NPR Music | RYAN KAILATH
What makes one song sound like another? Sometimes it's coincidence; sometimes it's plagiarism. And sometimes, it's the byproduct of deliberate craftsmanship: building a song piece by piece from distinct styles of music. All that can make it hard to give a tune a genre.
Take Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," which just turned 10. Even when presented to self-described music nerds, the song was mistaken for one by the Smashing Pumpkins,Pavement, or even Parquet Courts.
"I always play that riff for friends and they think it's Yeah Yeah Yeahs," Eric Mennel says. "But I go, 'No. It's Kelly Clarkson.' "
You'd think a couple of music nerds would recognize this one —Clarkson's not exactly an underground artist. But "Since U Been Gone," on her 2004 album Breakaway, borrows a lot from the underground and from other strains of music, too.
Max Martin, the Swedish producer behind hits by *NSYNC, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, had teen pop on lock in the late '90s. Then, the music industry began looking for a new pop sound. In true millennial fashion, the industry found it on a reality show.
Kelly Clarkson won American Idol's first season in 2002. Following her victory, she spent a few years finding her new sound, and Martin did too. Then they found each other. The producer is famously press-shy, and didn't respond to our interview request. But he toldBillboard Magazine in 2010 that "Since U Been Gone" was his "comeback" song.
"Max Martin found a way to graft the pop sound that he had perfected with artists like Britney and Backstreet to almost an indie-rock vibe," pop critic Chris Molanphy says.
It's a "Frankenstein's monster" of a song, Molanphy says: hints of R&B on the verses, rock structure, even emo buried in the mix. And, of course, the hook is pure pop.
"It's kind of an amalgam of everything that had been on the radio, all melded together into one song," he says.
"I think what's interesting about 'Since U Been Gone' is that before that, so-called mainstream pop music ... was the music that you weren't supposed to like if you were a serious music fan or whatever," Wright says. "If you knew it was Kelly Clarkson, right away you might go, 'Oh well, I don't care for her; she doesn't even write her own songs.'
"But because it took 20 seconds to actually figure that out, by the time you sort of had that reaction it was too late — the music had already cut straight to your heart."
Fans of Tokyo Police Club loved the group's version. But not all pop hits are created equal. The same album featured a cover of Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA." The band's indie fans scoffed.
"And thus the cycle continues," Wright says.