PODCAST

Switched on Pop

Vulture

A podcast all about the making and meaning of popular music. Musicologist Nate Sloan & songwriter Charlie Harding pull back the curtain on how pop hits work magic on our ears & our culture. From Vulture and the Vox Media Podcast Network.

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Kendrick Lamar and the big samples
Kendrick Lamar and the big samplesModern Classics: PJ Morton made Nas’s Stevie Wonder dream come trueWill Ukraine win Eurovision 2022?Belle and Sebastian on the value of staying "young and stupid"The New Alternative
Last month, Nirvana entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the first time in nearly two decades — only their fifth time in history — thanks to a comic-book movie. The band’s 1991 track “Something in the Way” was heavily featured in The Batman, whose director, Matt Reeves, said Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain inspired Robert Pattinson’s brooding performance as the caped crusader. Plus, Cobain’s music influenced the film’s score: Michael Giacchino references the dirge-like chords of “Something in the Way,” borrowed from Chopin’s famous funeral march, throughout The Batman’s soundtrack. While these musical motifs obviously pair well with the inner turmoil of a fledgling Batman, the sound is part of a larger revival of “alternative” music. The DIY aesthetic of ’90s alternative, heard in the music of young stars like Olivia Rodrigo and Willow, is a pendulum swing from electronic-laden sounds of the last decade. And the genre’s anti-corporate perspective, which developed out of the excesses of the ’80s, is a fitting backdrop to contemporary activist attitudes. From the nostalgia of Beabadoobee, to the post-rock sounds of Wet Leg, to the industrial sonics of Halsey’s latest project, new artists are using alternative’s old sounds to shape the sound of contemporary pop. On the latest episode of Switched on Pop, Nate and Charlie scan the alternative radio and streaming charts for standout songs that trace this umbrella genre’s myriad sounds and influences. More Read Justin Curto's article 2021 Killed the Myth that Rock Ever Died Songs Discussed (playlist) Nirvana - Something In The Way, Heart-Shaped Box Frédéric Chopin, Leif Ove Andsnes - Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 35 “Funeral March” Michael Giacchino - Can’t Fight City Hallowwen Beabadoobee - Care Hole - Celebrity Skin Tracy Bonham - Mother Mother Wheatus - Teenage Dirtbag Blink-182 - I Miss You Wet Leg - Chaise Longue The Slits - Typical Girls Halsey - I am not a woman, I’m a god Nine Inch Nails - Closer Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - Intriguing Possibilites Machine Gun Kelly, Lil Wayne - ay! Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj - Knockout Willow ft. Siickbrain - PURGE Evanescence - Bring Me To Life Deftones - My Own Summer (Shove It) Learn more about your ad choices. Visit podcastchoices.com/adchoices
Apr 26 2022
31 mins
Jump-starting the creative process with Allison Ponthier
Allison Ponthier knows the hardest part of making anything is getting started. When she was young, she “always wanted to write songs,” fanatically scribbling rhymes in a diary, but gave it up — the prevailing narratives of natural talent, artistic genius, and spontaneous inspiration put the brakes on her songwriting aspirations. She didn’t pick it up again until she turned 19: “It just took me that long to build the confidence.” Now, after a short stint in jazz school, a scholarly approach to YouTube song tutorials, and consistent writing practice, the 26-year-old Ponthier has crafted a songwriting method that reliably turns the mundane into the profound. Her 2021 EP Faking My Own Death shows the hand of a seasoned artist, with lyrics that mine her personal life for unexpected twists and turns. (“It took New York to make me a cowboy,” says the Texas-born, New York–based singer on “Cowboy.”) It helps that she has the backing of songwriting heavyweights such as recent collaborators Lord Huron, Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, and Ethan Gruska (whose productions with Phoebe Bridgers soundtracked the pandemic). To provide a closer look at her process, Ponthier gave us a tour of her songwriting notebook — but not before noting that “no one looks at this, by the way.” The details it contained on the making of her single “Autopilot” is a master class for anyone looking to break through creative barriers. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit podcastchoices.com/adchoices
