November 6th, 2008

Effervesynths

Since I’ve lately dived headlong into heart-on-sleeve blogging, I may as well keep things going, even if that means losing a few of you hardcore lurkers out there. You see, I’ve been wanting to gush for a minute now about — believe it or not — Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent,” which has been on heavy rotation on JAM’N for the last several months. Here’s the video c/o that lovely new MTV service —

Although the lyrics are actually quite laudable in an era when women are more likely to appear as strippers than equals in R&B and hip-hop depictions, I confess it’s the instrumental that initially caught me and continues to tickle me all over.

Where to begin? There’s the dancehall drum track, which I’m happy to hear now completely absorbed into R&B’s all-encompassing palette. (I mean, who even hears this beat as a reggae beat at this point, except for nerds/headz like me?) And then there’s that plucky little harp melody, reinforcing Ne-Yo’s tunefulness. But what really gets me is when that rippling, tactile, crunky/trancey synth comes in to propel the chorus (as also heard in the intro).

I have to admit that when I first heard these techno presents find their way into hip-hop, I was a little skeptical, especially when garageband loops were substituting for actual experimentation (even if one can argue that the very practice is itself inherently innovative — introducing unlikely material, etc.). But they’ve grown on me, big time. Indeed, I’m totally delighted that hip-hop has embraced synths (again, of course, if we remember our history) — so much so that the new Akon & Weezy joint sounds like Vangelis meets Van Halen, or sump’m.

Not to rehash debates about drug determinism, but there is something about these synths that wash over you all MDMA-like — they’re tingly, soothing, effervescent. And of course it helps that the producer of the Ne-Yo track (who did it, btw?) has structured the synth-line to follow a two/three-chord, lilting harmonic progression that feels at once melancholy and uplifting. This seemingly “old school” approach to arrangement — harmony, rly? — takes macro shape at the level of the song’s form, which includes a classic “bridge” (see 3:13) that sets up expectation for the return of the chorus (3:36) and those affective effervesynths. You’re not likely to hear a bridge in hip-hop tracks, but they remain a common compositional device in R&B despite the genre’s “recent” embrace (going on 10-15 years now) of hip-hop’s rhythm-driven aesthetics. (Perhaps it goes without saying that hip-hop has been borrowing more recently from R&B’s harmonic language, oddly enough as filtered through sentimental trance-loops.)

What’s the point of all this? I don’t really have one. I just really dig this song right now and wanted to talk about it and how it relates to contemporary pop aesthetics and affect. And I’m really glad that MTV has made it possible to so easily share hi-qual versions of videos in this way. Although all the distributed, “illegal” labor on YouTube has made it a pretty amazing source for pretty much any audio or video one might seek — especially for indy/alternative/foreign/obscure media — the possibility of takedowns and the varying (but usually low) quality are two major problems with that repository. So I have to welcome MTV’s latest venture, making available high quality video streams from their extensive (and presumably perpetually-licensed) video archive. And even though I bristle at the ever-expanding commodification of our social and cultural lives, I’m heartened by their announcement to partner with MySpace to monetize, rather than penalize, instances where people embed popular music videos on their websites.

As I’m hinting here, at least as important as making them available, MTV has also made these videos spreadable, as Henry Jenkins calls it. Not only is it, rather literally, marvelous to have such a trove of music videos at one’s fingertips, but it’s wonderful to be able embed these rich little things into our increasingly multimedia conversations. Even if we have so little to say (initially) as, I like this, don’t you?

21 Comments

  • 1. Gabriel  |  November 6th, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Yes! Love this tune since I saw it on TV a few weeks ago…been trying to find the instrumental for a dancehall remix

  • 2. Birdseed  |  November 6th, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Well, to (perhaps) complicate things a touch further, the Ne-Yo track was produced by production duo Stargate, who are Norwegian. :) I guess you could deduce some sort of thing about active as well as borrowed transculturation with that, but I’m not sure It’d hold, for a couple of reasons:

    (a) I’m not so sure about R&B “embracing” Hip-hop’s rhythm-driven aesthetics – at the time when R&B really started to break out into hard, synthy beats (circa 1995), hip-hop was at some of its most laid-back.

