Pop's New Old Sound: Retro Without Rules

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Bruno Mars (left) and Mark Ronson, whose song, "Uptown Funk!," has been the No. 1 song in the country for four weeks in a row. (Courtesy of the artist)
Bruno Mars (left) and Mark Ronson, whose song, "Uptown Funk!," has been the No. 1 song in the country for four weeks in a row. (Courtesy of the artist)

Recycled sounds have always been a fundamental part of pop music, but sometimes a borrowed beat or melody is shockingly indisputable. This week we got an especially clear example when the blue-eyed soul singer Sam Smith agreed to give classic rockers Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne a 12.5 percent writing credit on his Grammy-nominated song "Stay With Me," because its chorus sounds so similar to Petty's 1989 hit "Won't Back Down."

Still, there are many ways to borrow from the past without tithing to it; recent hits range from Daft Punk's disco revival, "Get Lucky," to Ariana Grande's convincing Mariah Carey imitation to Taylor Swift's retro-from-the-title-on-down album, 1989.

Is a shift taking place? NPR Music's pop critic Ann Powers spoke with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne about the new wave of backward-looking hits. "The throbbing beat of electronic music that's dominated for the past couple of years seems to be giving way. We have all these artists mining the past in many different ways, without any sense of context, it seems sometimes, or rules," Ann says. "It's tempting to just grab whatever's right in front of you."

To see the many ways the sounds of the past are infiltrating the hits of today, you only have to call the roll of musicians at the top of the latest pop charts.


Meghan Trainor

"Oftentimes in the past, musicians have painstakingly recreated sounds from other eras, but now people just seem to be playing around in the great playground of pop music," Ann Powers says. Trainor's album, Title, debuted at No. 1 last week, while two songs from the album ("Lips Are Movin" and the former No. 1, "All About That Bass") were among the top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100. "She borrows from girl groups and showtunes," Ann says, "but then she raps like she's from the '90s or something."


Fall Out Boy

Always given to making reference-heavy rock, Fall Out Boy's seventh album (its second following a five-year hiatus) debuts at the top of Billboard's album chart this week. American Beauty/American Psycho "is a rock album, but it's just as much about sampling, pulling things out from old hits," Ann says. One song on the album appropriates the theme from The Munsters; another samples "Tom's Diner," the hit by Suzanne Vega.


Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars

Many musicians treat the past like a playground, but Mark Ronson, a successful DJ and producer (he produced much of Amy Winehouse's 2006 album Back To Black) who teamed with Bruno Mars for "Uptown Funk!," the biggest song in the country for the last four weeks, also knows how to play by the rules. "On one level this song borrows directly from The Time and Prince, and even further back from funk bands of the '70s like the Average White Band," Ann says. "But Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars have this way of mixing and matching. They put their own very contemporary stamp on ["Uptown Funk!"] through the production and the performance."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And recycled sounds from brand-name musicians have always been a fundamental part of pop music. This week brought an especially clear example of that. The blue-eyed soul singer Sam Smith agreed to give classic rockers Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne writing credit and a percentage of the royalties for his hit song "Stay With Me" because its chorus sounds so much like Petty's 1989 hit "I Won't Back Down."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY WITH ME")

SAM SMITH: (Singing) Oh, won't you stay with me 'cause you're all I need?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

TOM PETTY: (Singing) No, I'll stand my ground - won't be turned around.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear right there why. NPR music critic Ann Powers joined us to talk more about how sounds from the past infiltrate the pop charts of today. Good morning.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Renee. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Pretty good. I'm wondering if you were surprised when you heard that Sam Smith would pay Tom Petty?

POWERS: I wasn't surprised. Actually, back-room deals around song similarities happen a lot in pop. But, Renee, Sam Smith's sound in general is indicative of a bigger shift that's happening on the Top 40 right now. The throbbing beat of electronic dance music that's dominated for the past couple of years seems to be giving way. And we have all these artists mining the past in many different ways without any sense of context - sometimes, it seems - or rules.

MONTAGNE: And when it comes to mining or borrowing from the past, Anna, I gather you have a bunch of examples.

POWERS: I'm thinking about this as kind of a new take on retro. People just seem to be playing around in the great playground of pop music. Ariana Grande borrows from Mariah Carey. Taylor Swift names her album "1989." And then there's the brand-new album by the band Fall Out Boy. It's a rock album, but it's just as much about sampling, pulling things out from old hits. The Munsters theme is on one of the songs. And then there's this song "Centuries" that the huge hit that takes from Suzanne Vega, the folky.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CENTURIES")

FALL OUT BOY: (Singing) We are the poisoned youth.

MONTAGNE: All right, so you're suggesting this is a sort of rule-breaking recycling. I'm wondering if there is any way for musicians to do this recycling in a respectful way?

POWERS: Look at Mark Ronson, who's had the number one single in the country with Bruno Mars on vocals for the past several weeks. It's called "Uptown Funk."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPTOWN FUNK")

BRUNO MARS: (Singing) Don't believe me. Just watch. Don't believe me. Just watch.

POWERS: On one level, this song borrows directly from The Time and Prince and even further back from funk bands of the '70s like the Average White Band. But Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars also have this way of mixing and matching. You know, Ronson was a DJ for a long time. And I think they put their own very contemporary stamp on it through the production. I think musicians are treating the past like a playground right now. But when you're somebody like Mark Ronson, you're also playing by the rules in a way. And in the end, I think it's a really positive thing.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, mining the past in music - NPR music critic Ann Powers, thanks very much for joining us.

POWERS: Thanks so much for having me, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.