Apr 19 2022
20 mins
A Higher Power Ballad
The recorded version of Justin Bieber’s “Peaches” opens with a full-blast chorus alongside driving percussion and ringing guitars. But when he performed the song at this year’s Grammys, the song’s instrumentation was stripped down, with Bieber alone at a grand piano, crooning into the mic. Slowly, a band built up, and in came guest verses from Daniel Caesar and Giveon between seven repetitions of the chorus. Each time the chorus returned, the band got louder, the music pointing upward until a high-flying synth solo closed the song. It may have been a surprisingly churchy arrangement of Bieber’s hit, but it was the same sort of slow climb heard earlier in the night when Maverick City Music, the first Christian group to perform at the Grammys in 20 years, gave an uplifting performance of their song “Jireh,” off their award winning album Old Church Basement.  In the church tradition, the slow build is a common feature, beginning as a quiet prayer that expands outward as more voices join in. Naomi Raine, one of Maverick City Music’s members, describes this kind of slow build as a “common and underlying structure” that feels “supernatural and spiritual.” But it’s clearly not restricted to the church. “We are called to blur the lines as far as what is Christian and what is gospel — those two have been segregated for too long,” says the group’s leader, Chandler Moore. The expansiveness of the music is represented in Maverick City Music’s diverse makeup. The seven core members invite dozens of songwriters from countless backgrounds to songwriting camps to explore the traditions constraining boundaries. Having only started putting out music in 2019, Maverick City Music has since released more than 17 combined LPs and EPs in multiple genres, including worship, gospel, R&B, and Latin pop. Consistent across all those records is the transcendent slow build. After exploring the discography of Maverick City Music, one starts to hear the slow build all over pop music. In the case of Bieber, who is both friends with the group and has a religious background, previous hit songs like “Holy” and “Anyone” also use the technique. Even the reworked “Peaches” Bieber performed at the Grammys makes sense, given the chorus’s final line: “I get my life right from the source.” There has been a long history of stylistic exchange between the religious and secular world. There would be no rock and roll without gospel, and Christian Contemporary draws its sounds from the ’60s folk movement. Today, songs made for worship share qualities with power ballads, the former elevating the spirit, the latter coaxing out emotions. On the latest episode of Switched on Pop, hosts Charlie Harding and Nate Sloan speak with Maverick City Music and listen to songs both religious and secular that lift us up. Songs Discussed Justin Bieber - Peaches (feat. Daniel Ceasar & Giveon), Holy (feat. Chance The Rapper), Anyone Maverick City Music - Old Church Basement, Jireh, Same Blood, Used To This, Nadie Como Tú Coldplay - Fix You Céline Dion - Because You Loved Me Luther Vandross - Endless Love (with Mariah Carey) But, Honestly - Foo Fighters Learn more about your ad choices. Visit podcastchoices.com/adchoices
Apr 12 2022
27 mins
How sound becomes hearingListening 2 Britney: Gimme MoreListening 2 Britney: Toxic
