a descending bass line that has been associated with lament for centuries. Monteverdi used it, in his "Lamento della Ninfa." So did Purcell, in Dido and Aeneas; and Beethoven, in the Waldstein Sonata.

Variants on this bass line can also be found in songs by the Eagles, Lenny Kravitz, Jim Croce, and Madonna. The styles differ drastically, but the songs share this musical construct, and in most cases it produces a similar emotional effect.

Even some of the most sophisticated musical structures are apparent in many pop songs. A highly complex rhythmic phenomenon called "metric modulation" is used in works by American composer Elliott Carter, who coined the term, but also in several Beatles songs ("Bungalow Bill" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds") and a song by Björk ("Desired Constellation"). Again, the difference between "classical" and "popular" has less to do with the degree of musical complexity than with stylistic traits.

One obvious advantage of adding popular music to the mix of what we study is that students identify with and search for meanings in it. It speaks more directly to them than other genres. Avid listeners, they talk about popular music in the hallways, on Middle Path, in and out of class.

Take the recent release of Radiohead's In Rainbows, which caught the attention of the media for its unorthodox distribution. (Consumers may purchase the album electronically on the Internet directly from the band--bypassing the traditional record companies--for whatever price they feel is fair). Even before the album was released, students in my introductory music theory class asked me, "Professor, have you pre-ordered the new Radiohead album? How much did you pay for it?"

Once it was released, we discussed its merits, as well as the economic implications of the band's marketing strategy and how the music relates to topics we were studying in the class. In a more advanced class, I brought in the opening track of the album, "15 Step," as an example of the dorian mode and an asymmetrical composite meter.

Popular music also provides a lens through which we can view cultural issues that arise in some of the courses we teach. Popular musicians have long been offering commentaries on the world, politics, and social questions. Many artists and bands--Björk, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, The Dixie Chicks, Green Day, to name a few--have presented such messages in ways that resonate with our students.

When I teach "Women and Music," for example, we take the music of transgender artists such as Lucas Silveira (of the Cliks) and Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) as a starting point for understanding cultural constructions of gender. We study k.d. lang's video of Cole Porter's "So in Love" (released as part of the AIDS benefit Red, Hot and Blue) to better understand the profound effects of loss due to terminal disease. We also examine the music of Tori Amos, to explore issues surrounding body image, abuse, and gender.

Some female pop artists, moreover, provide particularly good examples of how different types of femininity can be constructed. Britney Spears and Madonna often project sexualized personas in ways that serve, ironically, to empower themselves. Artists like Queen Latifah and Beyoncé consciously embody autonomy and self-assertion. Others, including Ani DiFranco, Courtney Love, and Annie Lennox, subvert conventional notions of what femininity can be. Many of these artists' songs demand scholarly attention because of their socio-cultural meanings.

Ultimately, my students' (and my) passion for pop shapes how and what I teach. And my teaching informs my research, which includes musical analysis and transcription of pop songs. As I share my findings with students, they reciprocate by introducing me to songs and artists I have not heard before. This exchange influences the scholarly work I do and then, in the end, feeds back into the classroom.

At the end of the day, teaching music that students already enjoy is a no-brainer. As Duke Ellington said, "If it sounds good, it is good." Every genre--from country to rock, from jazz to classical--offers music that "sounds good" from which everyone can learn.

Victoria Malawey teaches music theory and "Musical Structure and Analysis," as well as "Basic Musicianship" and "Women and Music." She did her graduate work at the prestigious conservatory at Indiana University, where her master's thesis was on Brahms and her doctoral dissertation on Björk.

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