Friday, March 9, 2012

The Tyranny of the Backbeat

People used to talk about the tyranny of the barline which came from the very useful invention of the barline to organize ensemble music. When the barline, or rather the beat associated with the downbeat, or first beat of the bar, became all-controlling, then it started to be called the "tyranny of the barline". A related complaint was directed against the indiscriminate use of the metronome leading to a rigid sense of the beat. One writer wrote:
A good performance is so full of these minute retardations and accelerations that hardly two measures will occupy exactly the same time. It is notorious that to play with the metronome is to play mechanically - the reason being, of course, that we are then playing by the measure, or rather by the beat, instead of by the phrase. A keen musical instinct revolts at playing even a single measure with the metronome: mathematical exactitude gives us a dead body in place of the living musical organism with its ebb and flow of rhythmical energy. It may therefore be suggested, in conclusion, that the use of the metronome, even to determine the average rate of speed, is dangerous.
— Daniel Gregory MasonThe Tyranny of the Bar-Line
Alas, it seems that skirmish, at least in some areas, is long lost... If you combine a little metronomic beat with the tyranny of the barline and add in a characteristic accentuation that comes from rock n' roll, then you get a structure that underlies an amazing amount of the music we hear every day. I call it the "tyranny of the backbeat". What's a backbeat? Nearly all popular music these days, certainly all that derives from rock, is in 4/4 meter, meaning that beats come in 4 beat packages. Normally the first beat is stressed, which helps to define the package. In rock, the 2nd and 4th beats are stressed instead. This is a kind of syncopation in that it places the accents in an unexpected place. But it is so ubiquitous now, that it is like a rigid Procrustean bed that all music is forced to lie on. Well, a lot of music at least! Here is the locus classicus:


Just let me hear some of that rock'n'roll music

Any old way you choose it
It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it
Any old time you use it



There are exceptions, but they are amazingly few. Here is a rock song where the stresses are reversed. The effect is to restore the feeling of syncopation! Neophyte drummers are so programmed to stress 2 and 4 that they sometimes have difficulty with this song:


UPDATE: Due to link-rot that clip had vanished. If this one goes to, the clip in question is "Sunshine of Your Love by Cream which, due to the inventive drumming of Ginger Baker, does NOT have a backbeat, but instead, heavy stresses on 1 and 3.

Do you hear it? It sounds like the beat is oddly shifted--not because it is, 1 and 3 are stressed--but because the backbeat has become so ubiquitous that it is ingrained into us, at least with this type of music. Let's choose some random examples from YouTube to see how prevalent it is.


I almost thought my brilliant theory was going to be undercut by the first clip, but no, around the 53 second mark it settles into a backbeat.


Yep, more backbeat. Oh, by the way, I am finding these by going to YouTube and typing in a single letter to see what comes up. I started with 'L'. Here's another:


Now that's a particularly aggressive example. The backbeat is bad enough, but when it is delivered by a drum machine, I like it even less. Another:


Yep, but at least this time it's a real drummer. I've done 'l', 'm', 'n', and 'o'. How about 'p'?


That's the first one with a slight divergence from the backbeat. While two is heavily stressed, they mess around with 4 a bit.

But I think you get my point. And my impression is that with the generic stuff you often hear out in public, in malls and restaurants, it is even worse. AAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I have this vision of generations of impressionable young minds and ears growing up permanently infected with the backbeat, unable to feel and appreciate the subtle expression and rubato that we have enjoyed for centuries if not millennia.


16 comments:

Droob said...

amen

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks!

Ethan Hein said...

The problem with judging pop music using the same criteria you use for classical music is that they don't have the same goals and purposes. You're supposed to listen quietly to Chopin with your complete attention while seated and motionless. Pop is meant to be experienced in a participatory way, by dancing, singing along, or just adding some excitement to mundane activities like cleaning your house. The ubiquitous backbeat and metronomic tempo are features, not bugs. If you're trying to dance, rubato is supremely annoying. Long before drum machines, the best groove musicians were the ones whose timekeeping was closest to metronomic: James Brown, Stevie Wonder, P-Funk, etc. You're not going to find a shortage of rhythmical energy in this music, and that's because of their tight timekeeping, not in spite of it.

Once again, I compare the backbeat-driven groove in pop to the perfect authentic cadence in common-practice classical. I find cadential harmony to be tediously simplistic and predictable. Schenker finds it to be the central organizing principle of the entire art form.

