Poll 31: Singles

Fruit bat, cuter than a button, mutton-headed maniac.

On toplining

In 1996, our swaggering Poll winner made a memorable boast on his own behalf. “No one writes them like they used to”, sang Stuart Murdoch, “so it may as well be me.” He then demonstrated what he meant. “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” runs on a sturdy chord progression – one in which the chords don’t fall exactly where you’re expecting them to fall. More importantly, the song’s melody isn’t tethered to those changes. Instead, it develops. It keeps on dancing and spinning and twirling across the chords until it reaches a logical and satisfying peak, and then the tune pushes you over the top and you slide, sled-like, down the mountain. Whee. Because it’s a pop song, there’s some repetition, but there isn’t much of it. The melody leads the accompaniment – and Stuart stays in firm control of the melody throughout. 

But is he right?  Is this the way they used to write them? There have always been composers who’ve done it like that: Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, Carole King, and Elvis Costello, who showed us that there’s no contradiction between melodic development and rocking like your pants are on fire.  Critics have always rewarded this skill.  If you can develop your melodies in a clever fashion within the strict confines of the three-minute pop song, you stand a pretty good chance of winning this Poll, and many others, too. Yet even during the heyday of the Beatles, there were plenty of songs – great songs – that weren’t composed with an emphasis on novel melodic trajectory. Instead, there’d be a standard chord progression, usually a basic blues, and the melody would stick pretty close to the roots of those chords. Often, the rhythmic pattern of the melody wouldn’t change even when the chords did: it would be the same thing, only a little higher, or a little lower. That’s because the world, or trad., was suppling the progression, and the band was simply singing on top of something that already existed.  They were toplining, even though they wouldn’t have called it that then.

We barely call it that now. Most music listeners aren’t familiar with the concept of toplining; given how infrequently it’s mentioned in reviews in which it would be salient to mention, I’m forced to the conclusion that many critics aren’t aware of it, either. But in 2021, toplining is standard music industry practice, widely discussed by the people who assemble the hits that score our lives, and in order to understand modern pop, it’s essential to know what it is and how it works. Most modern pop songs are assembled through a topline process: the producer creates the backing track first, and then somebody else writes a lead melody (there may be secondary melodies implied by the track) and lyric, and the two halves are steam-pressed together by mixers and mastering engineers. Sometimes, I’m sure, the producer and the topliner are in the studio together, giggling and experimenting and having a great time, as Carly Rae Jepsen and Jack Antonoff are depicted doing in the video for “This Love Isn’t Crazy”. More often – especially during quarantine conditions – the producer and the singer will be on opposite sides of the country, or the world, exchanging data files and working in isolation. In electronic dance music, the producer will often send the same beat out to many different topliners at once, and the writer who welds the catchiest and most commercially compelling melody and hook to the beat gets the gig, and the glory.

It probably sounds to you like I’m deriding toplining. I’m not. I think it is a perfectly valid way to work. It might not sound as fun as the traditional rock band dynamic does, but it has its advantages: it’s quick, it all happens in the box, everybody gets to concentrate on what he or she does best, and nobody passes out drunk or gets into fistfights in the practice space. There are some who believe that those fistfights are essential to pop; as a shy and retiring sort hunched over my computer, I avoid that crowd. Hip-hop has always run on a topline model: the RZA would make the music and cut the bars, carpenter-like, into the shapes he wanted, and then he’d ask the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan to compete for the space he’d created. The ascendancy of the topline model in pop means that most hitmaking producers are treating singers the way rap auteurs have always treated their emcees and hook writers. Get in the booth and vocalize over this sick beat, and keep doing it until you come up with a keeper. 

I have absolutely no doubt that Beyoncé Knowles could sit down at a piano and write really good songs from scratch if she wanted to. Superfan that I am, I could point you to places in her deep discography where it’s pretty clear to me that she did just that. Nevertheless, she prefers to topline, and it’s not hard to understand why. She’s getting the wildest, catchiest beats from the most creative producers on the planet, and as a superstar with immense clout, she’s got the capacity to insist on amendments to whatever it is she’s opted to sing over. If Beyoncé feels a bridge coming on, you can be sure that Boots, or whoever else she’s hired, is going to back into the ProTools and switch around the beat to accommodate her request. Yet few artists have the clout that Beyoncé does. As the monoculture continues to agglomerate all music on all levels into a single glossy post-genre pop style, it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that many “indie” artists (whatever that means in 2021) are toplining, too.  They’re singing over pre-made loops. Sometimes they’ve created those loops themselves and tailored them to their peculiar tastes, as Kali Uchis did on her Drunken Babble mixtape. More often, the loops are fixed by somebody else, and they’re working within a producer’s super-tight parameters.

