The Secret Sauce Behind Pop-Music Hits

In their new book, ‘Switched on Pop,’ two podcast hosts discuss why songs by Rihanna, Drake and others break out

Why did Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love” top the charts for 10 weeks? Partly because of the song’s unconventional structure, say podcasters Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding. The two examine “We Found Love”—and more than a dozen other 21st-century hits—in their book, “Switched on Pop,” which comes out Friday.

The volume borrows its title from the podcast the two 33-year-old friends began five years ago about the subtle techniques shaping today’s Top 40 hits. Mr. Sloan is a University of Southern California musicologist and Mr. Harding is a songwriter and musician who plays the guitar, drums and keyboards, as well as other instruments. Their podcast and book are filled with sophisticated but accessible discussions of pop hits from the 2000s and 2010s, from the catchy hook of Ariana Grande’s “Break Free” to Drake’s use of simple rhymes in “God’s Plan.”

In addition to offering a theory-driven take on what the authors call “the bubbliest of bubblegum pop,” the “Switched on Pop” book provides a toolkit for appreciating popular music. The authors delve into musical building blocks like melody, rhyme and sampling.

Messrs. Sloan and Harding spoke with the Journal about how streaming and hip-hop are transforming pop music. An edited transcript:

Charlie Harding, left, and Nate Sloan turned their podcast about popular music into a book. PHOTO: ELLYN JAMESON
You already have a podcast. Why a book?

Mr. Harding: Listeners were saying, “I learned a lot from the show, but I want a comprehensive guide to how to listen more thoughtfully.” That knowledge sits in music-theory textbooks. So we saw an opportunity.

Mr. Sloan: When we’re doing the podcast, we’re responding quickly to what’s happening in the fast-changing world of popular music, which is a great exercise. Forcing yourself to listen to pop makes you confront your own calcifying biases. But the book allows us to think about the things we’ve learned and put them in historical context.

There’s surprisingly little discussion of actual music in the music media. Are you guys an alternative?

Mr. Sloan: People tend to focus on the lyrics of songs and the artist’s personal life. Adding music to that discussion gives even more depth and nuance to how you can think about pop’s role in our culture. There are probably people who think Taylor Swift could release anything and it would be a hit, because of her celebrity. We’d say no. These songs are popular for a reason. You may not like that reason, but there is a reason.

Older listeners often say music isn’t as good as it was. What’s your response?

Mr. Sloan: Pop music reflects the time in which it is made and may not be as relevant to you as you age. But at the same time, what’s been revealing about doing this podcast and book is finding out how pop is changing. One thing we track is how timbre [the quality that lets us distinguish different artists or instruments] and tone are becoming such important elements of pop. Things that might have been privileged in the past—complex harmonies, lyrical creativity, guitar solos—aren’t as privileged now. That can be disorienting, but it doesn’t mean music is bad. The hope is, when you do have to listen to, say, Skrillex, you can at least say, “I don’t like this, but I kind of understand why someone would.”

Mr. Harding: It’s OK to like the things you like, but I also feel strongly that it’s not OK to think other kinds of music are outright bad. By expanding your palette of hearing, you can be more inquisitive.

Are older fans looking for things that are no longer there and then ignoring the innovation? Music, over time, becomes like a foreign language.

Mr. Sloan: I agree. It’s hard to listen to something that doesn’t follow the musical criteria we’ve established. But new music is complex in different ways.

Mr. Harding: Part of Drake’s brilliance, for example, is he is able to say something that sounds utterly familiar—as if you’ve heard it a thousand times—and yet no one has quite put those words together in that way.

Mr. Sloan: It’s a gift, being able to write those catchy nursery rhymes. The way Drake uses rhyme is masterful. One thing he does in the song “God’s Plan” is give you the same phrase, but at different points in the rhythm—keeping it fresh.

The book discusses big hits. Any recent ones you don’t like?

Mr. Sloan: A song we find vexing is “I’m the One,” by DJ Khaled. This is a song we will not redeem. We think it’s derivative, offensive and boring. And yet it was a No. 1 hit. You still have an opportunity to ask why.

Let’s talk Rihanna.

Mr. Harding: Rihanna’s “We Found Love” with Calvin Harris came out in 2011, and while it might seem like any other pop song, it’s upsetting a long-held tradition. Since the 1950s, one thing that’s stayed relatively stable is song form—the verse-chorus form of songs. What this song does is take the structure of electronic-dance-music songs, which is different, and superimpose it on pop.

Mr. Sloan: And now it’s hip-hop that is pushing the verse-chorus form to its breaking point. Take “Sicko Mode” by Travis Scott. It doesn’t have a verse or a chorus. It’s this stitched-together collage of song fragments that seems more at home in the work of an experimental composer.

Will music streaming lead to shorter, simpler songs?

