‘Switched on Pop’ Schools the Academy

The first book from Switched on Pop hosts Charlie Harding and Nate Sloan leans into the podcast's academic tendencies, as it makes the case for music fans to take all music a bit more seriously.

Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works, and Why It Matters
Nate Sloan & Charlie Harding
Oxford University Press
December 2019

Switched on Pop, the podcast that originated Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding’s book of the same name from Oxford University Press, is a kind of primer on the show’s philosophy of pop music appreciation. The podcast is one of few that I listen to with any regularity. (The other is the encyclopedic Weezer podcast, John Carroll’s Post-Pinkerton, which is brilliant but best appreciated if you’re at least somewhat steeped in Weezer fandom).

I told my therapist once that, aside from my partner, he (my therapist) was the person I talked to most on a week-to-week basis. My third-most frequent “interlocutors” were
Switched on Pop hosts Harding and Sloan, although I did not directly speak to them. At the time, I was working some exceptionally antisocial jobs, and I was dabbling in podcasts to help cope with the alienation I felt. Podcasts are good for that.

I had just discovered
Switched on Pop, which debuted in 2014, and I was bingeing on back episodes to catch up. I certainly heard Harding and Sloan’s voices more often than I heard those of my employers, and without a doubt, the hosts’ 45-minute excursuses into the musicological significance of contemporary pop music were more intellectually satisfying than the rest of my day-to-day. Even in the earliest episodes, the glosses of songs and concepts are generous and pedagogical, the dialogue between the two hosts free of inside banter and distracting “ums” (“nervous tick theater”, as a teacher of mine once called that habit).

At its essence,
Switched on Pop is two guys talking about music, which sounds like a recipe for disaster. But Harding and Sloan are skilled journalists and born teachers. They’re aware of their potentially dude-y subject positions, and they’re careful never to indulge record-store-clerk tangents. In many episodes, especially recent ones, there will come a moment when Harding will acknowledge the assumptions undergirding their conversation and try to situate them in a sociocultural context. Charlie is like my favorite kind of grad student.

Sloan, however, is in a different headspace. He is an expert thoroughly devoted to his object of study. Listening to the show, you get the sense that for him there might in fact exist a world of music that transcends culture. But instead of coming off as stodgy, Sloan’s commitment infuses the conversation with an extra bit of passion. He is like my favorite kind of professor, which makes sense: Nate is
Assistant Professor of Musicology at USC’s Thornton School of Music.


Pink Fender by rahu (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

There’s not much to be gained in pitting Skrillex against Beethoven; but being open to the idea that a DJ might be as worthy of praise as a classical composer stands to make us more generous thinkers of the here and now.

With their new book, Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works, and Why it Matters, Harding and Sloan have leaned into their scholarly tendencies. The book is designed to further formalize, even make academic, the case made by the podcast: pop music is musicologically complex. Although at this point in the poptimist turn, who other than boomers and the most stubborn musicologists would disagree? It’s written in a collegial “we” à la Deleuze and Guattari, it has footnotes and references to cultural theorists, and it has institutional bona fides, having been published in a beautiful hardback edition by the prestigious Press. But for all of that, the physical object of the book itself is playful: it looks and feels like a tiny textbook, with a simple, primary-colored cover and whimsical diagrams peppered throughout.

Like the podcast, Switched on Pop is both a manual and an argument for close listening. In the introduction, Harding and Sloan declare their purpose: “In the academy, pop has gained traction as a valuable site of study,” they write. “Still, though we live in a golden age of popular music theory, there’s a dearth of texts that offer ways to understand the sonic world of pop” (4). The authors want to push back on the assumption that pop is just mass media broadcasting mainstream consumer ideology, and they follow up their academic intervention with a real-world pitch to the lay reader: “Every type of music lover has something to learn from listening to pop. It is not essential to love every song in this book, but it is essential to take them all seriously—which is not always easy to do” (7).

The success of both the both the book and podcast is to model this approach of taking all music seriously, a challenge that seems tied, in the minds of the authors and of potential naysayers, to pop music’s hyper-contemporary nature. There’s not much to be gained in pitting Skrillex against Beethoven; but being open to the idea that a DJ might be as worthy of praise as a classical composer stands to make us more generous thinkers of the here and now.

