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5.   Discussion


5.2.3   Harmonic Conservatism

Bannister notes that independent (indie) or alternative rock does not share an antithetical relationship with the mainstream; the dynamic is much more complex.26 Nonetheless, several musical traits stand out in ‘Pink Frost’ as potentially oppositional to mainstream popular music, including the rough recording quality, the blurred instrumental textures especially in the lower registers and the minimal harmonic and melodic movement. This observation mirrors Graeme Downes’ harmonic and modal analysis of The Clean, noted in Chapter 2. He concludes The Clean’s “special place in the history of this country’s popular music” stems from “clearly discernable compositional differences [modal tensions] that distance them from the mainstream.”27 Downes emphasises this view when stating Dunedin bands “shared [unusual]

compositional strategies relating to form…irregular phrase structures…[and]

polymodality.”28 Furthermore, McDonald notes alternative rock bands in the 1990s used unconventional harmonic relationships, such as movement by thirds, as the foundation for songs. This can be heard in Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ and

‘About A Girl’ or Soundgarden’s ‘Head Down.’29

The details identified, such as phrase or riff structure, by Downes and

McDonald have not been closely analysed enough here. But one can argue that the musical narrative analysis suggests another strategy employed by The Chills to denote an alternative position. Further research into contemporaries of The Chills, both locally and internationally, may confirm if this particular trait is common to other artists outside the mainstream.

had Nature’s Best songs only from on this decade. The claim is supported by several results of harmonic features including: a lower number of harmonies per song on average; lower ‘chromatic’ scores; and substantially fewer tonicizations or modulations compared to the decade’s proportion of songs on Nature’s Best.

Moore argues that since the 1970s, different styles simplified rock’s harmonic language, while following a modernist path in the comparatively indeterminate areas of timbre and texture.30 From Nature’s Best, Peking Man’s ‘Room That Echoes’ typifies this point. The harmonies are a straightforward Aeolian pattern in C; the song’s central feature, however, is the echo effect, applied liberally to the synthesizer, flute and vocal throughout the song. Although not rock, Bic Runga’s ‘Bursting Through’ is similarly experimental in its instrumental textures; there are great ‘holes’ in the sound-box between Runga’s voice, the cello and the percussion.

Moore’s argument resonates with James Reid’s comments. When discussing The Feelers’ 1998 debut album Supersystem, from which two singles made the Nature’s Best list, Reid said the band were aiming for an electro-pop-rock fusion.31 Thus, one can hear the synthesizer in ‘Venus’ that bounces left to right behind the acoustic guitar and vocal; similarly, ‘Pressure Man’ opens with a high-pitched percussion synthesizer, like a triangle, above a string synthesizer pad, which also swirls from side to side. This is then complemented by distorted guitars and a drum pattern that evokes 1990s drum ‘n’ bass. Whatever one makes of this stylistic amalgamation, the emphasis has shifted to technological rather than pitch aspects of the music.

As noted with Runga, Moore’s argument is applicable to other styles. ‘Screems From Tha Old Plantation,’ ‘Chains’ and ‘How Bizarre,’ for example, bestow prominence upon the lyrics with their stories of living in the Pacific Islands and the poorer suburbs of South Auckland. This feature is typical of hip-hop

30 Moore, Rock: The Primary Text, 216.

31 Phone conversation.

music.32 Thus, the change in harmonic elements may simply reflect the ebb and flow of popular music with different styles at different times exploring different features.

Another factor warrants investigation: the creation of New Zealand On Air.33 In 1989, the organization was established; one of its primary objectives, in

conjunction with the Broadcasting Act (1989), was to encourage and increase the broadcasting of New Zealand music. In 1991, local artists comprised

approximately 1% of commercial radio airplay in New Zealand.34 New Zealand On Air’s response to this statistic has been two-pronged. The organisation has provided funding to artists for music videos, singles and albums, although the latter two only came into effect in 2000, and thus post-Nature’s Best.

More relevant is the “Kiwi Hit Disc” scheme. Since 1993, New Zealand On Air has released a monthly album containing tracks of current New Zealand artists, who apply to be part of the compilation. New Zealand On Air sends the album to radio stations around New Zealand. For radio programmers, the Hit Disc provides a ready-made selection of New Zealand music, thus encouraging stations to add the songs to the their playlists. New Zealand On Air selects tracks that are “airplay-ready” and have a “promotional plan to help market the song.”35 Of the 33 songs on Nature’s Best released since the Hit Disc’s

inception, only six did not appear on New Zealand On Air’s CDs.

One of the main criticisms leveled against New Zealand On Air is that the organisation is overly focused on commercial avenues.36 Furthermore, New Zealand radio stations are conservative in their playlist choices, mainly

32 See Kirsten Zemke, “New Zealand Hip Hop Stands Up,” in Home, Land and Sea: Situating Music in Aotearoa/New Zealand, eds. Glenda Keam and Tony Mitchell (Auckland: Pearson, 2011), pp. 104-105.

33 The organization’s legal title is the Broadcasting Commission.

34 Chris Caddick, “Review of New Zealand On Air’s Domestic Music Promotion and Funding Schemes,” (December 2010), 41, from http://nzonair.govt.nz/publications/pbcurrent.aspx (accessed 16 January 2011). The document can be downloaded for free from New Zealand On Air’s website.

35 “About Kiwi Hit Disc,” New Zealand On Air, from http://kiwihits.co.nz/hitdisc/about (accessed 23 November 2011).

36 See Caddick, “Review of New Zealand On Air’s Domestic Music Promotion and Funding Schemes,” 5.

following overseas trends.37 New Zealand On Air’s criterion of “airplay-ready”

standards is designed to ensure New Zealand records are of comparable quality to their American and British counterparts. The flipside of this situation is that artists, in order to gain exposure, may feel pressured to follow the trends of commercial radio. This may have resulted in songs that take fewer musical risks, hence the apparent harmonic conservatism.

This is, however, a tenuous link to draw for several reasons. The argument implies that songwriters write songs solely to get accepted onto a Hit Disc and be commercially successful. While such an attitude should not be ruled out, it is too simplistic. As Julia Deans said, Fur Patrol was assisted by New Zealand On Air, but they aimed to mould the New Zealand On Air criteria to their songs, rather than vice-versa.38 Second, there are few harmonic differences, in

measurable terms, between the 1990s Nature’s Best songs on the Hit Discs and the 1990s Nature’s Best songs that were not.

The final point concerns the validity of the comparison. The 1990s songwriters are being compared to Don McGlashan, Tim Finn, Neil Finn, Shona Laing and others; in other words, they are being held up next to a relatively small group of artists. To validate this argument, it would be necessary to locate the 1970s and 1980s songwriters within their wider musical contexts. This would help

determine if, in fact, the earlier songwriters are representative of their era.

The required path from here is more in-depth analysis. As mentioned above, analysis of other samples — international and local — would provide useful points of comparison. There may be some merit in analysing larger selections of the Hit Disc songs to ascertain if they are marked by similar harmonic

characteristics. This would, again, help indicate if the 1990s Nature’s Best songs are representative of wider trends or not. Most importantly, greater rigour could be brought to measuring harmonic complexity, even if one’s musical intuition serves as a good guideline. Everett undertakes this sort of task by scoring a

37 Ibid., 20.

38 Interview.

selection of songs in terms of harmonic techniques, such as the appearance of V-I structural cadences or the use of functional harmonies.39 Although requiring some methodological adjustments, such a task could prove highly fruitful in this context.