TEDx Talk: Beyond the Millennial Whoop – Keep Pop Music Weird

By Patrick Metzger

In December of 2016 I gave a TEDx Talk at Koç University in Istanbul, and the video of that talk just went live today!

In my talk I discussed a number of issues that I write about on this blog, including my viral article on The Millennial Whoop.

I also felt it important to connect the issues of repetition in pop music to the broader issues of dominant cultures in a globalized world. I hope it comes across that this isn’t just a tangent—these phenomena are deeply connected. The way we think about, consume, and create art has deep implications for the way we live our lives, treat new and unfamiliar ideas, and keep ourselves (and our governments) in check.

With that—I hope you enjoy the video above! My deepest thanks go out to the incredible event organizers at Koç University who were welcoming, talented, and made my trip to Turkey one I’ll never forget.

Below is the full text of the talk with reference links, and you can find the slides for the talk on Slideshare at this link.

Full text of “Beyond the Millennial Whoop: Keep Pop Music Weird”

Pop music is awesome. It can make you feel invincible. As if just by dancing you’re channeling the whole planet’s positive energy. It fuels romances, heals heartbreak, and helps us through the growing pains of every phase of life.

There’s also an incredible power to pop music beyond these everyday influences. And it’s a kind of complicated power. Pop music can reach so many people across the planet so quickly that it both exemplifies culture and can change it in an instant. To be honest with you, pop music hasn’t been weird enough lately. With great power comes great responsibility.

I heard a song on the radio the other day—you might know it. It’s the one that goes, “Wa-oh-wa-oh.” You know that song? I guess many of you know that song, but I think some of you may be thinking of different songs.

Around 2012 I started noticing a pattern in popular music—these same two notes, the fifth and third notes of a major scale (in this case a C Major scale). So that’s do-re-mi-fa-solmi, 5-3, wa-oh, wa-oh, repeated in song after song that topped the record charts. There it was when Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg sang “California Gurls,” and there when Justin Bieber & Ludacris sang “Baby,” and again in “Good Time” by Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen. I decided it would be fun to keep track of where I heard it.

Jump ahead to this past August, 2016: I spent a Sunday afternoon and wrote an article on my blog, The Patterning, discussing the development of this phenomenon, which I dubbed “The Millennial Whoop.” A few of my friends shared the post. And then a few of their friends, and I was like, “cool!” Then I noticed some people were talking about the idea on message boards—like MetaFilter and Reddit. Then Quartz made a video about it. That video now has over 21 Million views on Facebook alone. SlateUSA TodayThe Guardian, the BBC…news outlets all over the world were talking about The Millennial Whoop.

It was clear that the idea immediately resonated with people—enough for it to go viral in a global way. Once you hear it, you can’t un-hear it. It’s the ultimate ear worm—two notes that can’t be owned by anyone and are as easy to sing as “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel” or “Ring around the rosy.” Using these two notes in this particular way, this “wah-oh-wah-oh” has just exploded over pop music, especially in the last 10 years. With the help of readers all over the world, I’ve catalogued over 50 songs that use the Millennial Whoop.

Music is full of common themes. From the Bo Diddley beat of rock music to the Amen Break of Drum’n’Bass, musicians use these familiar hooks to bring us back to a place of comfort where we feel like we know what’s going on. We may even get the sense that, “Hey, I’ve heard this song before,” even if we haven’t. This happens with rhythms and it happens with melodies.

Folk music, especially, has a tendency to borrow melodies. Kirby Ferguson pointed this out in his TED Talk, “Embrace the Remix,” where he discussed how Bob Dylan borrowed from Woody Guthrie who borrowed from old, old folk tunes, that were probably ripping something else off, and how really everything is a remix. But this happens in pop music all the time as well. Keith Hopkin created a great site called ThatSongSoundsLike.com, dedicated to pointing out the similarities between melodies, especially in pop songs, like Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” or the 11 other songs that use the same melody.

Chord progressions also get used and reused from one song to another. You can think about the 12 bar blues or most of your favorite songs. If you’re one of the 30 million people who saw the Axis of Awesome’s viral video, “4 Chords,” then you know just how many songs use that I-V-vi-IV chord progression. And if you’re one of the 13 million people who saw Rob Paravonian’s “Pachelbel Rant,” which used essentially the same idea but 5 years earlier, you know that viral YouTube videos also imitate and build off of one another.

