When you hear “Call Me Maybe,” the smash 2012 hit by Canadian pop star Carly Rae Jepsen, what do you hear? Garbage? Repetition? Annoyance? Perfection? For longtime musical collaborators Charlie Harding and Nate Sloan, hosts of the popular Vox music podcast Switched on Pop and recovering music “snobs,” the inescapable song-of-the-summer was a door to the big, wide world of pop. In 2014, Harding was a part-time songwriter and Sloan was a high school teacher with a music theory class in his charge. The pair were traveling across California with their wives, sequestered in the backseat where they were free to air their music geekery. They had both just read a Slate piece in which musician Owen Pallett utilizes theory to explain another immaculate pop song, Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” Sloan took a similar approach with his students, using musical theory to analyze Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” Sloan, now an assistant professor in musicology at USC, and Harding, who has added producer to his resume, realized the same concept could be used to study pop music of all kinds, and thus a passion project was born.
Switched on Pop, now in its fifth year of production, beautifully and unpretentiously picks apart the best (and occasionally, worst) songs on charts past and present, offering their rabid listeners a rare understanding of what some music fans might consider to be throwaway commercial entities. Keeping in mind the bodies of people who are most likely to cherish certain strands of pop music—women, racial minorities, the LGBTQ+ community—Sloan and Harding take great care in helping us understand why pop music sounds the way it does, and why pop music is important in your life, no matter who you are. It may seem like a simple concept for a podcast—two guys talking music theory and Taylor Swift—but it’s something grander than that. They’re not just two guys—they’re experts—and they take a thoughtful approach in looking at music that may otherwise be considered silly or unworthy of analysis. As they write in the intro, “It turned out the only thing preventing us from enjoying pop was our own bias against it.”
Thanks to popular demand, Harding and Sloan are transforming the best of their beloved podcast into reading material. Their handy new book, Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works, and Why It Matters, will hit shelves this weekend, and it contains 16 studies of pop songs and coinciding theoretical concepts from the last 20 years. The chapters span Calvin Harris and Drake, Ariana Grande and M.I.A. In one section, our pop music travel guides ask a question as simple as “Does Pop Have a Sound?” The answer is more complicated than you might think. We called up Sloan and Harding—two enthusiastic, chatty personalities, like any good podcast hosts—to talk about their book and all things pop.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Paste: When you started Switched on Pop five years ago, did you ever expect the podcast to have this kind of success?
Nate Sloan: I think I speak for both of us when I say it was completely unexpected and that we only began the project as a labor of love that we imagined would be listened to by our friends and grandmothers. What really surprised us and became the sort of raison d’etre of the show was how complete strangers also responded to this analysis of the music of pop. And that recognizing that people who weren’t related to us were also interested in thinking about music in this deeply musical way. It was one of the most wonderful, unexpected things about doing the podcast and has really remained at the center of what we do, and offering a way to think about the music behind the songs you love in a new way.
How did you decide to turn the concept into a book?
Charlie Harding: So much of the show is guided by our amazing listener base. They give us great recommendations for episodes and ideas all the time. And we kept getting messages from them saying, “Hey, do you have a recommendation for a book that gives you essential musical knowledge that I need to understand pop music and to listen like you guys do?” And you know, frankly, we can point them to some pretty hefty textbooks on basic classical music theory. And there are some good resources online, but they’re pretty uncurated. And so we would receive more of those emails and eventually we said, “All right, we’ve gotta make this thing.”
The book’s intro focuses on one pop song in particular, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” Why did you make that tune the centerpiece?
Sloan: One reason is that this is a platonic pop song. It is just perfect. Two, Carly Rae Jepsen, we call her “Saint Jepsen.” She is the patron saint of our podcast. And three, which is related to two, is that this song was the impetus behind the whole podcast, because we were driving down California’s Route 1 with our wives in 2014. And I was telling Charlie about how, as kind of an experiment with my students, I was teaching music theory, like, “Let’s break down this Carly Rae Jepsen song together.” And what really surprised me was just how many levels there were to what, prior to that, I had thought of as a really sort of anodyne, trivial pop song. And then when I was sharing with Charlie, we just were lit up by the idea of applying more classical musical theory concepts to the understanding of pop music. So that was the galvanizing song that five years later has brought us to this point.
Outside of Ms. Jepsen, how did you decide which songs, artists, eras and pop music touchstones to include throughout the book?
