Lorde’s new single “Green Light” inadvertently introduced a well-know but infrequently discussed revelation in pop music: it has its own circumstellar habitable zone.
Also known as the Goldilocks Zone, the circumstellar habitable zone is that perfect range within our solar system that can support the necessary conditions for life. The earth is not too close, not too far from the sun. Its atmospheric pressure is such that water can exist in a liquid state. It’s the happy medium.
And despite longstanding talk of how pop music has become “formulaic,” there is a sort of happy medium between not-too-different, not-too-vanilla that makes a successful pop song successful.
In an interview with The New York Times Magazine, Lorde said pop songwriter Max Martin described “Green Light” as “incorrect songwriting.” For a pop song, he was right. Subsequent articles pointed out the sudden key change of the pre-chorus that, to some, was unpalatable. Overall the song doesn’t achieve the hook it strives for. Its differentness (“It’s a strange piece of music,” Lorde said of the song) was linked to its stunted rise on the charts, yet still earned praise from music critics for her courageous and impactful songwriting, as “incorrect” as it may be.
It’s a great song, but it’s still not a great pop song.
This Goldilocks effect is why Miley Cyrus’ first post-transformation single “We Can’t Stop” was so successful. It still ranks pretty high in my list of favorite pop songs. It was about a topic that’s become generic in this age of pop music: partying, dancing, the general tomfoolery of cooler-than-you youth. But set at a slower tempo with some unique touches from Mike Will Made It, “We Can’t Stop” stood out. Not too generic, not too out-there.
It’s also why Miley Cyrus’ second post-transformation single “Malibu” sort of sucks. The concept is cool. I usually love anything described as “breezy,” as so many of the reviews and commentary have dubbed the track. And sure, it’s different for Miley Cyrus, who has decided she no longer wants to fuck with hip hop and wants her long hair back. But overall, the song is so boring. Even in the most basic sense, when broken down to music notes on paper, its range in pitch is pretty muted. The roads that cross verses and the chorus stay pretty level, the melody stays pretty stagnant.
“Malibu” is super easy to listen to. Its California composition – the steely guitar and a bass drum beat like your friend pounding a box for a rhythm during a bonfire-on-the-beach performance – makes the song a lovely one. I like it.
But it isn’t a great pop song.
Where Lorde was too different, Miley isn’t different enough. It’s an unfair conclusion to draw on pieces of music, but when it comes to pop music, that’s the formula everyone is talking about. The Chainsmokers have pretty much nailed it, creating their own formula of love songs that synchronize synth with bass, that are strategic with their progressions and depend on lyrics made for Generation Z. It’s laughable how much the Chainsmokers have perfected this songwriting – so much so that you can write your own Chainsmokers song. And it would probably still be a great pop song.
Taylor Swift nailed this whole pop thing down, too, of course. Next time you throw on 1989, pay attention to how she is very particular about adding something a little distinct in each song, whether it’s her switching between singing and what’s called Sprechgesang, something between talking and singing (“I can make the bad guys good for a weekend” or “My ex man brought his new girl friend, she’s like ‘Oh my God'”). Or those sighs in “Wildest Dreams.” Or the crunky base under the melody of “Bad Blood,” which, if sung Acapella, is so far from the hip hop tone the song ultimately achieves. And yet all of these songs pretty much follow the template of verse-prechorus-chorus-verse-chorus-conclusion. In one way or another.
Not too different, but not too bland, either. Sound familiar?
I don’t know if Lorde is even looking to achieve perfect pop with “Melodrama” (out June 16), or whether Miley cares about it for her upcoming album (I have no idea when that’s coming). But if their records – and anyone else’s – are gonna be on repeat in the car and at the beach and in the shower, they’ll have to land in this circumstellar habitable zone of pop music.