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What’s So Special about the Mainstream?

A new encyclopedia of songs analyzes the musical and social significance of popular songs

Freiburg, Mar 08, 2017

What’s So Special about the Mainstream?

Photo: Hans Peter/Warner Bros. Records

The University of Freiburg's Center for Popular Culture and Music (ZPKM) is publishing an encyclopedia of songs. It contains more than 150 entries on internationally popular songs from 1930 to the present.

There’s an electric buzz in the air. Horses gallop over hard ground. Shots are fired from lasers. Storms, explosions, sirens. The intro is replaced by vocals and a slow melody evoking the fateful mood of a wide steppe. A rhythmic guitar riff breaks through the calm atmosphere again and picks up the fast ride from the beginning, remaining until the end of the song. “Knights of Cydonia” by Muse uses a mix of musical styles that is strongly reminiscent of the music of Ennio Morricone, but synthetic futuristic sounds set it apart from the Italian composer’s spaghetti western aesthetic. The song tells a story of rebellion against authority and is a staple of the British band’s live sets.

“Knights of Cydonia” is a staple of Muse’s live sets – the song’s music video mixes stylistic elements from westerns and science fiction films. Photo: Hans Peter/Warner Bros. Records

The Encyclopedia of Songs provides background information and analyses of songs like these. Published by the University of Freiburg’s ZPKM, formerly known as the German Folk Song Archive, the online encyclopedia includes interdisciplinary articles on internationally known popular songs from the early days of sound recording to the present decade. It documents more than 150 songs originally recorded between 1930 and 2012. The oldest is “Veronika, der Lenz ist da” by the Comedian Harmonists, the newest “Survival,” also by Muse. “Besides making a contribution to scholarship, we also want this project to benefit the general public,” says the historian and literary scholar Dr. Dr. Michael Fischer, managing director of ZPKM. He and Prof. Dr. Fernand Hörner from the Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences initiated the Encyclopedia of Songs in 2011, and the two are still co-editors today. “The articles are written in a style that everyone can read. Since many youths already show great enthusiasm for music, the encyclopedia also makes an outstanding interdisciplinary educational tool.” Only songs that appeal to a very broad audience are considered for inclusion in the encyclopedia. In addition, they must be transmitted through media and industrially produced.

From the golden age of the gramophone: The oldest song described in the Encyclopedia of Songs is by the Comedian Harmonists. Photo: Patrick Seeger

“Great songs often lose something of their monumental character when one knows how they were produced,” reports the musicologist Dr. Christofer Jost from the ZPKM, who is in charge of the project. An example is the title “Goldfinger,” the quintessential James Bond song. It took a very long time to compose the two simple chords at the start of the song that have become so famous. “But the film producer hated the song. It was only included because there wasn’t enough time to record a new song,” says Jost.

Stylization in Music Videos

A traditional musical analysis like those written on works of classical music is not a sufficient means of explaining popular music. The articles of the Encyclopedia of Songs thus explain how the songs came into being and place them in their sociocultural context. Bond songs, for example, have to perform a balancing act between the criteria of two different genres: As film music they are commissioned works and need to support the plot of the film, but as popular music they have to stand on their own as songs on the music market. “When a Bond song is not a hit single, it is not necessarily helpful for the film,” sums up Jost. “The song is the prologue to the film – a classic example of cross-media marketing: The film and recording industry work together on it from the outset.”

The explanation of the song’s context in the encyclopedia article is followed by analyses of the music, the video, and the lyrics. Finally, the article examines the song’s impact and critical reception. “Goldfinger” describes the characters in the film musically and also sets the tone for the plot. “The two ominous chords at the beginning create an atmosphere of mystery and suspense. They limit the associations immediately and allude to the film’s villain,” explains Jost. Singer Shirley Bassey set the standard for Bond title songs with her powerful, soulful voice. The song was often covered and remained her only hit in the USA.

“Goldfinger” is the quintessential James Bond song. It illustrates how the title melody can support a film’s plot. Illustration: Svenja Kirsch

The authors of the Encyclopedia of Songs include scholars from cultural studies, linguistics, history, and ethnology. The musical analysis is thus longer in some articles than in others, which perhaps place more emphasis on the historical background instead. However, it is important for the authors to take a comprehensive look at each song. “The way the band stylizes itself in the music video should receive as much attention as the song’s cultural and historical context or musical analysis,” stresses Fischer. For example, the video for “Knights of Cydonia” emphasizes the references to the spaghetti western while at the same time playing them down through futuristic elements. Between opening and closing credits, it tells the story of a cowboy who engages in battle with his antagonist and saves a beautiful woman from the gallows. The story is set in the wild west but quotes mostly science fiction classics like Star Wars, The Matrix, and Barbarella. Poker games and barroom brawls contrast with robots, martial arts sequences, and laser duels. The band plays in the desert but also appears in other places as a hologram.

The project partners plan to add genres to the encyclopedia one by one to cover as many different genres as possible. As this is involves working with a lot of authors, they are already cooperating with other universities. “We would also like to work more closely with partners in Freiburg and establish a strong local network,” says Fischer. “There are a lot of other disciplines we would like to get involved in the project.” The authors are free to choose which songs to analyze. “Our aim is not to make the encyclopedia representative or complete. More importantly, the authors should be able to develop a scholarly interest in a song, while not taking the perspective of a fan,” finds Fischer. As a consequence, the encyclopedia has gaps in some areas. Genres that are currently underrepresented include schlager music and German-language pop music. “It also lacks songs that are frowned upon by mainstream society but are still incredibly successful. Many hits seem quite simple but evoke strong emotions in their fans. There is unfortunately only little research on such phenomena,” says Jost. Yet it is particularly important to analyze songs whose success is difficult to understand or which raise political controversy to find out just what makes them so popular, explains Fischer. “Scholarship needs to start focusing more on the mainstream to find out how people develop their individual taste in music.”

An Educational Tool

The Encyclopedia of Songs is also being used in university courses. Since songs are influenced by social trends and are born out of political contexts, they have a lot to say about the times in which they were recorded. The study of music can therefore be valuable for many disciplines. Several fields of study at the University of Freiburg, for example Romance studies, offer special seminars on popular music. The students have the option of writing their own article about a song instead of a research paper to earn credit for the course. This is how the entry on “Knights of Cydonia” originated. “This gives the students unique insight into interdisciplinary scholarship, and it can even lead to their first publication,” says Jost. But the Encyclopedia of Songs is more than just an educational tool. “We want to be pioneers. It is remarkable when a single research project unites interdisciplinary work and international cooperation so well, while at the same time benefiting the public and combining research and teaching.”

Sarah Schwarzkopf