Mr. Harding: The economics of streaming incentivizes songs to be shorter because you get paid per song. We’re also seeing more choruses at the start of songs to hook you in. Listeners have more choices than in the past. It’s forcing producers and songwriters to think intensely about never having a dull moment. But I think there’s always been anxiety about technological change. Songwriters have long paid attention to the medium, from the limits of the vinyl record to the CD.

Mr. Sloan: These developments always circle back to something much older. It’s easy to feel a certain panic about streaming. But “Old Town Road” is still 15 seconds longer than the shortest No. 1 hit ever, in 1960. What’s past is prologue.

Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.

We get the term “postmodern,” at least in its current, philosophical sense, from the title of Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 book, “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” It described the state of our era by building out Lyotard’s observations that society was becoming a “consumer society,” a “media society” and a “postindustrial society,” as postmodern theorist Fredric Jameson points out in his foreword to Lyotard’s book. Lyotard saw these large-scale shifts as game-changers for art, science and the broader question of how we know what we know. This was a diagnosis, not a political outcome that he and other postmodernist theorists agitated to bring about.

.. Jacques Derrida’s concept of “deconstruction” sought to understand language as a system capable of constantly hiding and deferring meaning, rather than a simple conduit for conveying it.
Another thinker, Jean Baudrillard, developed the concept of the “simulacrum,” a copy without an original, that leads to the “hyperreal,” a collection of signs or images purporting to represent something that actually exists (such as photos of wartime combat) but ultimately portraying a wild distortion not drawn from reality.
.. By the 1980s, conservative scholars like Allan Bloom — author of the influential “The Closing of the American Mind” — challenged postmodern theorists, not necessarily for their diagnosis of the postmodern condition but for accepting that condition as inevitable.
.. Unlike so many of today’s critics, Bloom understood that postmodernism didn’t emerge simply from the pet theories of wayward English professors. Instead, he saw it as a cultural moment brought on by forces greater than the university.
.. Bloom was particularly worried about students — as reflections of society at large — pursuing commercial interests above truth or wisdom. Describing what he saw as the insidious influence of pop music, Bloom lamented “parents’ loss of control over their children’s moral education at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it.” He called the rock music industry “perfect capitalism, supplying to demand and helping create it,” with “all the moral dignity of drug trafficking.”
.. Kimball called “Tenured Radicals,” in his 1990 polemic against the academic left. At the heart of this accusation is the tendency to treat postmodernism as a form of left-wing politics — with its own set of tenets — rather than as a broader cultural moment that left-wing academics diagnosed.
.. it treats Lyotard and his fellows as proponents of a world where objective truth loses all value, rather than analysts who wanted to explain why this had already happened.
.. If you’re going to claim that Trumpism and alt-right relativism are consequences of the academic left’s supposition about what was happening, you must demonstrate a causal link. But commentators looking to trace these roots play so fast and loose with causality that they could easily be called postmodernist themselves.
.. It is certainly correct that today’s populist right employs relativistic arguments: For example, “identity politics” is bad when embraced by people of color, but “identitarianism” — white-nationalist identity politics — is good and necessary for white “survival.” But simply because this happens after postmodernism doesn’t mean it happens because of postmodernism
.. figures such as “intelligent design” theorist Phillip Johnson and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich cite the influence of postmodernist theory on their projects. Yet, as McIntyre acknowledges — and documents extensively in his book — right-wing think tanks and corporate-backed fronts — like tobacco industry “research” — had already established an “alternative facts” program for the right, long before creative misinformation entrepreneurs came around.
.. because reading postmodern theory is so notoriously difficult — partly because of how philosophical jargon gets translated, and partly because so much of the writing is abstruse and occasionally unclarifiable — an undergraduate (as in Cernovich’s case) or a layperson will almost inevitably come away with misreadings.
.. Hannah Arendt’s 1951 “The Origins of Totalitarianism”: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction . . . and the distinction between true and false . . . no longer exist.” 
.. “The deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends,” writes Arendt in her 1971 essay “Lying in Politics ,” “have been with us since the beginning of recorded history.”
.. Fredric Jameson’s reflections on conspiracy theory (“the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age”) aren’t what’s convincing people to believe that climate change is a hoax or that the Democratic Party has been running a pedophilia ring out of a Washington pizza parlor.

.. Likewise, the claim that the Trump-Russia investigation is — as Trump said on national television — a “made-up story,” an “excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election,” is not a postmodernist critique of the evidence the Mueller investigation has gathered. So it’s a massive category error to call Trump’s post-truth politics “postmodernist.” It’s just the say-anything chicanery of the old-fashioned sales pitch.

.. it’s clear that the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes.
Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis. The postmodernist theorists we vilify did not cause this; they’ve actually given us a framework to understand precisely how falsehood can masquerade as truth.