Porter Robinson’s Sea of Voices: A Critique of Pop Music

Credit: http://runthetrap.com

WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF POP MUSIC—and more specifically the EDM-infused pop music which still dominates today’s charts—Porter Robinson’s “Sea of Voices,” is a not-so-subtle middle finger to the current hegemony of formulaic dance beats, pop vocal features, and one-dimensional lyric writing. As a protest song it flips the standard tropes of pop music over to explore what broader emotional landscape may be on the other side. But it’s more than a protest song. “Sea of Voices” stands on its own right as a work of beauty and originality.

Plenty of songs are not pop songs. What makes “Sea of Voices” interesting in its critique of pop music is that in 2014—when “Sea of Voices” was released as the first single from Robinson’s debut album Worlds—Porter Robinson was primed for superstardom. In 2011 he released Spitfire, an EP from the Skrillex record label OWSLA, which was full of catchy dance anthems and hooks. He toured after the release, opening for Skrillex and Tiësto. This was two years before Avicii’s album True, and one year before Calvin Harris’ 18 Months.

So there was some surprise in 2014 when “Sea of Voices” was released. It was nothing like Spitfire. There were no hooks or dance beats. The short vocal track was not done by Rihanna or Kesha, but by a little known indie artist named Breanne Duren. There were some rumblings earlier in the year that Robinson’s Worlds would be a departure from the EDM style music that made him famous but the release of “Sea of Voices” confirmed what had previously only been speculation—Robinson, a perfectly situated talent in a market about to explode, was intentionally walking away from the next big wave in pop music

In a series of tweets the night it was released Robinson addressed what would be the implication after his fans heard “Sea of Voices”:

“I’ve had multiple anxiety attacks on stage this year and it was always related to feeling like a fraud. It sucked. The fucking watershed moment in writing Worlds was when I realized that I didn’t have to write songs for DJs. I realized that my need to be honest with myself and with you was greater than my need to be famous or whatever.”

ALTHOUGH “SEA OF VOICES” IS A DEPARTURE for Robinson—and it’s a departure with a specific goal in mind—the song does not suffer for it. “Sea of Voices” succeeds in its critique of EDM pop music not only in its commandeering the tropes of EDM pop music by flipping them on their heads (which it does masterfully), but it primarily succeeds, like any good song, by being an enjoyable listening experience:

Pretty, ain’t it?

If you listen carefully, you can hear Porter Robinson’s critique of the emotional narrowness of modern day pop music.

He does this primarily in three ways:

  1. The beginning slowly builds momentum by layering tracks instead of a few-noted hook or melody

Most songs work hard to try and get a listener hooked in under 10 seconds. This is done in a variety of ways: a little jingle or melody, an interesting instrumental that leads quickly into the first verse, etc. “Sea of Voices” completely abandons this notion. It doesn’t force you to get hooked. It draws you in without seeming to try too hard, layer by layer:

0:01 — Wind chimes. Single high synth note that will be blended with a vocal chorus later on.

0:07 — Bass synth.

0:23 — Middle synth.

0:33 — Rotating synth tone.

0:37 — Percussive guitar fuzzy tone. High synth note from the beginning is expanding into a chorus of electronic trilling female voices.

0:48 — Volume builds. Rotating synth comes to the front of the mix.

1:03 — Chorus of trilling female voices comes to front of mix and takes over chord progression.

1:15 — Separate orchestral synth takes over part of chord progression.

1:38 — Volume and mix continue to modulate and increase.

2:00 — Volume builds. Tracks oscillate and compete for prominence in mix

If you’re curious, listen again and take note of how subtle these changes are blended into the track. Each one is a moment of understated anticipation.

  1. The simple beat drop happens 3 minutes into the song

If there’s one quintessential trope in pop music, it’s the beat drop. The beat drop is the moment in a song where the percussion comes crashing in—this is the part where you feel an overwhelming urge to bob your head or dance, but this isn’t by mistake. Songs are carefully constructed to produce this effect in you. Usually the rule of thumb is to drop the beat within the first minute of a song, along with the first chorus. This guarantees that at the very least you will be exposed to the ‘best’ part of the song early, before you decide to change the song.

“Sea of Voices” drops its beat at 3 minutes. This is a long time to wait for percussion but it works because the song achieves a compelling emotional landscape without a beat. By the time all the tracks are working together at 2:00, the chord progression drives the song on its own to the natural climax.

Just as we aren’t forced into a hook up until this point, the beat drop is similarly understated: basically it’s just a reverbed snare and kick drum. Having spent the first two thirds of the song building slow and methodical pieces, Robinson was smart to make the climax a continuation of the prelude rather than a dramatic break. It would be tempting to pull out all the stops after three minutes of waiting but that would jolt the listener out of the song rather than keep them in. Instead a simple beat enters as more of a change of scenery than a change of pace, and the effect is all the more epic.

  1. Breanne Duren’s vocal track is short and only does what it needs to

“Sea of Voices” is essentially an instrumental track. There are some lyrics towards the end of the song but they are sparse:

We’ll see creation come undone

These bones that bound us will be gone

We’ll stir our spirits ’til we’re one

Then soft as shadows we’ll become

“Sea of Voices” is an interesting choice for a first single because instrumental tracks don’t usually sell very well, and out of all the songs on Worlds (besides the song “Natural Light”) “Sea of Voices” has the fewest words.

This could be a real detractor for some people, but I would argue that in the context of the song as a whole this small stanza is all that is needed for the song to work.

“Sea of Voices” is not trying to be a poetic anthem. The lyrics come towards the end because their purpose is to fulfill the last act. They come after the beat drop as a way of bringing the song back down to earth, like the calm after the storm, etc. Instrumentally the song did all it could do. The slow build and the beat drop are two self-contained sections which are effective by being interesting in their own terms. The vocal track is a way of tying a bow on the whole thing.

In terms of a message, the lyrics may seem like a melodramatic reflection on death and even apocalypse. And this is partially true. One extra layer though that may be missed if it’s not overtly referenced, is Robinson’s album-wide theme of “world destruction.” He references over and over online video-game worlds he loved that were eventually shut down, taken offline, because the critical mass of players dropped below threshold, or because a new game was coming out, etc. Seeing “creation come undone,” serves as an emotional ode to a lost fictional world, and as a metaphor for our own short lives.

“SEA OF VOICES” IS A BEAUTIFUL SONG on its own terms, yes, but it also came from a specific musician at a specific time and with its own story. It seems rare to stumble on an artist with every conceivable opportunity to become a household name but instead says no to being “famous or whatever,” and instead pursues their own originality, wherever that may take them. That is always a risk.

And always a story worth telling.

Interested in Porter Robinson’s music and want to support the site?

Check out his album Worlds below.