The rigidity of the basic 4/4 groove is liberating along other musical axes. More recent pop, especially hip-hop, slows the base tempo down to allow finer and finer subdivisions of the beat. Thirty-second-note drum patterns are ubiquitous on the radio, and sometimes you even hear sixty-fourth notes. The rock-solid stability of the beat also opens up timbral possibilities. The extreme surrealism of contemporary production would be too strange to tolerate if it wasn't all tied together by the beat.

Finally: it no longer makes sense to conflate rock and pop. Rock has become a niche subgenre like big band jazz, more a relic of previous generations than a driving force in the culture.

Bryan Townsend said...

Lots of excellent points, Ethan. It makes me think back on my own experience. Sure, I did some dancing back when I was a rock musician (electric bass), but my most intense musical experiences were actually listening ones. I remember sitting listening to Beatles' albums much more than I remember dancing to them. Now James Brown was a whole 'nother story! But I take your point about pop music as being inherently somatic. Though there are surely a number of exceptions? I guess you would call what Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen do a niche subculture as well?

But your best and really inarguable point is the one about goals and purposes. Yes, pop and classical have divergent goals and it is a mistake to judge pop by classical standards. And by the same argument, classical should not be judged by pop standards. Sadly, I see a lot of classical musicians trying to pump up their sales by presenting themselves as pseudo pop stars.

Marc Puckett said...

Am listening to Michel Chion's Blanche at the moment and I can just see the possibility that I might listen to more musique concrète: but I won't be dancing, and, believe me, I'm sitting here concentrating on listening at least as diligently as I did in the concert hall at Mozart's Requiem a couple of weeks ago. Surely much of the classical repertoire can be enjoyed whilst housekeeping! I'm not quite sure I can agree with the 'goals and purposes' division you both have erected. But carry on!

Nathaniel Garbutt said...

Part 1:


I'm in agreement with Marc here and I think Ethan has fallen into the same trap he suggests that Bryan is stuck in.

firstly...

"The problem with judging pop music using the same criteria you use for classical music is that they don't have the same goals and purposes."

...Well, yes they basically do - for people to listen to and to utilise in some way….connect with if you will.

As I think we can agree that basically all music is to be listened to then the distinction would have to made in the definition of the word utilise. Whether it is utilised for enjoyment, religious observance, dance, socialisation etc. The problem in trying to define it more specifically lies in the fact that the utilisation is entirely personal. Two people will connect with the same music in two different ways. Two people who like two different genres of music (and loathe the other person’s preference), will often still use the same adjectives to describe the music they personally like. I see this quite often and i’m often struck, for instance, what people describe as beautiful, energetic, pure, vigorous, loud, solid, out of tune, in tune etc

This leads us to this definition...

"You're supposed to listen quietly to Chopin with your complete attention while seated and motionless."

...Why? says who? Did I inadvertently break some social rule when I cooked dinner the other night to with Bach’s keyboard music playing in the background?

And then this definition…

"Pop is meant to be experienced in a participatory way, by dancing, singing along, or just adding some excitement to mundane activities like cleaning your house."

...Again why? What about all the people I see every morning on the tram listening to music on their music players? They definitely aren't dancing or singing and they certainly look like they are listening with "complete attention while seated and motionless.” Since when don’t people warble along to their favourite opera arias in much the same way that people belt out their favourite pop/rock songs?

Did I also break another social rule by sitting down, listening intently and transcribing a George Lewis clarinet solo?

This seems to me to be a completely arbitrary distinction. Everything you’ve mentioned above is absolutely applicable to to all genres of music. In fact your distinction even seems to preclude classical music from being participatory which is of course ridiculous. How is singing hymns in church not participatory?

Ultimately ‘pop’ doesn’t exist in a vacuum but in a continuum and for this reason I think it is perfectly reasonable to compare successful music from any genre. You’re right in suggesting that some criteria will have to be different but definitely not for the reasons you suggest here. The successful (or not) use of stylistic cliche is one that is easily translatable for instance.

Nathaniel Garbutt said...

Part 2:


"If you're trying to dance, rubato is supremely annoying."

...Seeing as there are numerous types of dance from a wide range of cultures and time spans that use varying levels of rubato i'd say your looking at it from an entirely myopic perspective and very limited definition of what 'dance' is.


"Once again, I compare the backbeat-driven groove in pop to the perfect authentic cadence in common-practice classical. I find cadential harmony to be tediously simplistic and predictable. Schenker finds it to be the central organizing principle of the entire art form.”