The book consists of 16 short chapters, each of which focusses on a pop hit from the last two decades in order to elucidate a specific concept from musicology or modern music production—harmony, timbre, hooks, sound design. Two centerpieces are the chapter on Britney Spears’s “Oops! . . . I Did It Again” (2000), whose triumphant “cumulative chorus” serves as a way into a discussion of the Renaissance roots of counterpoint. The chapter on rapper M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” (2008), delves not only into the legal history of sampling but also into a consideration of how sampled sounds and motifs can radically change their signification, depending on what’s being sampled and who’s doing the sampling.

The podcast, too, is aggressively contemporary, rarely venturing outside of the past quarter century for its primary texts. For example, a recent standout episode, “Who’s Afraid of the Sound of Tik Tok?” (Episode 145), takes on the neo-lo-fi aesthetics proliferating on the video-sharing platform TikTok, while one of my favorite shows, “Why is 90s Pop so Bizarre?” (Episode 90), features a deep dive into the 1994 Rednex hit “Cotton Eye Joe”. It explores an otherwise ridiculous song and holds it up as the tip of a cultural iceberg, a strange artifact that seems to embody all of the corporatism and racial appropriation of 20th century American popular music. (No less strange, given that Rednex are originally from Sweden.)

When listening to the show, I love figuring out which is a Charlie episode and which is a Nate episode. The two hosts have different hobbyhorses, but they complement one other, like Lennon and McCartney. Their book, however, is an exercise in synthesizing their voices into a unified “we”, and without the dialogic format of the podcast, the pedagogy changes. It’s inspiring to see two opinionated thinkers try to reach a consensus in a collaborative writing project, but such consensus might limit what Switched on Pop is trying to achieve as a cross-media project.

For example, something like the discussion of Sia’s Caribbean annunciation on “Chandelier” (2014), in the chapter on timbre, might have worked better as a discussion between the hosts, where they could have modeled a way of working through a problem like appropriation. In the book, Sia’s appropriative gesture appears as an issue to consider, without too much considering.

I’ve sometimes been leery of Harding and Sloan’s “poptimism”, wondering if it was leading them to embrace the subject first and ask questions later. We would have had our pop music conversions at around the same time: I began paying serious attention to pop around 2011, as did Harding and Sloan, who write, in the introduction, of the day they discovered Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”. (Carly Rae has a canonical status for the authors, with Sloan sometimes referring to her on the show as “Saint Jepsen”.) This is not a coincidence.

I’m roughly the same age as Charlie and Nate, and I suspect that we were all at some point a similar kind of Millennial music-guy. As we entered adulthood in the early 2010s, a blasé, Gen-X-inspired hipsterism was thawing, and it became okay to like what you liked. Pleasures no longer had to be guilty, and it was fun to go from music snob to rabid listener of everything and anything—using the internet, of course, to broadcast your capacious interests. (Granted, this is a very narrow experience of the empowering potential of poptimism; at its most radical, poptimism is deeply entwined with identity politics, and it should be noted that the foundational text of poptimism, Kelefa Sanneh’s 2004 essay for The New York Times, “The Rap Against Rockism“, isn’t so much a call to love everything as it is a call for musical gatekeepers, namely critics, to reform their biases.)

Recent events have curtailed my enthusiasm for pop. I still listen to a lot of it, but I’m more cynical about it than I was even just a few years ago, probably because I’m more cynical about everything. And yet it’s true that, regardless of what we think about the music, the industry is quite shitty. The pop music world is one where powerful people take advantage of others with impunity. (See singer Kesha’s fight to dissolve her professional relationship with allegedly abusive producer Dr. Luke). Hence, I’m tempted to look askance at Harding and Sloan’s decision not only to include Drake in their book (chapter 8, “Sometimes the Truth Don’t Rhyme”) but to portray him as a Keats-like master of rhyme, especially in light of recent evidence that the rapper appears quite comfortable broadcasting his intentions to “groom” young female stars.

That said, Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works, and Why it Matters is an important text in the growing cosmos of pop-culture-oriented criticism. The short essays that make up the book shy away from the kind of hot-take journalism that seems to have trapped a lot of the conversation on music, and entertainment in general, in the same rapid discursive lifecycle: X just dropped their new album, and it’s the best because of Y; actually, X’s new album is not all that great because of Z; in the end, X is still great because they’re X; on to the next. These pieces are more neutral, open to revisiting and revising, retreading as needed. Fans of the show will recognize bits of these essays from past episodes. They’re a fitting companion to the podcast, and taken together, the two outlets of the Switched on Pop project promise an exciting future for music criticism in the new media sphere.