Listening to pop music: an opera critics's running playlist

Listening to pop music: an opera critics's running playlist

Jenna Simeonov

Now, I’m not saying you can’t get a good workout while listening to opera – but I’ll admit that it’s not my go-to when I’m trying to get sweaty.

I know it’s fun for plenty of critics to make it seem like they’re so loyal to their opera and classical music beats that they lift to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries or spin to Ravel’s Bolero. But despite my utter love for Wagner and Ravel and all the late-greats, I just can’t make myself be that consistent in my listening. (Although I will recommend yoga to Glass, and I’ve found that Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos are a solidly weird way to pump yourself up.)

So, I jog to pop music. Like, the poppiest pop music that ever popped onto the pop charts. All the Lady Gaga, all the BeyoncĂ©, Katy Perry doing whatever, “Despacito” remixes, Pitbull, Macklemore, Rihanna, Skrillex, all of it.

(And yes, I am absolutely up for suggestions from you, readers, because I’m a 38-year-old woman and apparently no longer capable of discovering new music that’s not already been out for several years. I joined the “All About That Bass” trend in 2019.)

Anyway. The cool thing about being an over-educated musician listening to pop music while on a runner’s high is that you can do what I call varsity-level listening. It just means that compared to the average person who didn’t do two degrees in Western classical music, you’re listening to music with more tools in your ears. Readers, I bet you guys do this, too, and it’s one of the coolest residual takeaways from studying music in a serious way.

So, I’m starting a new mini-series, where I take you through a few of my preferred songs on my workout playlist, and tell you about what I hear. The point is to like the songs even more than on first hearing, and listen to them so hard until you need like five years off before hitting play again (I see you, “Hey Ya!”).

In this first instalment, I’ve picked three of my current favourites:

“Bulletproof” by La Roux

Released in June 2009, “Bulletproof” is an awesome example of making a song sound like its meaning. It’s a song about breaking up with someone who seems like they deserved to be broken up with. The lyrics kick off strong:

“Been there, done that, messed around /
I’m having fun, don’t put me down /
I’ll never let you sweep me off my feet”

Singer Elly Jackson oozes 80’s fierceness with her throaty sound, which soars over a cool, chaotic beat that’s all synth and insistent bass thumps. It’s this beat that does some of the best word painting in the song: it sounds like we’re in some shipping container or underground warehouse-turned-rave-club, in which there are actual bullets ricocheting from wall to wall, a thrilling add-on to the laser lighting and dry ice surely in the air.

You can just hear her giving a dismissive wave to whoever she’s dumping, and the tone of her voice brilliantly straddles the opposing sentiments, “I don’t care!” and “And another thing!” In the super-catchy chorus, Elly leans into straight tone and declares,

“This time, baby, I’ll be bulletproof”

Do you believe her?

“High Hopes” by Panic! At The Disco

Since Panic! At The Disco first showed up in 2005, Brendan Urie has been on my radar as a legit singer in the mainstream music world (because, readers, sometimes famous singers aren’t actually good, believe it or not). “High Hopes” was released in 2018 on Pray for the Wicked, and it’s proof that Urie has the real chops needed by any lead singer – and he’s kept them up for over a decade, which is nothing to scoff at.

This song rings true to most people who’ve ever worked at something that’s hard to achieve – like success as a professional musician. The lyrics start painfully true:

“Had to have high high hopes for a living /
Shooting for the stars when I couldn’t make a killing /
Didn’t have a dime but I always had a vision /
Always had high high hopes.”

Yup. And maybe subliminally, it’s this message that makes this song so freaking exciting to listen to; but for me, the woman who’s always felt more for sheer sound than for lyrics, I think it’s Urie’s voice.

He’s got an incessant sound, and in “High Hopes” he spends a huge amount of time in that tenor sweet spot, the thrilling line between a gathered, resonant sound, versus pure screaming. But over and over, Urie finds that high, high height and it feels like his voice is telling us that he doesn’t just have hope, but he made it.

(And because great artists are always self-aware, Panic! At The Disco also has a song on the same Pray for the Wicked album, called “Hey Look Ma, I Made It”.)

“Fuck You” by CeeLo Green

He’s the face of our 2016 article about pop singers with serious pipes, and CeeLo Green is a staple on my running playlists. “Fuck You” (or “Forget You”, in its clean version) is pretty darn old by pop music standards, released in 2010 on his album, The Lady Killer.

Even though it’s a very pointed middle finger to a woman who apparently dumped CeeLo for someone with more money, I love this song because it’s full of joy. And the cool thing is, I think you can only get to a breakup song full of joy by doing two things that great singers do: travel the emotional road all the way to the end, and have your chops in order.

CeeLo delivers his lyrics, peppered with hilarious snark, with the kind of crisp diction that thrills any voice coach:

“Yeah, I’m sorry /
I can’t afford a Ferrari /
But that don’t mean I can’t get you there”

Zing! I also love his nod to Mr. T, with “I pity the fool that falls in love with you”, and the rhyme that not everyone can pull off: “If I was richer, I’d still be with ya”. I say it’s a 10 outta 10 for lyrics, and they’re made even better by his The Temptations-esque backup singers.

But what I love most is when CeeLo shows off the control he has over his instrument. There’s the bridge section, where he remembers how sad he was when his ex first dumped him, wailing “Why?” in an exaggerated, wide vibrato. He brings that effect way up into his tenor range, and for a moment he turns his singing into sheer acting.

You know it’s a choice, because a measure later, when he snaps back into the chorus, his vibrato is back to its healthy focus, and those high notes fall out with that awesome reedy, masky sound that gives me a much-needed jolt of workout motivation. (I get a similar sensation when great tenors sing that gorgeous “M’ama!” moment in “Una furtiva lagrima” from The Elixir of Love.)

Note: the “Fuck You” video is age-restricted, so I’ve embedded the clean version here (same great singing, no doubt)”:

Readers, what are your favourite pop songs? Do you listen like a music nerd? Let us know in the comments, or get in touch at [email protected]!

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