Jesse Jarnow

“solitaire” – clay aiken

#4 this week, first week on chart

I don’t think I really like the music on the pop charts, or – at the very least – I don’t find so much pleasure in them that I put them on when I’m listening to music outside the time I’m working on this weekly blog. But I’ve been getting into the idea of pop music as a game, comparing and contrasting these different songs and seeing what moves they’re making in terms of the structure and hooks and all the little tricks that go into Top 5 pop (like the way “Good Vibrations” is often revered because it had different sections, used a theremin, etc.). Mike Doughty wrote that music isn’t a technology and that it doesn’t “progress.” Well, perhaps, but try explaining that to genuinely pop songwriters and producers.

The number one record this week is “Solitaire” by Clay Aiken, who I gather was a contestant on American Idol. I’m not sure if this is the recording that’s made the charts, but it appears to be taken from a live taping. (Even if it’s not the one that’s on the chart, it’s the one that’s circulating on the networks, so that probably says something.) There’s a crowd that cheers for half-a-second at the beginning. And, then, the performance. The two things that jump out immediately for me are the fact that it’s barely longer than a minute long (which can be explained by the fact that was for a segment of a television show), but also that it’s a real performance by one person (a sharp contrast to all of the other songs I’ve listened to for this project) singing in the traditional image of pop (as opposed to hip-hop).

I’ve never seen a full episode of American Idol, though I remember reading a commentary somewhere that the contestants on the show essentially present a composite of some subconscious idea about both what talent and pop music should be. I like that argument — especially because this conception of pop music and virtuosity is nothing at all like the other things that have been in the Top 5 lately. That’s not to say that it’s an original-sounding song. It’s not; precisely because it does seem to represent subconscious ideas about talent and what pop should be. It’s a bit of a paradox.

The song is very straightforward: a band backs a singer singing of heartache. But, at the same time, it doesn’t really follow the formula because it’s boiled down for television. Everything has to be condensed into just over a minute. It just cuts to the chase. Fuck this verse/chorus shit, “Solitaire” is just one big build towards The Big Note at the end. That Big Note is the song’s calling card and, even though it’s a moment that’s not repeated, it serves as the hook. After all, the song was performed to demonstrate Aiken’s vocal agility, and The Big Note is the most agile of ’em all. That’s all that’s important, really. I don’t think people really listen to the lyrics on a song like this. Though it appears to be a narrative (there’s a “he” and a “she” and some elements of time and a story) there’s nothing one could reasonably flesh out without liberal doses of imagination. Key words pop out “solitaire,” of course, which comes up in different places (the lyrics of the song are just one extended metaphor). Clearly, the song (or this arrangement of it) is arranged for a showcase performance.

I like, then, how the equation changes. I feel like there could be a cool flow chart made to demonstrate this (like something offa Last Plane to Jakarta, except a little less ironic). The first box is “Idea of Pop Song,” with an arrow into two successive boxes, labeled “Television” and “Demonstration of Virtuosity,” and a resulting box, labeled “Idea of Pop Song (x)” (where “(x)” represents the transformation). Right. The point is, it’s something unique and different than what got fed into it to start.

What’s bizarre is that the song begins with applause (to cue the listener into the fact that this is, in fact, live, a real/”real” performance), but there are no applause at the end. You’d think there would be, to underscore the fact that the crowd reacted wildly. But maybe there is a good reason. Presumably this is getting played on the radio. Without that applause, the song would just have to feed instantly into whatever’s next. Since the Big Note is also the last note, there’s no time for anything but a super-quick crossfade, or the DJ (or robo-DJ) runs the risk of ruining the song (though maybe they do). That’s probably gives the song even more visceral impact, leaving one a little dizzy as the next song begins, still trying to assimilate what he just heard. Maybe. That’s sort of my conception of it. Some time, next time I’m on a long car trip (a few weeks, actually), maybe I’ll put on a pop radio station and see how much I recognize, and how it works in context.