August 2021

Arts & Letters

Tip of the pops: ‘This Is Pop’ and ‘Song Exploder’

By Anwen Crawford

Suzanne Ciani with a Buchla 200 synthesiser, New York, 1974. Photograph by Alix Jeffrey

Two Netflix documentary series only manage to skim the surface of pop music history

Electronic musician, composer and sound designer Suzanne Ciani appeared on The David Letterman Show, Letterman’s short-lived foray into morning television, on August 14, 1980. Ciani was billed in the show’s opening credits as a “voice distorter”, due to her experimental work with a combination of vocoder and other signal-processing equipment. She brought her “Voice Box”, as she called it, onto Letterman’s show, nested in a hefty flight case, along with a computer and her Prophet-5 analog synthesiser – a handsome and distinctive instrument with a five-octave keyboard above which sits an array of adjustable filters and oscillators, all housed inside a hardwood frame. (Expect to pay around $10,000 today for a Prophet-5 of early 1980s vintage; they’re the synthesiser equivalent of an Eames chair.)

The resulting live TV segment, preserved for the contemporary viewer on Ciani’s own YouTube channel, was benign chaos. Letterman’s dry mockery of Ciani’s methods and equipment – “Couple of hundred thousand dollars so you can sound stupid in your own home,” he deadpans – is scuppered by her playful manipulation of his voice; the studio audience laughs as Letterman finds his jokes broken up and strewn through the air in clownish echo of himself. Right at the end, Ciani has the house band join her in playing one of her own compositions, and for an all-too-brief and un-joking moment the Letterman set is bathed in glorious, prismatic sound – then there’s a cut to a commercial break. We can only guess as to what an unsuspecting TV viewer in 1980, tuning in over their cornflakes, would have made of it all, but I like to imagine that somewhere out there an aspiring teenage experimentalist gained their first glimpse of what might be possible in their music or their life.

Ciani is more widely recognised now for her innovations in electronic music than she was then, which may account for why her Letterman segment is highlighted, in turn, in a new Netflix documentary series, This Is Pop, though I was still surprised to see her there. She surfaces in the second and most interesting of This Is Pop’s eight episodes, which focuses on the contemporary phenomenon of Autotune, but also delves back into the history of vocal recording and processing before that plug-in existed. One interviewee makes the point, though not unkindly, that in contrast to modern recording techniques, producers of the past aimed to capture a vocal performance in one go if they could. To illustrate the point, a snatch of David Bowie’s famous video for “Life on Mars” lights up the screen like a shooting star. He was renowned as a one-take wonder.

But this moment – and Ciani’s – is among the few in This Is Pop with any visual dazzle. I wouldn’t think that it was possible to make a visually uninteresting documentary about pop music, had I not watched so many that were so. How does it happen? Pop has always been a visual as much as an audio form, and yet so many directors, I guess because it is cheaper, opt for sit-down interviews that convey nothing of pop’s kinetic or erotic energies, let alone its richness as a form of social history.

Nor is this situation improved by the kind of gestures – clapperboard shots, off-camera interviewer’s voices, cutesy animated graphics – prevalent in mainstream documentary today: gestures meant to flatter viewers by hinting at our sophistication (Ah yes, we nod, a documentary is a construction!) but which only seem banal and condescending. While a show about pop history aimed at 10-year-olds is a great idea, This Is Pop treats its viewers in the way children themselves hate to be treated, as simple-minded. The chirpy, credulous tone is familiar from NPR podcasts – and the many imitators of that North American style – where no topic is too large to not be broken down into gobbets of light entertainment. God forbid that we should catch within these shows the slightest whiff of the pedagogical, or be presumed to think complexly.

“Pop” in This Is Pop’s title is more indicative of genre than of popular music taken as a whole, and ­episodes cover, among other things, the contribution of ­Swedish songwriters and producers to English-language hits, the mid-’90s moment of Britpop, the efficacy of protest songs, and country performers who’ve crossed over to the mainstream charts. It’s a grab bag of ­subjects that each bear some relationship to current musical trends, although some of these connections are more tenuous than others: I don’t hear the influence of Blur’s incandescently awful “Country House”, the commercial apex of Britpop, anywhere in today’s charts, which is for the best.