Again, this is just another way of composing, and every year, thousands of wonderful songs are made like this.  But in order to understand why modern pop (and modern “indie”, too) sounds like it does, it’s necessary to be honest about the aesthetic limitations of toplining and the effects of its widespread adoption. Think back to the Belle & Sebastian song that I opened this essay with – it’s probably still stuck in your head – and notice how everything is designed to advance the melody through time. The tune leads the composition: it comes first, and the accompaniment follows. Because there’s a single songwriter, in this case likely sitting on a chair in a church basement, it may have come a split-second first. But it was certainly guiding Stuart as he strummed away on his acoustic guitar. He is at liberty to extend that melody as far as his chord progression will allow him, and if he feels like modifying that progression, it’s as simple as moving his hand from one fret to the next.  The topliner does not have that ability. She’s forced to operate after the fact of writing, and wholly within somebody else’s vision. She might coin a delightful melody, but no matter how it sparkles, it’s not driving the composition.  It’s the hood ornament. The producer supplies the engine.

This means that it’s impossible to mint a melody like “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” through toplining.  That thrill ride – the dips and drops and crests and turns, and that sense that the tune has gathered its own irresistible momentum and is carrying you along with it – can only happen if the melody is leading the accompaniment. In order to compensate for the lack of forward motion that developmental melody naturally provides, the vocalist must generate the kinetic effects on her own. If you’ve ever wondered why modern pop so often sounds like a sing-off, loaded with melisma, vibrato, feats of strength and ear-shredding FX, that’s because the topliner has few compositional options to generate excitement, and the star at the microphone must take up the slack. I’m a fan of showy vocalists, but even I’ll admit that the glee club model gets tiresome after a while. There are other, better ways to keep the listener interested. 

Which brings us to an irony of modern music: even as the vocalist (who is often the topliner), is forced to work harder than ever before, her influence over the direction of the song has been attenuated. The producer has wrested power away from the singer. Advances in processor speed and connectivity has made this possible, and it’s inevitable that composing musicians would avail themselves of all the file-transfer tech they can get their hands on. It makes their jobs easier. 

Nevertheless, that’s not the whole story. The consolidation of producer power and the proliferation of toplining is, I believe, also a reaction to the spike in female autonomy and authorship that occurred during the end period of the twentieth century. Pop producers are overwhelmingly male. Their stars – their topliners – tend to be women. When their contribution to the composition is reactive by design, the male author feels more comfortable, especially since he holds the eraser and, therefore, the final word.  In the 21stcentury, the woman with the guitar, operating as Stuart Murdoch did on If You’re Feeling Sinister, has virtually been expunged from pop, and she’s lost a lot of altitude in independent music, too. The best we can hope for is that the man working the mouse is sensitive to her desire for artistic expression, and is willing to treat her topline as part of a dialogue, rather than a commercially necessary but ultimately frivolous decoration. Many of the best producer-topliner relationships do feel respectful and symbiotic, and demonstrate that intra-sex cooperation didn’t go away after the disbandment of Fleetwood Mac. One of the reasons that audiences found Billie Eilish so endearing was because we all knew her brother handled the production. Regardless of the nature of the relationship, it was easy to imagine that Finneas was her male doppelganger, and he couldn’t be too controlling or it would ruin Thanksgiving dinner at the Eilish house.    

Then there’s the artist who Billie Eilish reminds me of: Fiona Apple, another irritable theater kid whose latest album was received as an instant classic. The doomed-feminist arguments on Fetch The Bolt Cutters are powerfully underscored by Fiona’s complete refusal to enter into a modern toplining relationship with her producers. Kick her under the table all you want, she won’t tailor her melodies, or her bars, to rhythms or progressions generated by somebody else. Tempting as it is to see her production and composition choices as atavistic – the acts of a hermetic auteur holding out for an old way of doing things – there’s actually no reason why other artists couldn’t follow her lead. Fiona Apple, for better and for worse, is wedded to the compositional logic of the mid-20thcentury masters, and that just doesn’t fit very well in a quantizer. If we’re going to call her old-fashioned, maybe it’s best to see her as a throwback to the false dawn when Nina Simone, and Sandy Denny, and Carole King, and Joan Armatrading, and Phoebe Snow, and Joni Mitchell, and Kate Bush, and Laura Nyro sketched the outlines of a new type of pop authorship. Pissed off, funny, and warm, all of them. Good men in a storm.  And when the fall is torrential… well, you know the rest.

Single of the Year

Your Album of the Year results were posted yesterday.  Tomorrow, we’ll go through some of the miscellaneous categories. On Thurdsay & Friday, I’ll post my own ballot.  Thanks again for playing, and for reading.