...I can accept this in much the same way that a full stop is the central organising principal in writing prose - which is to say it is one of a number of tools used to structure information…I’m also not a strong Schenkerian advocate either.


"The rigidity of the basic 4/4 groove is liberating along other musical axes. More recent pop, especially hip-hop, slows the base tempo down to allow finer and finer subdivisions of the beat. Thirty-second-note drum patterns are ubiquitous on the radio, and sometimes you even hear sixty-fourth notes. The rock-solid stability of the beat also opens up timbral possibilities. The extreme surrealism of contemporary production would be too strange to tolerate if it wasn't all tied together by the beat. The extreme surrealism of contemporary production would be too strange to tolerate if it wasn't all tied together by the beat."

…This is again not really a unique quality to more recent pop, hip-hop or even pop in general. When you get down to it, the stricter and more metronomic the pulse is, the easier it is to hear and understand rhythms as syncopated within the overarching rhythmic context and it's irrelevant whether it's jazz, hip-hop or Beethoven. It’s pretty much a requirement of all good music that there is some sort of unifying logic that allows people to piece shorter periods of time into a larger units but it doesn't have to be a back-beat. That is simply one of many many ways.

“Finally: it no longer makes sense to conflate rock and pop. Rock has become a niche subgenre like big band jazz, more a relic of previous generations than a driving force in the culture.”

The back beat is also a relic from a previous generation - back when drummers and other rhythm players had to do it manually. Surely in this digital age, where the beat and it’s subdivisions are handled by a computer, that something else could function as well? This, I think, is the point of Bryan’s post. To put emphasis on how ubiquitous the back beat is now across most contemporary forms of popular music. It is a cliche that has been in use for what? 70 years now? The classical period had a swathe of its own cliches but they struggled to last that long. The other and more important point I think Bryan was trying to make is that most music created today, supposedly at the forefront, uses this cliche in a thoroughly uninteresting manner - it’s there just because it’ s an easy go to. This isn’t to say that the back beat cannot be used well and in interesting ways just that, more often than not in the mainstream, it simply isn’t. There were also countless numbers of classical/baroque/romantic composers that went for easy way out but we don’t really bother with them too much anymore.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nathaniel, if there were awards at the Music Salon for Comment of the Month (or year for that matter), I think you would be the winner. A brilliant and thoughtful analysis, thank you!

I was listening to the Schubert Great C major Symphony last night and Ethan's comments crossed my mind. If you can't hear how sheerly dance-like this whole symphony is (and the Symphony No. 7 of Beethoven that Wagner called the "apotheosis of the dance"), then you are just not hearing it.

Yes, you are quite right--my basic point is the uncreative use of what is really just one crude rhythmic idea.

Ethan Hein said...

Your comment field has a 4,096 character maximum, thus the two-part comments, I'm going to do the same.

The Beatles’ late albums represent the point where pop self-consciously began to cross the border into “art music” territory. It’s quite right that those records are more for listening than dance. That makes me think that they’re no longer “pop” (though they were, and are, very popular.)

Dylan is a complicated case because his music runs the entire gamut between extremely highbrow “sit and think” material and straight rock and roll. Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen are niche subcultures unto themselves. I guess all three of them are distinct for borrowing the formal vocabulary of various kinds of pop to make “sit and think” art music. Leonard Cohen would empty any dance floor just about immediately.

You can certainly enjoy classical music while you clean your house, but that isn’t what the music is “for.” It’s only been very recently that cleaning your house to classical music accompaniment was even possible. I’d bet that Mozart would be very surprised to find music used as a background for so many mundane activities. Imagine cleaning your house with a symphony orchestra live in the room.

It is quite true that individual humans experience music differently. Nevertheless, I can still assert with some confidence that Michael Jackson is for dancing, and Chopin is for sitting. Just because some oddballs prefer sitting to Michael Jackson or dancing to Chopin doesn’t change the basic cultural norms or expectations around their respective styles.

I listen to Bach keyboard music while I cook, too, and I expect Bach would be annoyed with me for doing so. Certainly, the composers I know personally would much rather that their listeners be paying complete attention. I don’t know any pop producers who expect to be the sole focus of their listeners’ attention. I worked with an R&B singer who preferred that we work on tracks with the TV on so that we could experience the partial attention that the listeners would probably have.