    (b) I may be wrong here, but I think the current trend of songs with harmonics, song structures and real/synthesised “instruments” came out of hip-hop, not R&B. And out of the much maligned South. Starting about three years ago you’d have tracks coming out like Jeezy’s Trap Star (produced by that ultimate chameleon, Mr. Collipark in 2005) which features a harmonic progression, guitar, a synthesised horn section… The kind of sound associated with it (bright major-key tonality, carpets of synths faking real instruments etc.) has since mostly been associated with the Miami scene.

  • 3. wayneandwax  |  November 6th, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Great to hear you’re with me on this one, Gabriel. I’d love to hear a dancehall vocal on that beat. Keep me posted!

    Neat to hear that it was Stargate who did it, though I don’t really think their Norwegianness has anything to do with the sound. (Let’s not start describing those synth sounds as “chilly” or something equally dumb.) There’s not really any “transculturation” to speak of when we’re talking about global pop produced at that level of the music industry.

    Um, “Pony” was produced by Timbaland, who I think is still best described as a hip-hop producer.

    But I’m actually thinking more like the late 90s, early 00s when R&B singers basically started singing over rap beats rather than having live bass & keys & such in the arrangements. Around the same time, or a little later, there was the rise of the “thug ballad” (see Jah Rule), which is sort of what I meant by hip-hop being influenced by R&B — all of which predated the rise of harmonic crunk, I think. Pretty blurry genealogies here, though. And at this point, I think it’s safe to say that both R&B and hip-hop, for all their tendencies toward various trends, are both utterly heterodox wrt production techniques. Samples, synths, live stuff — it’s all part of the palette.

  • 4. Birdseed  |  November 6th, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    No, no, Timbaland is an R&B producer, who has occasionally dabbled in hip-hop. I don’t think he did a single hip-hop track before “Pony”… He started out as a protege of R&B producer DeVante Swing, and his early pre-credit productions are all R&B.

  • 5. Birdseed  |  November 6th, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    (Actually, to my mind, if anything R&B was more hip-hop around 1990, and harder around 1987.)

  • 6. wayneandwax  |  November 6th, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    I guess I invited it, but I don’t want to get into an argument — or even a discussion really — parsing the differences between hip-hop and r&b. Adjectives like “harder” don’t really get us there, for one. And if we buy, say, MTV’s definition, then “hip-hop” = rap w/ elements of r&b, which is, of course, BS. (Of course, certain rappers used to say that r&b stood for “rap & BS” — and I don’t think they meant birdseed.)

  • 7. John  |  November 6th, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    From my position as a non-expert on hip hop (or r&b, whatever we decide the differences between the two are), I would just like to second that emotion vis-a-vis Wayne’s love-hate-love relationship with “rippling, tactile, crunky/trancey” synths. The timbre here is actually very similar to the synth on Kanye’s “Flashing Lights,” eh?

  • 8. wayneandwax  |  November 6th, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    Second that emotion! Couldn’t have said it better. (Couldn’t have said it, of course, being first.)

    Beyond the pleasure of the track, though, I want to note that what seems most remarkable about it is the utter unremarkability of the dancehall snares and trancey synths. That that stuff has become so common to the language of shiny US pop is pretty interesting to me.

  • 9. rachel  |  November 6th, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    mmmhmmm

    there’s something about her / cause she work like a boss play like a boss … her favorite thing to say / dont worry i got it / and everything she got / best believe she bought it!!

