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Guided by Voices and the Problem with Pop

Yes, the term Pop has always had bad connotations with me. I suppose it began because the stuff that was called “pop” in the mid-70s was pretty syrupy and vacuous. In fact I find that most ’pop’ from any decade is pretty vacuous…

But as I dug in, every so often, I would find a few redeeming qualities in a pop song or band. To be sure the AM variety pop never made it past the radio for me. But there were the Beatles, who probably defined Pop at it’s best. Songs that were catchy but more than just aural cotton candy. They had some stuff to them. There were others in the ’60s, but they all seemed to be lost under the Beatles’ umbrella.

And then the ’70s came, and it was suckage again. Partridge Family, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” Bubble Gum, AM appropriate radio, clean production, orchestration, corporate rock, arena rock, yacht (?!??) rock, Doobie Brothers… Total reliance on well-worn formulas, and total lack of imagination. Blech… Turned my stomach! No wonder I only listened to ’60s music when I was in jr high.

But power pop, for a moment, at least stirred some interest. Some great power pop songs came out of the late ’70s punk movement, and while a few are enduring, there was a lot of filler there that just went to prove that songwriting is essential for a good pop record. Lots of bands had that killer song or two and some made their careers on their one hit. But in the end, the rest of the material didn’t hold up. And neither did my interest. Especially years later.

So songwriting. Is that is the missing link in so many artists’ careers? Yes. Yet, how do you describe a good song? Difficult to do, and it’s somewhat subjective. For me, a good song has to be memorable; in fact it has to ring in my ears for days after I hear it. It has to drive me insane when I’m not able to hear it. It has to pique my interest in one of many ways.

A great song doesn’t always hit me the first time, sometimes it’s the third or fourth listen. But, I also want to latch on to something more than the melody or the story of the lyrics. I need something more than the standard chord progression. I want a different approach to the arrangement. I want the unexpected chord change, the unexpected instrumentation, the unexpected dynamics. I want something more. And, I still want that memorable (but different!) melody to latch onto.

And this is where most pop fails catastrophically! Too much of it is formulaic. Even power pop had it’s cliches. Too many bands tried to rewrite their one hit. Too much of it is derivative. And nearly all songs are a minute (or more) too long for what they have to say. These observations/criticisms certainly apply to many other genres. Garage, (the modern version, in particularly) is a prime offender of lack-of-songwriting-itis, but is often saved by those drunken shows that everyone seems to remember (even though they were blitzed). But with pop, it’s so easy to fall short, and so hard to even get that one truly great song.

Mind you, there have been great songs, (or what I call great songs), though many of these bands never progressed beyond an album or two. The Flamin’ Groovies hit it right on with “Shake Some Action,” but for the most part, I haven’t been thrilled about the rest of their output. The Real Kids’ first album is a triumph, but so much of what came afterwards seemed to be chasing that landmark. The Records had “Starry Eyes,” Knack had “My Sharona.” Some local bands also hit the right chord in me for a song: Jigsaws’ “Luggage” and Tweeds’ “Underwater Girl” come immediately to mind. The Red Telephone also released a very good album, which has stuck with me. Maybe I’m not giving these bands their due, and I’m sure I’m missing some bands due to my “bias.” But there’s something more that I need before I will put a band on that same pedestal as most of you will put the Beatles. And these bands don’t quite get there.

Enter Guided by Voices. Wait a second, you say, GbV? They’re hardly a pop band. Hmmmm, listen close. They were not just a pop band, but a pop band extraordinaire. They did way more with their short snappy songs than the typical pop song does in three plus minutes. To be sure, most of the lyrics fall well outside the typical pop spectrum. The messy playing/production wouldn’t pass muster on AM radio. Their arrangements in no way approach a typical clean and simple pop classic. Their production is all over the map, and favors guitars over vocals in many instances. But they’re like the anti-pop pop band. The pop band for the 21st century in spite of themselves?

They had killer melodies. Their songs are insanely memorable. Their lyrics, I want to listen to and try to understand even if I can’t (and I don’t do lyrics). They drop chord changes that break all the rules, yet work perfectly and wow me every time. Their songs are short, get to the point, and end; leaving you wanting more. They were as exuberant as the best power pop; daring you to get up and dance while still pumping a fist. They took musical chances. And over their multi-album career, they grew and changed according to their muse, not the prevailing trends.

Consider the song “Over the Neptune” from their Propeller album. It begins with a chant as if you’re at an arena rock show. As the song starts, Robert Pollard starts off with an arpeggiated melody (of a major 7th chord, if you’re interested), which he repeats for the second stanza of the verse. But instead of repetition, the band continues their own descending chord progression which emphasizes the counterpoint. The refrain, when you get there, is more like a release from the tension they have built. And yet, they don’t beat this into the ground. They very quickly change moods and go into a slower section that could quite easily be a different song. This is what I call great songwriting!

GbV were a happy accident where someone drew a lot of inspiration from a variety of sources and tossed it back at us in a decidedly different manner. There are not too many bands like this, and for that they’ll be remembered, even if they didn’t think themselves a pop band.