I would argue that people who sit and listen to pop music motionlessly are “dancing in their heads.” That’s what I do, anyway. Maybe people sing along to opera, but again, that’s a strange technological novelty that was not considered when most operas were written. Can you imagine singing loudly and tonelessly along with your favorite aria at the Met? Whereas pop musicians prefer their audience to sing along, however ineptly.

The practices of musicians are not the same thing as the practices of regular listeners. I’ve spent a lot of time closely analyzing Michael Jackson and Prince, but again, that isn’t what they’re expecting of the typical listener. Jazz musicians have come to expect much more scholarly types of attention than mass listenership, a shift that occurred at the exact historical moment that jazz stopped being a pop form and instead became “art” music.

Ethan Hein said...

I see a pretty clear distinction between a regular old church hymn and the kinds of highbrow abstractions from church hymns composed by Bach et al. I know there’s a lot of historical overlap between hymns in common usage and artier treatments of same, but there still seems to be some strong distinctions. My wife has sung the Saint Matthew Passion a few times, and nobody is singing along with that.

When I say “dance,” I mean social dance in modern Western cultures. I should have clarified that. I’m sure it’s true that there are cultures and time spans where people dance to rubato music, but in Western cultures right now, I can’t think of any examples. Maybe presentational modern dance? Not social dance, though.

You and I probably agree that Schenker is absurdly reductionist, but his iron grip on formal music pedagogy shows no sign of weakening. I even had a grad school professor who analyzed twentieth century atonal music that way, it made me clutch my head with frustration.

“When you get down to it, the stricter and more metronomic the pulse is, the easier it is to hear and understand rhythms as syncopated within the overarching rhythmic context and it's irrelevant whether it's jazz, hip-hop or Beethoven. It’s pretty much a requirement of all good music that there is some sort of unifying logic that allows people to piece shorter periods of time into a larger units but it doesn't have to be a back-beat. That is simply one of many many ways.” — True. Western pop listeners like the backbeat because if you’re going to have metronomic time, you might as well have syncopation, otherwise it’s boring.

The V-I cadence was a cliche that persisted for centuries, and still persists in nursery rhymes and some pop subgenres. It persists because it does its job well and is widely understood. So it is with the backbeat. I’d be willing to guess that the backbeat predates pitched melodies, and possibly spoken language.

The majority of pop music is trite and banal, but the majority of all music is trite and banal. Nathaniel points this out: it’s easy to romanticize the eighteenth century because time has filtered out everything but the cream of the crop. If you did a truly random sampling of all the music people were hearing in eighteenth century Vienna, I doubt it would be any better or worse than a random sampling of the music we’re hearing now.

If Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is the “apotheosis of the dance,” why aren’t people dancing to it? Did they ever? Making reference to dance music is not the same thing as being dance music.

Bryan Townsend said...

What we are seeing are the profound benefits of a free discussion. Music is a whole, complex universe and we are seeing just a few of its facets here. Ethan, I think that you have refined your thoughts enormously here and make many very good points. But, if I may, I would like to address just a couple of them. First of all, you say, "I’d bet that Mozart would be very surprised to find music used as a background for so many mundane activities. Imagine cleaning your house with a symphony orchestra live in the room." A while ago I purchased the complete edition of Mozart, consisting of 170 CDs. One of the reasons for this was to try and get a sense of the whole. Most of the time we see artists like Mozart in little slices: a couple of the best symphonies, the later operas, a couple of string quartets and so on. We don't have any sense of the rest of his music, some 600 opus numbers. Well, one thing I immediately noticed was that Mozart wrote a LOT of dance music. There are six CDs just of dances including minuets, Kontratanzes and German dances. Mozart was a very enthusiastic dancer, one reads in biographies. There are also dozens of CDs of divertimenti, serenades, cassations and notturnos, all of which are music specifically written to be accompaniments for social events. Not doing the dishes, exactly, but not "sit and listen to" music either. This was music played in the background, sometimes indoors and sometimes outdoors. And when it comes to opera, one of the interesting things about the 18th century is that during the opera people ate, talked and, even had assignations with their mistresses (though this was probably confined to those with box seats!). A lot of our concepts of the stuffiness of classical music where people just sit there in a silent concert hall are really trends that developed in the 19th century. Other eras were quite different.

But this does not negate your point that pop music is more directly participatory. The aesthetic goals of pop music are to be immediately appealing, whether with a "hook" or some other aspect (even visual) and the backbeat is one of those conventions that pulls pop listeners in immediately. The more someone does something that takes prolonged exposure to appreciate, the less like paradigmatic pop music it is. Someone like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen can break all the rules because they have built their audiences up over decades. Iggy Azalea, in today's highly pressured pop world, doesn't have that option. It's sink or swim.