In 2003 Britney Spears released “Toxic,” a song that would make converts out of pop skeptics, be named one of the greatest tracks of the 21st century by multiple publications, and become a personal favorite of Switched on Pop. Despite its success, when “Toxic” was released as the second single from Spears’s fourth album, In the Zone, even the song’s writers thought it was too “weird” to become a hit. But thanks to the new iTunes platform, which was just gaining traction in 2013, audiences kept buying the track and helped push it to the top of the charts.  For many listeners, your hosts included, hearing “Toxic” for the first time was a moment of epiphany, an opportunity to rethink one’s views on the expressive power and musical invention of Top 40 pop. And almost twenty years after its release, “Toxic” is still rippling through the culture. It’s been covered as a jazz-noir ballad by Yael Naim, a screamo anthem by A Static Lullaby, and a bluegrass burner by Nickel Creek. In 2022, the song enjoyed yet another revival in the form of DJ duo Altego’s viral TikTok mash-up of the song with Ginuwine’s “Pony.” What makes “Toxic” so enduring? For one, it’s the pull of Spears’ voice, as she moves from her chest voice in the verse to an eloquent falsetto in the pre-chorus, then combines the two techniques in the chorus. It’s the way the song’s producers, Bloodshy and Avant, combine a matrix of sounds that should not go together—a 1981 Bollywood love song, electric surf guitar, and funky synthesized bass—into an unforgettable melange. And it’s the lasting power of Cathy Dennis’s lyrics, which spins a universal tale of trying to resist temptation…and ultimately failing. Songs Discussed Britney Spears - Toxic Lata Mangeshkar and S. P. Balasubrahmanyam - Tere Mere Beech Mein Kylie Minogue - Can’t Get You Out of My Head Katy Perry - I Kissed A Girl Yael Naim - Toxic A Static Lullaby - Toxic Nickel Creek - Toxic Mark Ronson - Toxic Altego - Toxic/Pony Mashup Learn more about your ad choices. Visit podcastchoices.com/adchoices
Mar 22 2022
28 mins
Listening 2 Britney: I'm a Slave 4 U
In the first three years of Britney Spears’ pop music career, she released annual, consecutive albums. In 1999 we got Baby One More Time – its lead single was #5 on the Billboard year-end Hot 100 chart. In 2000, Oops… I Did It Again generated multiple hits. It’s eponymous single reached the #1 spot on Top 40 radio but only ascended to #55 on the year-end chart — the single was only released on vinyl, not CD, to boost album sales. Destiny's Child, Aaliyah and Janet all outperformed “Oops” on the year end chart. CD era marketing tactics aside, these artists were harbingers of what’s to come. The sound of pop music was changing and Britney needed to change with it. So in 2001, she released her self-titled album Britney. When we hit play on our metaphorical discman, the skittering beats of “I’m A Slave 4 U” suggests a significant musical transformation. Enter Spears’ Virginia Beach era.   Britney signaled that she’s moved beyond the Swedish-produced pop polish for an entirely new sonic identity just as she left behind the ingenue character for the first two albums. Working with the Virginia Beach-based duo The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo), on “I’m A Slave 4 U” Spears evolved her sound to sit aside the the R&B sounds of her chart peers. Now with a soundtrack of off-kilter beats and harmonic dissonance, Spears needed a new vocal approach.  We hear this transformation in the opening line: “I know I may be young.” She begins with a breath and a half-whispered vocal. As she propels into the verse, we hear some of Britney's unforgettable tone: controlled vocal fry and rhythmic percussiveness. But there's no sign of the ballad-style singing from her earlier hits. Instead, she sing-speaks through the song. The melody is loose because as she says, “dancing’s what I love - now watch me.” This is not a sing-a-long, this is a dance song and the introduction of a whole new musical era for Spears.  Songs Discussed Britney Spears – I’m A Slave 4 U, Overprotected, Don’t Go Knockin’ on My Door, Overprotected (Darkchild Remix), Boys Destiny’s Child - Say My Name; Bills, Bills, Bills Aaliyah - Try Again Janet Jackson - Doesn’t Really Matter, Son Of A Fun Mase, Diddy - Lookin’ at Me Mystikal - Shake Ya Ass JAY-Z I Just Wanna Love U Nelly - Hot In Herre Selena Gomez, A$AP Rocky - Good For You Lorde - Ribs Kesha - Die Young FKA Twigs - Lights On Learn more about your ad choices. Visit podcastchoices.com/adchoices
Mar 15 2022
29 mins
Listening 2 Britney: ...Baby One More Time
