Something interesting is happening in pop music right now. But to talk about it, I first have to talk about academic music—yes, academic music—for just a moment. But feel free to skip to the bit about Janelle Monae and Daft Punk if you like.
When I was a composition student at the University of Michigan about ten years ago, I was very excited about polystylism and eclecticism. Within that department, there was a very explicit and rather self-conscious effort to bring together “high” and “low” forms of music, and to try and put them on more of an equal footing. The result was a kind of scattershot invocation of a variety of musical influences and references, careening unpredictably from style to style like a bumper car in a centrifuge. This kind of music could be incredibly exhilarating or extremely frustrating, sometimes both at the same time, but at the time I loved it. William Bolcom was the composer on faculty most engaged with this kind of thing, but it was definitely on everyone’s mind.
Now, polystylism seems almost like a historical footnote. Even some of the composers most commonly associated with the movement, like Alfred Schnittke, turned away from it in their late careers. In fact I’m not sure it even qualifies as a “movement” so much as a set of disconnected impulses that happened to roughly coincide in time—a case of convergent evolution that is now on the brink of extinction.
To be sure, eclecticism is alive and well, but in different forms. In new music now, you’re more likely to see a more specific kind of eclecticism, where influences and references are carefully selected rather than sprayed with a machine gun. In general, this seems like a smarter and more successful tactic, one that makes it far easier for a composer to develop a distinctive voice (that ever-valuable commodity).
But I think there are also deeper, thornier issues behind the near-disappearance of polystylism. For one thing, I don’t think it was ever very effective at doing the cultural work it purported to accomplish. Rather than erasing or blurring distinctions between “high” and “low” art, instead the jarring juxtaposition of styles often seemed to reinforce these boundaries. In theory, it was a well-meaning attempt to move away from the idea of the composer as a figure who stands outside of pop culture. But in practice, the facile and entitled way composers often invoked pop culture cemented this outsider status. In other words, all styles (regardless of cultural origin) were seen as fair game for the (usually white, male, highly educated) composer to make use of, comment on, modify, and/or judge. (For better or worse, the finale of Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience has always been the quintessential example of this for me. Sure, ending your magnum opus with a reggae song is a brilliantly gutsy move, in a way. But that doesn’t change the fact that, in the end, it’s not a very good reggae song.)
Okay, I’m going to talk about pop music now!
I want to contrast this academic, problematic kind of polystylism with the kind of polystylism that is happening in pop music today (though I don’t think anyone is really calling it that). One of the common complaints about current pop music is that it’s all hopelessly retro, and that we haven’t seen anything genuinely new in about 20 years. Pop music is eating its own tail. The irony is that this kind of self-aware self-referentiality is exactly what was prized and heralded as a savior of concert music a few years ago. Additionally, by commenting on pop culture from within, pop music polystylism may be capable of expressing certain things that concert music polystylism can’t.
Certainly pop music is concerned with a narrower range of styles than concert music—styles that more naturally harmonically and rhythmically connect to one another. Pop music production has also evolved to a point where it’s possible for a mix to feature an almost overwhelming number of independent sonic layers. Janelle Monae’s “Q.U.E.E.N.” is a great example of this, seamlessly transitioning from a guitar riff that recalls “Beat It”-era Michael Jackson, to slinky synths that wouldn’t be out of place in a vintage Prince song, to a laid-back ’90s R&B beat that features Erykah Badu, etc. This is all undercurrent—subtext, maybe—until the final minute of the song, when Monae “flips it” and makes it clear that this was what she was trying to do all along. “Categorize me, I defy every label,” she sermonizes over Motown strings. Lyrically referencing Marvin Gaye, she recasts Gaye’s social commentary as something current, ongoing, and more broad, encompassing gender as well as race and class. She’s able to do this because this is her musical heritage—she’s not an outsider looking in.
The situation with Daft Punk’s already ubiquitous new album, Random Access Memories, is a little more complicated. The album evokes a huge swath of music from the ’70s and early ’80s, and at first listen this seems to be the goal—to create a convincing simulacrum of the light-hearted, fun, danceable music of that era. In the pursuit of this goal, Daft Punk were also in a unique position to enlist the aid of contemporaries from that period, figures like Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, and Paul Williams.
But there’s also a palpable strain of melancholy that runs through the album, something that suggests that this kind of nostalgia may be more sinister than it first appears. On the bizarre and mesmerizing “Touch,” featuring lyrics and vocals by Williams, styles are nested within styles, linked by a series of sonic reveals that are at first captivating but are almost exhausting by the end. Williams sounds drained by it too: “A door behind a door / Touch, where do you lead? / I want something more.” It’s almost Gnostic in its perpetual search for a “more real” reality, suggesting that this quest for true authenticity might be doomed from the start.
Although authenticity might be out of reach, accuracy is not, and I wish that more concert music composers would adopt Daft Punk’s meticulousness when exploring other styles, rather than the casual, slapdash referentiality that comes so easily. Granted, not everyone has access to the finest studio musicians in the land, but we are privileged in other ways, and we ought to use that privilege responsibly.