Harding: So we had a very complex matrix of many songs that we wanted to include. But we limited it to the last 20 years. We wanted to have a diversity of genres, making sure that we weren’t just covering bubblegum pop, obviously including R&B and hip hop and country, electronic music and so on. We also want to make sure that we had a diversity of gender representation and other identities, race representation, race, sexuality and so on, because we think that an important part of pop music is trying to reflect all people, and we wanna make sure people are represented in the book. But, ultimately, we had to find songs that really evidenced whatever the core musical content was that we wanted to talk about. And so it makes sense that when we’re talking about syncopation, we want to talk about Kendrick Lamar, ‘cause it shows how trap syncopates and how his voice syncopates in this really eclectic way, a great sensibility of a drunken style rhythm.
What I love about this book, and your podcast, is how it makes pop music seem interesting and vital to everyone, even people who might look down on it. What do you think is the biggest misconception about Top 40 pop?
Sloan: First I would say we were once like you, we were proud members of the snob community. [Laughs] So the first thing I would say is that our doing this podcast, writing this book, has been a journey for us, too, to really embrace popular music. In a way, we first approached it as sort of a means to an end to teach music literacy. And then it became the end in and of itself as we emerged as real genuine fans of popular music. I love that question because I think there’s a lot of different answers, but one might be that at this juncture in the last 20 years, the illusion [of] the indie scene in pop has become really profound to the point where you have people like Dave Longstreth collaborating with Beyoncé and Rihanna covering a Tame Impala song and Bon Iver and the world of hip hop and R&B dialoguing back and forth through their musical techniques. So I would argue that if you want to understand better the music you love, you can learn a lot by listening to pop.
At the same time, there has certainly been a steady rise in poptimism among music fans and critics this decade. Why do you think that is?
Sloan: I think one reason that poptimism has become a really profound mainstream phenomenon is that we have more voices than ever. Social media like Twitter and the rise of diverse music blogs I think allowed voices into the critical discourse that were not part of it before, particularly the voices of those same communities that Charlie was mentioning earlier, racial minorities, people with non-normative sexualities, people for whom pop music is a really important and critical part of their lives. Their voices weren’t being heard in—I guess the antithesis to poptismism is rockism—in the rockist critical discourse. So as those voices have entered the sphere, I think people have understood the world and the importance that popular music plays in so many people’s lives. And that has had a real shift in how we take this music seriously.
What is your assessment of pop music in 2019?
Harding: I think we’re experiencing a year of a lot of transition. It’s challenging for me to say that 2019 was about any one thing except for the bucking of norms. We really have the industry of streaming guiding so much growth in music revenues. And so I think there’s a lot of people experimenting, trying to figure out what works in the streaming environment. On the flip side, I think there’s a lot of artists finding ways to reach more listeners that they couldn’t reach before. I think the main musical thing, we see that real deconstruction of song form. So we are used to hearing the idea of, “verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus,” right? That’s your typical pop song, and I think partially because of streaming, but also because there are just changes in aesthetics, people are really playing with that form. Songs are sometimes a lot shorter, sometimes a lot longer, and some people are completely bucking the idea of the hook. I think a great song to really evidence this idea of busting open song form would be a song like [Travis Scott’s] “SICKO MODE.”
Sloan: I think a nice example of what Charlie’s talking about [is] this Kanye track. “Follow God” doesn’t even have a chorus at all. It’s just a stream-of-conscious monologue, which is similar to “SICKO MODE.”
Harding: So yeah, I mean the deconstruction of form and just so many genres that are both extended and changing. We’re sort of at like peak trap, but it’s evolving into other things. We have a K-pop as a dominant important part of music. The rise of Spanish language music as just straight-up top 40. I think we’re sitting in this emergence of many different kinds of pop music that makes it very hard to say that there is one thing going on. I’m excited by that.
What do you hope music fans—especially pop skeptics—glean from this book?
Harding: We wrote this book for anyone that has loved any song. If you’ve loved a song and want to know why you love it, and even people if you love music and you hate pop music, we think that this book is definitely for you because it’s going to help open your ears.
Sloan: The subtitle of the book [How Popular Music Works, and Why It Matters] is kind of the key for what we’re trying to accomplish, giving you tools to listen deeply and enjoy the musical aspects of any kind of music that you listen to in jargon-free, simple language that’s accessible to anyone. Whether you’re a pop skeptic or a true poptimist, the idea of why this music matters. Every chapter will, if not convince you that this song is something that you need to listen to every day for the rest of your life, that this song matters in some way and can tell us something about the world we live in.
Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works, and Why It Matters is out Friday, Dec. 13. Pre-order it right here.