About a week ago, critic Ted Gioia wrote that music journalism is in a sad state of affairs, having devolved into “lifestyle reporting” by putting too much emphasis on fashion, bad behavior, and who’s nailing whom. He would like to see music journalism spend more time talking about, well, the actual music.
In response to Gioia’s post, indie musician Owen Pallett took to Slate yesterday to explain why one popular song became so, well, popular, analyzing Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and, relying on music theory, attempting to answer the ever-important question: “Why did it get to No. 1?”
While this may seem like a no-brainer to any thirteen-year-old, to me its popularity remains a mystery. Okay, it is a bit catchy. And I suppose it’s somewhat appealing. But why?
The answer, according to the virtuoso violinist, rests in its use of harmonic suspension and vocal syncopation. That is, musically it suspends listeners’ emotions by avoiding what is known as the tonic chord of the key it is in, which, in musical terms, is called the ‘I’ (one) chord. As Pallet explains:
This sense of suspension is created simply, by denying the listener of any I chords. There is not a single I chord in the song… For example, a song is in G but there are no G-chords.
He goes on to explain that what also makes people emotionally exhilarated is the fact that her voice remains on or near the note of the I chord throughout the song. As he puts it, “Katy’s voice is “home:” the rest of the song is oscillating around her.” He adds that the way she syncopates the lyrics in varying ways make each line “dovetail elegantly into each other.”
With this, we get a sense for why a dumb song that contains such lyrical gems as “I’ma get your heart racing in my skin-tight jeans” went Platinum. Most songs intrinsically carry with them chord progressions intended to draw in listeners, the most popular being the 1-4-5 chord progression that afflicts almost every damn pop song. But there’s more to it than merely saying ‘this is a catchy tune.’
It’s heartening to see a musician with true know-how providing real insight into craft. So often we read reviews of a song’s catchiness, or hear blanket statements like ‘Lorde is the next big thing.’ Rarely are we given reasons why. And when we do, the source is often dubious.
Pallett remains an internet anomaly. He has an acute sense of humor, which can be exhibited on his Twitter stream; cultural adeptness seen in his usage of SnapChat; and he’s a successful musician whose output is sonically advanced. Just listen to any of his albums and you’ll understand what I mean when I say that it doesn’t merely rely on oscillating around the I chord.
But, as Pallett points out, the kind of structure Perry creates is simple yet hypnotizing. We don’t need a Pallett to make a Perry. It’s devilishly simple to do, and others have, in fact, done. For example, “Dreams,” by Fleetwood Mac, which employs similar tricks. Although, let’s be honest, “Dreams” is an infinitely superior track.
Either way, let’s hope music journalism can continue in this vein, tapping real experts to talk about real things — not just saying “this is good, add it to your Spotify mix.”
[Art: Brad Jonas for Pando]