  • 10. wayneandwax  |  November 6th, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    good point (?), rachel. did i say “equals”? i guess i meant “superiors.”

    the truth is that i’m really pretty negligent wrt attending to lyrics while listening. i probably enjoyed this song for several weeks before giving a second thought to the words (maybe even a first thought). more often than not, something in the text has to catch me to pull me away from listening at the level of sound (voice included). i find myself most often thinking about texture, timbre, rhythm, style — and various things from there, as this post makes clear (?).

  • 11. jace  |  November 8th, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Miss Independence is The Boss, but Ne-Yo is a managerial higher-up with an entire floor of prime real estate in midtown Manhattan staffed by female secretaries at his beck & call, which makes sense, because it is hard work being a pop star.

    My favorite moment is when he looks out the window and sees a woman (symbolizing Norway and by metonymical extension, Scandinavia itself) being lead across the streeet by an all-black dog (whose significance should be obvious) in a subtle yet deeply charged allusion to cats.

    The leash and collar remind us of the pleasures of the master-slave relationship, thus staking out an interstitial semiotic matrix wherein Ne-Yo, Story of the O, and, most discursively but by no means least, Story of the Eye all reflect upon the base themes of corporate desire, cats, and what we can only refer to as ‘hard, harder R&B’.

    That a bruise might itself house a rhythm is, upon first inspection, somewhat troubling, but the interpretive rub is smoothed and soon forgotten by the medicinal powers of the synth pads, lightly filtered, yielding the perfect post-MDMA nonchemical comedown to a more solid level of understanding between co-workers, which reinstates the ‘true’ story of Miss Independence as one about interdependence, in the post-Fordist sensibility. Hence the cats – animals which are not taken for walks and only occasionally collared. It’s easy to eat a bird in a cage.

  • 12. wayneandwax  |  November 9th, 2008 at 8:35 am

    quite a reading! i think they pay big bucks for that sort of thing in the academy — or used to.

    the funny thing is that the video (and attn to the lyrics) introduces all these elements that had never really occurred to me in my hours of driving-listening, wherein i mostly enjoyed the groove and the synths and only really noticed the lines “she’s got her own thing / that’s why i love her.” it’s a very different piece that way.

    this raises the legit question, actually, of how much we “let” the video & lyrics (over?)determine the meaning(s) of the underlying track. it’s pretty safe to assume that the video followed the recording of the song (which otherwise might suggest a less crass/literal interpretation of her boss-ness) and that, moreover, the track was cooked up long before ne-yo set these words to it. yes, once it’s so assembled, it is what it is, but i wonder whether this disjointed mode of production doesn’t also justify attending to various parts rather than just the sum?

  • 13. wayneandwax  |  November 9th, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    Finally listened to Kanye’s “Flashing Lights” (kind of embarrassing but hadn’t heard it — I kind of avoid Kanye), and I see what John’s talking about. It’s a very similar “patch” (perhaps even the same preset on Reason or Logic or something), but what makes it sound especially similar, I think, is the way it cuts in and out creating something like a polyrhythmic tremolo.

    Also, while on YouTube, I checked out Ne-Yo’s video there (to give it a comparative listen), and I noticed, just FYI, that Universal Music is selling ringtones prominently on the video’s page. This kind of commercial integration is definitely promising, at least insofar as it placates the dying, gnashing major labels, perhaps stopping them from suing every last one of us.

  • 14. Unas cuantas lecturas rec&hellip  |  November 11th, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    […] Wayne habla sobre “Miss Independent”, la canción de Ne-Yo con una letra en la que las mujeres aparecen de una manera bastante diferente a lo que suele ocurrir en el hip hop (aunque esta canción entre de lleno en el terreno del R&B, en realidad, donde supongo que será más fácil un movimiento de este tipo, pues el público objetivo es principalmente -pero solo en principio- femenino), comentando los detalles instrumentales (el ritmo con resonancias del dancehall, los sintetizadores, el arpa, etc.), pero lo mejor viene en los comentarios, en donde señalan muy acertadamente el parecido de los sintetizadores de esta canción con los que suenan en el “Flashing Lights” de Kanye West, y en donde interviene Jace Clayton, quien últimamente se está convirtiendo en una referencia imprescindible para cualquiera que quiera entender la música que se hace ahora mismo. Esta canción me parece estupenda, funciona a la perfección como tema pop mainstream representativo del 2008, ninguno de sus elementos me parece ramplón o cuestionable en lo más mínimo y, en fin, está todo puesto con tanta precisión y elegancia -sin caer en la aburrida qualité- que no me extrañaría que se colase entre mis canciones favoritas del año. Aquí os dejo el vídeo, que el que aparece en la entrada de Wayne solamente es visible en EEUU. Cosas de la MTV. […]

