A Case for Simplicity and Minimalism in Pop Music

Kaitlin Gawkins
Assistant Online Editor

Flashy vocals, a constant barrage of lyrics, and a catchy beat seems to be the model for the pop music of today. These techniques are often employed to entertain the listener and keep them coming back for more, sometimes even compromising the musician’s personal vision for the sake of listener approval and high ratings. One artist who ventures away from this standard to pave his own way in music is Francis Farewell Starlite.

Francis Farewell Starlite is the figurehead of Francis and the Lights, a pop/indie/R&B project created back in 2007. The name is meant to reference the multifaceted nature of the project, referring to not only Francis himself, but also the pixels on a computer screen, the lights on a stage, and all of his collaborators and listeners.

The project has been active in the music scene for quite some time now, releasing four EP’s since ‘07, touring with artists such as Drake, MGMT, Ke$ha, La Roux, and Mark Ronson, and even collaborating with Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, Bon Iver and more. However, up until recently, the focus was mostly on the “and the Lights” part of the name: the collaborations and the performances were almost always with other bigger names, and the concepts were heavily influenced by other artists.

This summer Francis and the Lights hinted that something big was coming when he released the music video for his new song “Friends.” The video, filmed on a very simple white background, featured Bon Iver, Kanye West, and Francis Farewell Starlite wearing what they each would normally wear just singing and dancing around.

The video and song created a lot of hype around the artist with people eagerly anticipating his next move. Sure enough, on Sept. 24, immediately after performing at Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring Day Festival in Chicago, the group’s debut studio album, Farewell Starlite! was made available at farewellstarlite.com.

I will not get into a track by track review of the album in this article, rather, I will be focusing on the overall influences. There are a lot of split reviews; some claim it is creative genius, while others say it is an overworked let down. The similarity of the tracks can be argued as having the perfect balance of cohesiveness, like one of the couture collections of New York Fashion week, or the overdone repetitiveness of your most basic/stereotypical pop album.

Even upon first listen, Farewell, Starlite! can be a bit off-putting. With its synthesized beats, heavily processed vocals, and vague lyrics, the futuristic simplicity can make it hard to become attached. It is different from much of the pop music of today. And yet, it is somehow mesmerizing.

I was so intrigued by the style and meaning behind the album that I had it on repeat for a week, and it gets better and more complex on each listen. This phenomenon can be explained by Francis’s aesthetic: minimalism.

Minimalism is defined by Merriam Webster as “a style or technique (as in music, literature, or design) that is characterized by extreme sparseness and simplicity.” The minimalist movement began in the 1960s post-World War II era in New York as a departure from the overbearing cacophony of art, music, dance, and literature of the time.

Art during this movement tended to include geometric forms, equality of parts, repetition, neutrality, and a lack of figurative interpretations. The artists who led this movement focused on the beauty of stripping away the frivolous, leaving behind only the most important parts of a sculpture, painting, or piece of music.

One piece of evidence which indicates that minimalism is that Francis’s starting point for his music comes from Francis himself. During interviews, when asked for his inspiration, Francis simply cites the “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. This grammar book is used in many schools to teach correct the punctuation, spelling, and usage rules of the English language.

The introduction to this manual is written as a successful writer giving instruction to a novice of sorts: “After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.”

This very source of inspiration is what sets Francis apart from other contemporary pop artists and what makes his new album worthy of discussion. He is interested in the complexities unveiled through simplicity, the implied rather than the implicit. He does not worry about filling his songs with complicated metaphors or strings of rhymes.

Instead, the music is purposefully simple: built on clean, synthesized beats, and short, concise, lyrics. It is meant to direct the listener to only the most important concepts, leaving space for personal interpretation. Francis wants to make us think differently about not only the way we listen to music, but also the way we live our lives. Where are we overcome by constant noise and sound? What can be stripped away? What is left once we take away all of the frivolous details? What can we learn from these very simple foundations?

Looking through the lens of minimalism, it is clear that Farewell, Starlite! is more than just an album; it is a piece of art which is meant to break the mold of contemporary pop music. The synthesized, futuristic sound is intriguing and different, and its simple lyrics reveal only meaning that is absolutely necessary.

As Francis says himself on the track “Friends” (feat. Bon Iver), “Stay tuned in.” Francis Farewell Starlite is looking to break the mold on the music scene and his new album is definitely worth a listen.

Photo Courtesy from francisandthelights.com