Power Pop

Adam Gopnik certainly gets one thing right in his combatively pro-McCartney
reading of the Beatles, which showed up in The New Yorker a few weeks ago:

Rock criticism has stumbled over the question of how to describe some
of the most simple glories of the genre. And critics like Greil Marcus
have indeed used rock’s anti-commercial, post-punk wing to prop up a
theoretical, intellectual mode of rock criticism. But there’s a larger
problem here, not unique to rock criticism: tunes are nearly impossible to
describe in objective terms, while avant-garde hurly-burly has generated
reams of prose. Melody is outside the reach of words, and melody does not
need words to validate itself. Also, once you try to isolate melody in a
musical texture, you’re left with incandescent dust. Who can explain why
“Danny Boy” resonates in the ears? That tune was an ordinary Irish folk
melody that Percy Grainger harmonized, without words–and its magic hovers
somewhere between the melody and the harmonization. I think Gopnik hits on
the same phenomenon when he writes that McCartney’s recent songs “float
like hard candies in a suet pudding.” I’m not sure precisely what he
means, but the pudding metaphor points to the elusive something that
supports melody and brings it to life. The something could be an elegant
harmonization, and it could also be a low-fi blur of noise. McCartney, in
his best days, managed both ends of the spectrum; as Gopnik’s piece duly
points out, he himself dreamed up the tuneless orchestral roar at the end
of “A Day in the Life.” A tune by itself is nothing, and so is
tunelessness. What rock criticism needs to explain (if it really wants to)
is how great songs coalesce in the space between.

— A.R. (May, 1995)

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