A little side-note about dancing. There are dance cultures in modern Western society that are not part of the pop world. My mother was what we call in Canada an "old-time fiddler". She played dances most Friday nights for her whole life. What she played were waltzes, jigs, reels, schottishes (is that spelled correctly?), polkas and other things like that. She probably never played anything ever with a backbeat. Texas line dancing and square dancing also come to mind--and these are all "social" dances. Today's pop music is mostly for younger people, but with a huge bulge into middle-aged people because of the Baby-Boomer generation, who will never, never grow up.

Bryan Townsend said...

There are many different themes in your comment, Ethan. You mention Schenker. Yes, he has become a pretty influential figure in music theory, but is far from having an iron grip on the field. I spent considerable time in theory classes at two different stages in my life, at the undergraduate level and later at the doctoral level. Out of the ten or so theory professors I had, not one was a Schenkerian. I had theory with a couple of composers and they certainly weren't Schenkerians and the last professor I had, William Caplin, is a specialist in formal functions in Classical themes. One of the main problems with Schenker is the relegation of rhythmic structures to a secondary role, as probably you and I would agree!

Speaking of formal functions, one of the things I learned from Prof. Caplin is the subtlety of Classical themes. The V-I cadence is not, or was not then, at least, a cliché at all. It, along with the half-cadence and deceptive cadence, had a crucial structural role. It reflects in the microcosm the larger tensions of the movement. It is a balanced and organized handling of the resolution of dissonance. It is really the core of Classical style. When we do it now, it may sound like a cliché, but that is because of over a century of the attenuations of Romantic harmony, followed by the emancipation of the dissonance!

Speaking of Chopin, don't forget that he wrote some fifty mazurkas, which are most emphatically a dance form. Are they intended to be danced to? Just in your head! But dancing in the mind is something we might prefer as we get a bit older.

Oh yes, the majority of all music written in all times is trite and banal. But forgive me for saying that I don't have the sense that it was the actual GOAL of music to be trite and banal until the last few decades of pop music! Most musicians in the past at least hoped for the occasional piece that rises above the trite and banal.

A random sampling of musicians in 18th century Vienna (and you picked precisely the wrong time and place to make your point!) would have included Dittersdorf and Wanhal and Hummel and a host of other obscure figures. But it would also have included Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The musical standards in that time and place have probably never been excelled anywhere. And that includes London in the 1960s.

Marc Puckett said...

Thank you, Nathaniel, Ethan, Bryan; many ideas to ponder and claims to weigh and try-- a rewarding intellectual event here; had listened to an interview with Camille Paglia earlier this morning, and she observed that our decadent society is on the edge of collapse and falling, which I quite agree with, while at the same time it supports such wonderful beauties and creative possibilities... among which we can number Music Salon.

Nathaniel Garbutt said...

Hi Bryan, Ethan and Marc,

Bryan covered quite a lot of what I wanted to say regarding dance music of the past so I won’t go there too much other than to mention tafel-music is another genre of music that was written explicitly written as background music while eating and is the precursor to the divertimento that Bryan mentions.

With regards to musical cliche, I tend to use the word style and cliche interchangeably. If a musical element get’s repeated by enough people as to become stylistically identifiable then to me that fulfils the definition of cliche. I’m quite readily available to the idea of the V-I(i) being considered a cliche but it presents the problem that it transcends style very easily. Classical music utilises it, New Orleans jazz utilises it but the music is quite different. It, to me, definitely seems to be much more an element of structure like a full stop in writing prose. I’d also like to point out that I don’t necessarily consider cliche a bad thing. Mozart is the king of cliche in my opinion but he used them very effectively. It’s the uninspired and “go to” usage that I think is bad. The vast majority of opera seria written suffers from this for example.

(As an aside, I see a pretty strong historical parallel between the music of now and the beginnings of the 18th cent. Opera seria, a highly formulaic, churned out, focus on the singer and even written entirely to show them off and the occasional gem vs the musical output of now, pop stars singing highly formulaic music written for them to show them off with the occasional gem etc.)