The deep and reflexive US bias of This Is Pop means that the weakest episodes are the ones about foreigners: the Swedes (so quirky! so blond!) on the one hand, and the British (they drink tea, Rule Britannia) on the other. After watching This Is Pop, I feel I can declare with confidence that Swedish music producers are uncharismatic to a man (and they are almost all men). But I am not more enlightened as to why Sweden, in particular, should turn out so many songwriters with a sharkish ability to decimate their competitors in the charts. I dimly recall from a different documentary that it has to do with the country’s rigorous education system, which includes compulsory music lessons for all schoolchildren, but I can’t be sure. As for the Brits, well, Britpop was so cartoonishly reductive in its representation of Britishness that it hardly deserves more rigorous treatment than it receives here, unless it’s to differentiate, in a way this show doesn’t, the scene’s has-beens from the bands that were unfairly tarnished by the label. Justice for Suede! (I will die on this hill.)

Netflix does slightly better with another of its current music documentary shows, Song Exploder, which has now had two short seasons of four 25-minute episodes. Hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, Song Exploder is an adaptation of his long-running and popular podcast of the same name, and it has a simple and repeatable format: each episode features one songwriter, or writers, speaking in detail about how they made one song. Songs examined in the course of these two seasons include classics (REM’s “Losing My Religion”), contemporary hits (Dua Lipa’s “Love Again”) and a number from the musical Hamilton (“Wait For It”). The sit-down interview remains at the heart of Song Exploder, but the show is more elegantly – and expensively – edited and produced than This Is Pop. Talking heads are interspersed with illustrative archival footage and concert clips, and the show’s magic ingredient is Hirway’s consistent access to original studio tapes. We get to hear each instrument as it was recorded.

But the show’s focus on songwriters and song production is also its limitation. Hirway’s interviews are always deferential; no contemporary music journalist gets past a record company’s PR wall – or gets their hands on master tapes – if there’s a suspicion they won’t stick to the script. Tonally, the show is in line with a rash of recent, personality-focused documentaries, several of which are on Netflix – such as Miss Americana, about Taylor Swift, or Beyoncé’s Homecoming – which promise “intimate” insights into a musician’s life and process, but are highly controlled exercises in branding. “My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good,” Swift says at the outset of Miss Americana, and the statement is revealing in a way that I doubt she intended. She is telling us she won’t be candid. (Do I blame Swift for that? Not especially. The need to be thought of as good, whether we do good or not, is a deep-rooted human desire, exacerbated for most of us now by being online all the time, and thus constantly subjected to a form of peer assessment. Though I still think it’s a funny old world we’ve ended up in when even pop musicians want to be as clean as saints.)

The other shortcoming built into Song Exploder’s format is that each songwriter tells much the same story about the genesis of their song: “I was just fiddling around,” they inevitably report. And while it’s reassuring to know that the creative process is more or less the same for everyone, beginning in play before becoming earnest toil, this doesn’t really take us further in our understanding of how or why certain songs speak to our collective conscience, our historical mood, long in advance of that history being chronicled, or even expressed, elsewhere.

In search of something like a grand narrative, in part because I wanted to know whether a narrative approach to pop history retains any use or appeal, I went looking online for episodes of the BBC series Walk On By: The Story of Popular Song, which was made in 2001. I had remembered this show as being substantive, and it is: the first episode alone, “From Russia With Love”, discusses the contribution of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and other songwriters of European Jewish heritage to the distinctly New York invention of Tin Pan Alley, as well as the ugly history of blackface minstrelsy, and the way these two forms of popular entertainment began to be melded on Broadway in musicals such as Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat, first staged in 1927. But I was brought up very short by two white interviewees using the N-word without compunction, including one, a music historian, who lamented that, due to “political correctness”, the word has been removed from the Show Boat songbook, and probably forever.

I had not remembered this part of the show, and I was ashamed at my selective memory and gladdened that some things about the telling of popular music history – and who tells it – have changed for the better, and permanently. The history of pop is still there to be told, and in more sophisticated ways than shows like This Is Pop can manage, but also minus the prerogative of tellers who know nothing of the depths that they speak into.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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