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Pop Off: What's Lost When A Recording Sounds Too Perfect

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Pop Off: What's Lost When A Recording Sounds Too Perfect

Music Articles

Pop Off: What's Lost When A Recording Sounds Too Perfect

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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And now for some hits of the musical kind. Take a tour of the pop charts, and you'll notice that the songs in the Top 10 have a very similar, glossy sound.

(Soundbite of songs)

INSKEEP: You might even miss that the song keeps changing there. All these hits have an electronic shimmer to them, as if they've been computer-processed to be more perfect than perfect. That's what our Pop Off Team is talking about right now.

Here are Jay Smooth and Maura Johnston.

Ms. MAURA JOHNSTON (Music Writer): So Jay, if I think I had to pick one adjective to describe the Top 10 right now, that adjective would be gloss.

Mr. JAY SMOOTH ( There's something about these songs right now that - they seem to have all been made at the same factory. What do you think it is that makes that similarity?

Ms. JOHNSTON: I dont know if it's a factory sound as much as it is a sort of striving for this hyper-compressed, hyper-perfection. I feel like this is a more technologically advanced version of the trick that radio stations used to do back in the earliest days of Top 40 radio, you know, when certain songs that might not have had a certain pop to them were released - some stations would pot(ph) the song up maybe a pitch or two to make the listeners' ear sort of like, jump at the sound of the slightly faster drums, slightly more tinny vocals.

Mr. SMOOTH: Right. I think for those of us who grew up with analog recording process for the music we heard, the technical limitations of how you're recording gave it a particular warmth and crackle and crispiness that we associate with being right and correct, but actually is not a pristine recording compared to the modern technology.

(Soundbite of song, "Holding You Down")

Mr. SMOOTH: One song thats trying to work its way up the pop charts right now is "Holding You Down" by Jazmine Sullivan, which sounds like it was conceived in a laboratory specifically to pander to me and my analog sensibilities. It fully maximizes the crispy, crunchy, sample-based hip-hop sound.

(Soundbite of song "Holding You Down")

Ms. JAZMINE Sullivan (Singer): (Singing) I done went through just about two box of tissues baby, and you're looking at me like you ain't the issue baby. And though I tried to leave, I can't stop missing you, baby. And I keep coming...

Mr. SMOOTH: And Jazmine Sullivan has this really rich, earthy voice that used to be commonplace in soul and R&B, but you dont hear it as often now because that sort of rich, deeply expressive voice doesnt translate well in the modern form of processing, with auto tune and all of the heavy reverb and compression.

Mr. SMOOTH: So do you think that we just sound old by talking about this? Do you think that like, you know, 20 years ago, two 30-something pop writers were talking about how that new record by Guns N' Roses sounded so - just like over the top and overproduced? Aw, man, there are just so many guitars in this record, I dont know.

Mr. SMOOTH: Right. I mean maybe to me because I grew up with something different. This music sounds like skin that has no pores or a couch that still has the plastic on it. But this generation that listens to it is still being moved to tears by that music, they're still falling in love with each other to that music, and falling in love with the singer.

Ms. JOHNSTON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SMOOTH: So I mean, music will still serve its function, and people will find a way to relate to the artifice in a way that feels real to them.

(Soundbite of song, "Smile")

Mr. JUSTIN BIEBER (Singer): (Singing) Whoa-ooh-whoa-ooh-ooh-whoa-whoa. You smile, I smile...

INSKEEP: Thats our Pop Off Team: Jay Smooth, who blogs at, and music writer Maura Johnston. There's more from Jay and Maura at NPR's music blog,

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.


And Im Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of song, "Smile")

Mr. BIEBER: (Singing) You ain't seen nothing yet. I won't ever hesitate to give you more. Baby, you smile. I smile. Whoa-ooh-whoa-ooh...

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