  • 15. John  |  November 12th, 2008 at 11:00 am

    It is true, as the previous commenter remarked, that most of MTV’s video archive is not yet available to watch outside the United States. That’s true for quite a few varieties of online videos, actually. (Hulu and nbc.com, just off the top of my head.) So while I do applaud the general opening up of the archive, I’m disappointed that it’s being limited to just the United States. What’s the point of that? (OK, that’s a dumb question. I’m sure it has to do with money.) This seems to be yet one more digital divide. And it’s one more thing to keep in mind when responding to our students in world music classes who tell us that, because all the world has the internet now, the barriers of access have now come down for everyone around the world. They sure are coming down for some.

    But anyway, the other similarity between “Miss Independent” and “Flashing Lights,” in addition to the points that you made, Wayne, is in the rhythm of the synth. The eighth-two sixteenths, sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth rhythm of “Miss Independent” just seems to be an abstracted version of the synth rhythm in “Flashing Lights.” My blog (http://popularsongsandbreakfastfoods.blogspot.com/2008/11/what-do-i-know.html) has a very sophisticated explanation of all of this.

  • 16. wayneandwax  |  November 12th, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Nice flash card analysis, John! You should make that a series on your blog.

    I was attempting to describe the similar rhythmic technique used in both songs with my much vaguer “polyrhythmic tremolo.” I have to say that I don’t really think there’s any direct connection between the two (especially since they don’t actually share the exact same pattern) — that, rather, the rhythmic similarity is coincidental / zeitgeistily aesthetic. Those stuttered eighth/sixteenth rhythms are pretty common these days, especially with these trancey synths, which seem particularly well suited for that in-and-out rhythmification.

    As for MTV online not being available outside the US, that’s totally wack. I hadn’t realized that before Iván noted it on his blog.

    It is true that internet access is becoming increasingly common worldwide — that the digital divide might be closing and, at least in certain places, it might be better to talk about a participation divide. But examples such as MTV & NBC, not to mention individual countries’ filtering policies (e.g., no flickr in UAE?) call attn to other kinds of access issues.

  • 17. wayneandwax.com » N&hellip  |  November 20th, 2008 at 12:45 am

    […] I wrote about Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent” last week, I mostly wanted to talk about timbre — the effervesynths that seem to give it so […]

  • 18. wayneandwax.com » D&hellip  |  January 30th, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    […] have served Vybz Kartel with a SERIOUS cease&desist on behalf of none other than (now former) w&w faves, Ne-Yo and Stargate (aka, Shaffer Smith, Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel S. Eriksen) – The current version of Vybz […]

  • 19. wayneandwax.com » W&hellip  |  February 16th, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    […] it — and share it here — is b/c it offers another lovely example of how something like the beat from “Miss Indpendent” gets loosed from its connections to the original tune, serving here as but a background riddim for […]

  • 20. Ne-Yo Schenkerian: WayneA&hellip  |  March 23rd, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    […] Here’s a link to what Wayne wrote that got me thinking. […]

  • 21. wayneandwax.com » I&hellip  |  December 7th, 2009 at 8:59 am

    […] general sympathies toward samplers over samplees, I can’t help but grin (not least b/c I rly dig that beat) whenever I hear yet another version of what can only be described now as the Miss Independent […]

Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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