Tuesday, January 27, 2009

recession? just dance

An NYU professor completed a study recently that compares the "variance" of beats in pop music and the volatility of the stock market over the years. Phil Maymin, assistant professor of finance and risk engineering at the university's Polytechnic Institute looked at the Billboard Top 100 albums from 1958 on and found that it times of market volatility the charts tended more toward beat-steady dance music. In his words, music tended to have more "beat variance" during steady markets and less "beat variance" during volatile times like today. In an on-air NPR story about the study, the professor mentioned Lady GaGa's "Just Dance" as a good example of a low "beat variance" (a.k.a. steady-beat) track that correlates with a time of market volatility.

I think it's b.s. (And I'm not the only one). Reaching back to 1958, American popular music has been dominated by the 4/4 beat, so essentially there is very rarely any variance. Everything from Elvis to Lady GaGa rides on a boom-boom-boom-boom rhythm, even if it's not always obvious. Guns N Roses "Welcome to the Jungle" is a 4/4 track. The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" is a 4/4 track. The Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia" is a 4/4 track. All rap is 4/4. Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" is a 4/4 track. You get the picture. If you can keep time to any pop song by counting one-two-three-four/one-two-three-four and starting over again, it's a 4/4 track. There is no variance. Maymin's example on NPR was to compare Lady GaGa's "Just Dance" to a calm ballad (I forget - it might have been John Legend) that was popular during the market's peak in 2007 or so. This is a bit of apples and oranges if you ask me. There are no ballads on the charts today?

In scary times, he theorizes, we want steady rocking beats, and in steady times we crave more chaos. But his examples, melodically, prove the opposite. Perhaps, as one commenter on meanspeedmusic suggests, the professor was really looking more at melodic variance (which I also would suggest). So, using his examples, in steady times, calming music is the order; in scary times, driving, uptempo music is our aural caffeine that gets us up in the morning. On this note, it would be true, then, that dance music thrives in uncertain times, an idea I wouldn't deny. I just doubt how the professor got there ("beat variance"). Then again, people were dancing their asses off in boom times to "Sexy/Back."

I totally sense a difference between dark and uplifting sounds during economic sways and international turmoil. About the time of the dot-com bubble burst, and extending through 9/11 and beyond, it seemed to me that the dark, tribal sound of house music (Danny Tenaglia, Steve Lawler, Creamer & K., et. al.) made a huge comeback. And I feel like dark sounds in club-land (check DJ Hell's forthcoming compilation) are making another comeback in correlation with this current economic malaise. But, again, this has nothing to do with tempo variance, which, as I said, is virtually nonexistent within the confines of a single pop song.

As the prof himself states, "The key linking idea is mood. The mood of the people is probably influenced by the market." This, of course, has nothing to do with chaos in rhythm. In American pop it simply doesn't exist.


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