On a crisp Autumn morning in 1998, the world was introduced to the voice of Britney Spears, and pop would never be the same. Britney’s mix of vocal fry, percussive pronunciations, and timbral play on “...Baby One More Time” hadn't been heard before. As successful as they were, these techniques were derided by critics as parts of her manufactured “baby voice." Listening in 2022, we can hear Britney with more clarity: as a radical new artist. "...Baby One More Time" was not Britney's first turn in the spotlight. She had been cast on the Mickey Mouse Club in 1992, when she was 12 years old, executing immaculate vocals and choreography. But the voice on her first single represents a different side of the singer, and a new sound on the pop landscape. With Britney's ferocious vocals at the center, "...Baby" rocketed to number one and broke sales records. On her next release, "Oops!... I Did it Again," Spears upped the ante. Working again with producers Max Martin and Rami Yacoub, "...Oops" borrowed liberally from music across the radio dial, and added a dash of 16th-century harmony into the mix. Between her first two albums, Britney had taken hold of audiences by sheer force of personality and artistry, fought for in every syllable she sang. The stardom that followed was as unprecedented as her sound. But for someone as scrutinized as Britney has been, the artistry behind her celebrity has often been ignored. On the first episode of the four-part series Listening to Britney, we focus on Britney's voice in order to hear a pop icon with fresh ears. Songs Discussed Britney Spears - ...Baby One More Time, Oops!... I Did it Again, Stronger, Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know, Email My Heart Backstreet Boys - Larger than Life Jean-Baptiste Lully - Les Folies d'Espagne Learn more about your ad choices. Visit podcastchoices.com/adchoices
Mar 8 2022
29 mins
Chartbreakers (ft. Megan Thee Stallion and the Red Hot Chili Peppers)Leon Bridges and Khruangbin Sing a Song of TexasShaking Out the Numb with Sylvan EssoWe *do* talk about Bruno
The number one song on the charts is a bit of a mystery. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is the unlikely hit from Disney’s sleeper animated musical Encanto. Set in a mountainous village in Colombia, the film was a middling commercial success when it was released in Nov 2021. But in recent months it has become a pop culture phenomenon for a confluence of reasons: an expansive discourse on Colombian representation in media, fan videos on TikTok, and of course it's ear-wormy hits.  The musical is yet another notch in the belt for Lin Manuel Miranda (the auteur behind Hamilton and In The Heights) who wrote the now chart-topping song book. While Disney certainly commands vast commercial success, its musicals rarely see such crossover attention. The last #1 Disney musical number was “A Whole New World” from the animated Aladdin back in 1993. Where that song was literally uplifting, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is quite the opposite.  Bruno is the uncle of the Madrigal family, whose skill for seeing the future portends gloom and sends him into exile. In his namesake song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” an ensemble cast trade verses about his ghostly presence (Bruno haunts the family home, living inside its walls). It is an odd ball song, with dark and bizarre lyrics. Sure it starts with a story about rain on a wedding day (which is not ironic), but then it takes a hard left into tales of dead fish, middle aged weight gain, and creeping rats. So then what makes it a hit? A distinctive concoction of salsa piano rhythms, familiar Lin Manuel Miranda-isms, and contemporary pop connections to Camila Cabello, Britney Spears, J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Cardi B.  Listen to Switched On Pop to solve the mystery of what makes “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” a hit.  Songs Discussed Lin Manuel Miranda - We Don’t Talk About Bruno, In The Heights, Helpless, Satisfied, My Shot, Wait For It, Say No To This Cardi B, J Balvin, I Like It Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee - Despacito Camila Cabello, Young Thug - Havana Britney Spears - Baby One More Time Learn more about your ad choices. Visit podcastchoices.com/adchoices
Feb 1 2022
26 mins
32 Albums in, Elvis Costello is Just Getting StartedAccidental K-pop star Eric Nam risks it all to go his own wayThe Weeknd drives through purgatory (with a little help from Jim Carrey)Why do new Christmas songs fail?