These familiar patterns are the reason entire mediums exist—like the mashup. The long traditions of European classical harmony and counterpoint have been solidifying these structures for hundreds of years to the point where now we can interlock any number of songs and create an entirely new musical experience that gives us a sense of timelessness.

Fans of mediums like the mashup see this as a beautiful new way of bridging sonic worlds across time and space that were previously considered to exist only in isolated genres. Detractors say more and more, every song you hear sounds exactly the same. Both perspectives are right.

In fact, the formula for pop music has gotten so prescribed that producing a hit song is more akin to manufacturing medical products than to our classic idea of a wistful young songwriter with a guitar gazing dreamily out at the mountains. John Seabrook wrote about this phenomenon in a book about he called The Song Machine where he discusses music studios like The Hit Factory and producers like Dr. Luke, examining how they rearrange song elements into a kind of musical recipe geared to illicit a specific neurochemical response from listeners. We’ve entered an age where the music industry, like so many other businesses, is following the factory model of the assembly line.

“But Patrick,” I hear you say, “I love these songs! You’re yucking my yum and spoiling my favorite things. Don’t be a hater.” To that I say: I love them too. I really could listen to Tove Lo’s song “Habits” every weekend for…at least the rest of my 20’s. But it does have a Millennial Whoop in it. It’s important to remember these songs were engineered so that we would love them. That might not make them any less awesome, but it does make them incredibly complex products of a capitalist society.

At first glance, globalization seems to have made a number of utopian visions into a reality. There’s a certain kind of beauty to the idea of people from all over the world bonding over a shared love of “Gangnam Style.” The fact that many people in Malaysia can speak to people in Ghana using English as a common language—from a practical standpoint, that’s pretty incredible. But considering the legacy of dominance, and power struggles, and colonization that led to this situation, it’s hard to feel totally comfortable with this state of affairs.

In China, for instance, the trend toward Mandarin and away from Cantonese is a particularly insidious example of state control that minimizes the voices of local cultures. That utopian vision of all people speaking a common language is somewhat dampened by the reality of a centralized government demanding that local TV stations broadcast only in Mandarin.

We have to ask ourselves: What is lost when everything is so predictable that nothing feels unique or startling or strange?

Really it comes down to the basic fact that diverse systems are more resilient. Systems without diversity are more likely to fail. This is a principle that’s been shown time and again in everything from the ecological sciences to the world of finance. A good investment portfolio has diversified assets to minimize risk. An ecosystem has biodiversity or it will collapse into a desert. A good company, organization, or community welcomes people from diverse backgrounds because they provide new expertise, new perspective—they question the status quo.

This is why it’s important to have checks and balances within government, and it’s why whistleblowers and those who dissent play such a critical role in a democracy. It’s why farming practices like permaculture are desperately working to counteract the disastrous effects of monocropping corn and soy all over the world. It’s why the Internet and all the most durable communication systems are built on the model of networks rather than centralized information hubs.

You don’t want a single point of failure. You want a broad variety of interlocking contributions that support one another.

When it comes to music, when we churn everything through the song machine, we lose sight of virtuosity, the wild genius at the heart of musical innovation. We diminish folk traditions from all over the world that don’t conform to this standard model. We lose the balafon, the banjo, the oud, and the saz. We lose the very thing that makes music human.

Computers can now use machine learning algorithms, neural networks, and other rule-based systems to imitate the great composersimprovise jazz, and even develop their own sense of musical style.

If we’re comfortable with a predictable pastiche of musical tropes, why not just let the actual machines do the songwriting?

Music is one of the most expressive mediums humans have. It has the potential to be rich with emotion, layered with complex mathematical and logical structures, worded in such a way as to make us question the very fabric of reality, let alone the fabric of our societies. When we neutralize and codify and restrict the possibilities of music, we limit our own possibilities as a species.

We need to embrace the weird. Weird is human. Weird is what makes art art. There is strength in diversity. There is beauty in the strange. And there is power in the weird.

Thank you.

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