Meghan Trainor and the Power of Pastiche

In my opinion, a life is best lived when one enjoys the best of all fields of creative endeavor.  I’m not the world’s biggest fan of rap music, but I enjoy a number of the better rappers.  Country music isn’t my bag, but it’s silly not to enjoy some of the great examples of the genre.  Writers are particularly charged with having a wide frame of creative reference.  Everything under the sun has been done before; no idea that you have will ever represent an example of soil untilled by the human imagination.

So why resist the possibility of influence by great works from the past?

Meghan Trainor certainly doesn’t resist.  Now, I’m not exactly in the target demographic for this music.  I am, however, unable to turn down bright melodies, good songwriting and compelling performances that are presented by a solid and confident singer.  In case you don’t know who she is, you do.  She’s the young woman who co-wrote and performed that “All About That Bass” tune you’ve heard a trillion times.

Ms. Trainor is from Cape Cod (lucky!) and unless I’ve been tricked, she’s a natural-born songwriter whose parents introduced her to all kinds of music.  Ms. Trainor is also very good at channeling these melodies swirling in her head and turning them into something new.  For example, check out Dion’s “Runaround Sue:”

What do you notice?  The song begins with a slow introduction of the song’s conceit sung emotionally over angelic-sounding chords.  Then the band kicks in and the lead singer discusses the power of love, interrupted on occasion by rhythmic scatting of a sort.

Now listen to Ms. Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband,” co-written with her producer, Kevin Kadish:

Hmm…the song begins with a slow introduction of the song’s conceit sung emotionally over angelic-sounding chords.  Then the band kicks in and the lead singer discusses the power of love, interrupted on occasion by rhythmic scatting of a sort.  Ms. Trainor borrows all of the elements of 1960s girl group music, 1950s soul, late-model R&B and even some of the Tin Pan Alley vibe to create something new and fun.  Most of all, the song is helped by the fact that Ms. Trainor can actually sing.  (This is just about my highest compliment!  I’ve always been annoyed when a singer who can’t sing makes it big.)

How about a deep track?  Here’s a song that Ms. Trainor wrote and performed for an independent album called Only 17:

And a live performance of a song called “Walkashame:”

What are some of the musical elements that Ms. Trainor has in her arsenal?

  • Walking bass lines
  • Girl group harmonies
  • Doo wop harmonies that serve as rhythm
  • Classic Broadway ways of finishing phrases (particularly in “Walkashame”)
  • Those great quarter-note piano chords you find in Motown music
  • Hip-hop/rap breaks
  • Classic Motown Holland/Dozier/Holland middle-eights
  • Absolutely solid pop songwriting structure

Ms. Trainor is exceptionally skilled in the art of creating the musical pastiche, blending elements from different styles to create something interesting and new.  What makes pastiche so exciting?

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is so cool because it shows off the abundant talents of everyone in the band.  Freddie Mercury builds from operatic recitative to all-out arena rock and back to grandiose orchestral emotion.

Danger Mouse’s Gray Album somehow manages to make Jay-Z’s rap even more hardcore and the Beatles’ proto-heavy metal more rockin’.

I used musical examples to demonstrate my point, but pastiche occurs in all other media.  Breaking Bad is awesome, right?  I know.  Why wouldn’t it be?  It’s a gangster story mixed up with a father-son story imbued with more than a little bit of the immigrant narrative.  I would contend that Kubrick’s The Shining represents something of a pastiche; it’s a supernatural horror film at heart, but the film is also very much a dark comedy, an addiction narrative and a parenting tutorial.  (I’m kissing about that last one.)

Pastiche is so effective for the same reasons that fusion food is so good.  American pizza is so different from its Italian forebears; could you really do without New York Style or Chicago Style?  When you fold in elements from other genres and styles, you avail yourself of the conventions of the new genre or style.  The Shining would still have been great without the dark humor, but it would have been a very different film without the Lloyd scene.

Kubrick empowered himself to use a number of different creative toolboxes, just as Meghan Trainor puts a bunch of musical ideas into a blender and hits the “liquefy” button.  Perhaps it’s a strange metaphor, but creating a pastiche ensures the work has greater genetic diversity than a single-genre/single-form work.  Aristotle may warn you against mixing tragedy and comedy, but doing so can make the work even more potent.

What are some of your favorite examples of pastiche?  When have you employed this technique in your work?

 

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One Comment

  • The first thing I thought of with musical pastiche was, oddly, the Fruit of the Loom commercials – they did different musical genres really well.
    First, the warm-and-fuzzy country song – except they’re singing about dead hamsters and tighty whities. I didn’t really get the lyrics the first time I heard it, but I was sure it was a real song.

    Then there’s the operatic take, which is very close to O Fortuna from Carmina Burana.

    How about some Harry Connick Jr. doing old standards?

    And I’d swear this one is modeled after the Beatles “A Day in the Life” (including the walk across Abbey Road) with an overlay of Coldplay (backwards video). Maybe even “Mad World”.

    There was another one I was very fond of, called “Flawless” – mellow piano lounge jazz – but I can’t find it, looks like they had to wipe it, maybe some kind of copyright trouble.

    Parody is a subset of pastiche, I guess – I’m thinking Airplane, did such a great job of skewering Airport. A book called House of God was a sort of St. Elsewhere in book form, the comic and dark side of medical school. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a great send-up of Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life”, instead of footprints on the sands of time, it was about chickens. And Ernest Crosby wrote a scathing version of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” – as others have done since. Political parody is probably a subset of a subset.

    Fun topic. Bohemian Rhapsody is one of my favorite things ever, btw.

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