I think it’s a little dangerous to get bogged down too much on the idea of how music was intended and “this is how it was in Bach’s time” for example. I don’t think Bach had any conception of how our society functions today or our technological development. I’m not even sure he thought his music would still be played 250-300 years after he wrote it. How his music is assimilated in this different time is much more important and relevant. Recording and other technologies have a huge impact here. For better or worse is a different debate but it definitely shapes how the music is utilised today.

I’m also in no way refuting the idea that pop music is not written to be danced to. It clearly serves that function and does it very well. I’m refuting that it solely serves this as an overriding function or that this function in some way differentiates it from its musical predecessors and in anyway illegitmises comparisons.

It’s interesting that you mention Micheal Jackson. The biggest hits of Michael Jackson are all inextricably linked to a music video. The music video’s of Thiller, Bad, Smooth criminal etc are all quite large productions and definitely intended as an artistic and aesthetic statement. Now, I don’t doubt for a second that Michael Jackson wanted you to dance to his music but he definitely wanted the audience to sit, watch and listen to his set pieces in these videos. I think this goes for pretty much all music videos. So there is definitely a strong sit and pay attention element in modern contemporary pop.

Lucian Williams said...

Originally posted in response to "Can jazz become culturally relevant again?" I think it relates.
I believe the answer to "The Big Question" is yes. There was a time long ago when jazz was contemporary pop. It is difficult to have a historical perspective since most of us were born long after that. As musicians, we define jazz by the steady artistic evolution of the craft that has occurred since. My particular take is not about attitudes, commerce, politics or education. It is just a musical approach. I suggest revisiting, in a modern context, a long lost percussive device: Asymmetrical Back Beats.
The art of melodic improvisation flourished when it was part of the popular music of the '20's through the big band era. Kids who were buying records could relate to it physically through dancing. In order to re-awake the public's atrophied ears to our beloved art form, that connection would have to be reestablished. A golden opportunity was missed during the GAP commercial inspired mini swing craze of the mid to late '90's. It got young people swing dancing. The craze ended because people became bored with the music even though the players wore funny hats, twirled their instruments, and made every effort to be visually entertaining.
Maybe we should be a little scientific about this. Back in the '70's, when dance clubs still hired bands (before DJs took over completely) I had an epiphany while taking a guitar solo with my "funk" band. The dance floor was full but I realized that my solo could be good, bad, or mediocre and it really would not make much of a difference to the dancers. That was because they were dancing to the symmetrical back beats on 2 and 4 of the measure. As Dick Clark's studio audiences on American Band Stand repeatedly informed us - "It has a good beat and it is easy to dance to".
I juxtaposed this experience with a film I once saw of the Benny Goodman band where the camera was looking down on a crowded dance floor from a balcony. As Goodman built his clarinet solo to a climax, you could see the dancers jumping higher into the air. They were driven by Gene Krupa's quarter notes on the bass drum and loud, propulsive, asymmetrical hits on the snare, but people were essentially dancing to the improvised melody. The drumming of Joe Jones with the Basie band is another example of asymmetrical backbeats.
Unfortunately, none of the swing acts that achieved notoriety during the '90's (Big, Bad Voodoo Daddy, Brian Setzer et al...) picked up on this. The shuffle got old real fast. Strong back beats propel the dancers but a steady 2 and 4 disengages them from the melody. Forget jazz and history and zoot suits and break it down to the sonic essentials of what makes people dance and there may be a glimmer of hope for a fusion with melodic improvisation. Whether people are dancing to Rihanna or Duke Ellington, we know that they like it around 120 beats per minute. What they are dancing to is the quarter note pulse. You can easily take any contemporary dance track, strip away everything but the bass drum, and superimpose Satin Doll. The only difference is that the rhythm of the modern (unimprovised) melodic content is usually defined with straight eighths and sixteenth notes instead of swing eighths.
At this point, you may ask - "who cares?" Well, we do, obviously and the marketing and promotional geniuses have not been able to prevent America's only original art form from going down the tubes. Could it be that the music itself needs to be dealt with? It didn't mean a thing without that swing because that was the feeling that connected the dancer and the melodic improvisor. New music can be created with that feeling that connects with today's dancers but it won't swing for long unless the crutch of the symmetrical back beat is avoided.

Anonymous said...

Dance music existed in european traditions way before the post-50's backbeat monopoly. Look at traditional Irish Jigs and Reels, for instance. The idea that "everything pop has a backbeat and that makes sense because dance" is therefore ludicrous. You can dance plenty well with emphasis on 1 and 3, it's just a different (and dare I say, superior -- more cultured) sort of dance.