Diving Into Pop Music’s Hidden Depths

A new book, from the hosts of the Switched on Pop podcast, approaches the genre with laserlike focus and palpable enthusiasm.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Like many other chaotic phenomena, one of the wildest nights in pop-music history can be traced back to the consumption of too much Hennessy. As an army of producers, journalists, and artists prepared for the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, many of them noticed something off about Kanye West: The rapper, several people told Billboard, had arrived with a rapidly dwindling bottle of the oaky cognac. And then, of course, during the show’s first act, as Taylor Swift accepted the trophy for Best Female Video, West stormed the stage and uttered the now-infamous lines: “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you; I’mma let you finish. But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”

To Swift, West’s 2009 actions, and the messy events that followed, felt like evidence that the rapper didn’t see her as a real artist. “All I ever wanted my whole career after that thing happened in 2009 was for him to respect me,” Swift said in a recent interview. West’s disregard was perhaps singular in its bombast, but Swift’s talent—and her craft—have long been minimized. Along with the work of many other pop singers, especially young women, Swift’s music is often assessed for the stories it tells rather than for the merit of its sonic elements. But with their long-running podcast, and now a book, the musicology professor Nate Sloan and the songwriter Charlie Harding are insisting that pop music warrants serious study. Through rigorous but accessible dissection of songs such as Swift’s “You Belong With Me,” the very one that attracted West’s ire, the pair don’t just make the case for pop’s relevance—they also illuminate the discrete layers that make it so fun.

Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works balances these two mandates in part thanks to its authors’ sheer enthusiasm. In the slim volume’s introduction, Harding and Sloan note their own prior snobbery and spend the rest of the text expanding on what their podcast has done since its inception: nerd out. The book’s 16 chapters each break down one song, using it to explain a few different tenets of musical structure. The breezy essays mirror their subject matter in tone, and they’re meticulous but not unwieldy. The second chapter, “A Star’s Melodic Signature,” homes in on the resonance of Swift’s so-called T Drop, a musical quality that can be detected in much of her vocals. Harding and Sloan instruct readers to listen to the sequence beginning at the 0:59 mark of “You Belong With Me,” when Swift sings, “Why can’t you see / You belong with me?”

On the word “see,” Swift makes use of melisma, the practice of singing multiple pitches for a single syllable of text, turning the monosyllabic “see” into the tripartite “see-eee-eee” … Let’s focus on the three notes Swift sounds at this point in the song: B, A-sharp, and D-sharp. This pattern—descending a short distance, then descending a big drop—is one of the defining musical gestures of Swift’s career, the secret signature stamped somewhere on every album she records.

The chapter follows this straightforward description of the T Drop’s formal structure with an analysis of how it aligns with Swift’s persona—and, crucially, what effect it evokes in listeners. Though “You Belong With Me” is among the songs a Swift hater is most likely to name as the artist’s most cloying, its emotional efficacy is hard to deny. In bridging the gap between how the song makes listeners feel and how Swift constructed it, Harding and Sloan assess Swift’s craft with a respect that’s revelatory at the level of the individual track and refreshing as a broader approach:

[“You Belong With Me”] tells the story of a girl who is friend-zoned by the person she loves. She wants something more, but the object of her affection has no idea. This narrative is instantly relatable, and a huge part of Swift’s success is her ability to tap into such universal scenarios. In this context, the T Drop on “see-eee-eee” creates in our ears a certain kind of sad resignation, a lachrymose descent that magnifies the tragedy of her unanswered question, “why can’t you see?”

Not all of Switched on Pop’s chapters focus on artists’ vocal flourishes. “When the Drop Broke the Pop Song,” for example, delves into Rihanna’s Calvin Harris–assisted 2011 dance hit, “We Found Love.” The “bait-and-switch” of the song’s form is both intentional and effective, Harding and Sloan write: “Rihanna and Harris lure listeners in with a predictable form, then pull the rug out from under them with a surprise eruption of sound.” After 52 seconds of the common verse-chorus form, “We Found Love” disrupts convention by providing an energetic peak that isn’t a chorus: the drop.

The authors contextualize this roller-coaster build and release within both traditional pop and EDM, the genre from which it’s borrowed. Switched on Pop weaves these meta-analyses into its more clinical breakdowns, creating a reading experience as multidimensional as the songs they describe. Readers come away from each chapter understanding not just the building blocks of a particular song or why those are so satisfying to listeners, but also how each of those elements—and the song itself—fit into the arc of American music history. (In this, Harding and Sloan’s work also joins podcasts such as Dissect and Song Exploder.)

That several of the book’s essays focus on rap songs is particularly satisfying. Rap is, after all, the most popular genre of music in the country; its trends extend beyond the work of musicians who would identify themselves as hip-hop artists. Switched on Pop accounts for both rappers’ contributions and hip-hop’s more atmospheric influences. The opening chapter, about OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and its use of changing meter, also tracks how the song helped iTunes become the cultural giant that it is (and thereby kicked the streaming era into gear).

A chapter about Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank),” meanwhile, brings the rapper’s metaphor into its analysis of the song’s percussive qualities: “Like the currents that ebb underneath the ripples on the surface of a swimming pool, music can exist on multiple temporal planes,” Harding and Sloan write. “We are exposed to two different expressions of time simultaneously: the slow pulse of the song’s meter in Lamar’s voice and the quick, ticking hi-hats. The interaction between each of the temporal planes creates a friction that grabs listeners like an undertow, pulling us step-by-step deeper into the waters.” Reading Switched on Pop is a far less foreboding sensory experience than “Swimming Pools,” but it’s no less immersive.