The Music Club, 2011

Music Club 2011: The Rise of the Stutter in Pop Music
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 29 2011 10:57 AM

The Music Club, 2011

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The rise of the stutter in pop music.

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Nicki Minaj

Photograph by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

Jody, Ann, Nitsuh, and Carl,

I like Carl’s theory about the whistling in 2011 pop. It also strikes me, given the way much pop music is written, that there’s an expedience and economy to whistle-hooks. Songwriters and performers will often mumble-sing their way through a track before committing to specific lyrics, using gibberish to hash out a vocal line. (One of my favorite peek-behind-the-curtain examples of this is the scratch vocal Britney Spears laid over a beat James Murphy’s DFA made for her years ago, charting her course on the fly.) Words and refrains help a melody lodge in the listener’s head, of course, but they also require work and ingenuity to get right—simply whistle that nagging melody and you’ve taken a shortcut. This is actually kind of the way that I hear, and appreciate, Bon Iver’s music—his words are painful on the page, but in Justin Vernon’s delivery they’re far too gauzy to really register, much less annoy me and get in the way of my enjoyment of, say, that insistent, plaintive riff on “Holocene,” which only gathers intensity as the song goes. That riff, and not the lyrics, is the part of the song that’s really speaking, and it speaks with power. The next time I’m with you when you get coffee, Jody, if the song comes on, I might just shed a tear into your pour over.

Another trademark vocal tic that predates 2011 but had a great run this year: The stutter. Sometimes feigned, sometimes digitally created, stutters were everywhere on the radio, across genres. Lady Gaga, who’s been stuttering since her debut: “Muh-muh-muh-marry the night.” Coldplay: “Para-para-paradise.” Drake: “Umso-umso-I’m-so proud of you.” Katy Perry: “Kiss me, kuh-kuh-kiss me.” Nickelback (who hauled their undead post-grunge zombie flesh back up the Billboard 200 this year, releasing a new album that peaked at No. 2): “That’s-that’s-that’s when we all win.” Gym Class Heroes: “I used-to-used-to-used-to, now I’m over that.” And on and on. My stab at a theory about the stutter’s prominence: It is highly user-friendly (i.e. easy to imitate), it hammers a line into the listener’s head, and it also relates to post-Auto-Tune pop-cyborgism. When the stutter is a digital post-production effect, the tic suggests that the singer is a robot on the fritz, like Conky about to spit out the word of the day (some producer needs to sample Conky). In the hands of a particularly adventurous vocalist, like Nicki Minaj, the stutter can also be a flow-enhancing rhythmic device. (I know that “flow-enhancing rhythmic device” sounds like something door-to-door salesmen peddled to lonely housewives in the ’50s, but I’ll stick with it.)

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I never fully warmed to Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” and actively dislike the way Mark Foster pronounces the word cigarette, but I am totally down with “Aberdeen,” a modern-rock hit by another band with a nonsensical imperative where its name should be, Cage the Elephant. I like it because it reminds me of a Pixies song—oblong bass groove; soaring scrap-heap guitars; foam-mouthed hook—and I like that a song so clearly indebted to the Pixies became a chart success 20 years after the Pixie-biting “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

(Sidenote: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” turned 20 this year! Since it was my favorite song when I was 11, I stand forever helpless in the face of any rock song that nods in its direction—I adore them all. It’s quite strange to experience firsthand some back-in-my-day-rock-sounded-like-this-you-whippersnappers sentiment. In related unflattering developments, I have also been known of late to play Raekwon’s ’90s classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … at dinner parties.)

Maybe that’s why, this year, I gravitated most toward new acts that sound unmistakably new: doing so makes me feel less old. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go buy a leather jacket and a convertible and blast James Ferraro from it.

This has been a lot of fun. See you in 2012.

Jonah

Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.