20 Nov 2011

Adventures in the Top 40: Wayward Choruses

Here’s a geeky little medium-length post about chart pop to offset all that earnest politicising in the last post, and - spoiler alert - all the earnest politicising to come in the next post. I just wanted to describe a lovely musical trend that links three of my favourite tracks clinging doggedly to the UK singles chart. Let us listen first to Nicki Minaj’s ‘Super Bass’ which has just popped out the bottom of the Top 40. An awesome song for many reasons: great hook, great lyrics, great production, she’s awesome. But one of the things that I think really defines this song in particular is how unusual the relationship is between its harmonic progressions (the chords used) and its conventional structure (verse/chorus etc.), especially for unabashed party pop.

Super Basics

In most pop songs, the arrival at each recurring chorus provides a particular rhetorical effect - a kind of release, like a ball being released at the top of a slope - which carries momentum until the end of that chorus. This effect is produced through the simultaneous conjunction of several devices: the fulfillment of genre expectations (‘when is the chorus coming?’), the pleasure of recognition (‘I know this bit/I’ve heard this bit before’), lyrical return (‘finally I can sing along with confidence again’), usually the return of the strongest/ most memorable melodic motif (this is the ‘catchy’ bit), and often, especially in later choruses, it is built up to by teasing structural prolongation/delay - a break-down or middle eight which might seem like a structural digression. In most pop songs, however, all this is underpinned by one other key factor: the return of the tonic chord of the home key (‘chord I’ or, for example, if the song is in the ‘key of G major’ then the ‘G major’ chord). Usually the tonic chord comes on the first beat of the chorus, in almost every case it is present within the first four chords of the chorus. This adds to the sense of a chorus being ‘home territory’ within a song, so that every verse can be a digression/journey which can in turn ‘arrive home’ with the ecstatic arrival of each chorus.

‘Super Bass’ is different, and distinctive in its difference. Fittingly, this difference all comes down to the bass. I'm not sure that ‘Super Bass’ really does have a super bass. The track’s production thrills with candy-coloured lazer synths and guitar gloops firing off in all directions throughout the treble register, but the bass is very restrained - long held notes which underpin and support the rest of the texture. All the same, it is the bass note of any harmony which really defines the sound of any chord. We hear harmony ‘from the bass up’, so to speak. And in the chorus of ‘Super Bass’, on the first chord where we expect a lovely chord I (or B major, in the key of the song), the bass actually creates a chord IV (or E major). In fact, the whole chorus rolls between chords IV, V and vi, and never at all touches the tonic of the home key. In fact in fact, thanks to the bass, I don’t think we ever hear a chord rooted on the home tonic note of B in the entire song.

Even if you don’t follow the technical stuff, the effect that this has is definitely audible. It gives a sense of groundlessness to the entire song, as if it is suspended in the air, and yet it also creates a feeling of endless momentum. We can hear that the song is in B major, and we can feel the need for resolution, but the chord progression - which moves quite logically, and is far from static - denies us this arrival and the stasis which such an arrival would produce. I think ‘buoyant’ might be a fitting adjective to describe the song as a whole - the synth blips bounce around like ping-pong balls, the chorus melody rises up in steep, pluming arcs, the soundstage is amess with pink fireworks - and I think a lot of this buoyancy comes down to the harmony, floating way above the tonic chord, unwilling to be grounded.

(Incidentally, this kind of evasion of the tonic chord is unusual in pop music, but it is quite a standard technique in dance remixes, when DJs will often attempt to completely recontextualise a sampled vocal track by changing the harmony around it. This could amount to replacing one chord progression for a completely new one, and thereby transforming the harmonic meaning and structural intimations of a melodic phrase. It could also, like in a lot of house music, mean suspending a borrowed vocal within a mono-harmonic groove, removing all harmonic power from the melody and letting the momentum be created by rhythm and bass drive alone. In each case, the effect is both one of alienation, finding new potential for direction and discovery (and meaning) within a familiar borrowing, and also one of great potential energy. A lack of harmonic grounding (and stasis), supercharged by beats, bass and timbral friction, is a good way to effectively demand a physical response from the listener.)

Inverted Structure/Inverted Chords

My second example, and (unexpectedly, perhaps) an even more unusual one, is ‘Without You’ by David Guetta feat. Usher. It might seem like, in this weirdly perfect song, what we have is a classically restrained verse leading into a euphoric release of a chorus. That’s what the dynamics and the arrangement and the lyrics and the video suggest. But the harmony actually works in the exact opposite way. If it wasn’t for this fact, I think the song might have been quite boring, but as it is, I find it totally transfixing.

Basically, we expect the chorus to drop in on a lovely tonic chord (D major in the song’s key). And in a way, it does. But, because of the active melodic bass, the chord is actually what’s called a ‘first inversion’, which is when the bass note that you hear isn’t actually the ‘root’ of the chord (like, the root of D major would be D, or E minor would be E etc.). In a first inversion, the chord we hear in the bass is actually the third, or middle note, of the chord, in this case F-sharp. Understanding this isn’t really important; the effect is manifestly audible. First inversions lack that stable ‘home turf’ quality - instead, the bass note feels like it wants to move up to the note above, like it does in the chorus here. The bass then continues to loop through a progression which is repeated, but at no point touches on the root note of the tonic chord. We only get resolution on the final ‘you’, when the verse kicks in. The verse is actually the exact opposite of this unsettled chorus; it is completely stable and rooted, because the tonic chord can be heard throughout the entire thing, banged out perpetually on the piano (a device which is sometimes called a ‘pedal’ by the way. Fun fact...).

The result of all this is that the chorus seems to ‘take off’. We feel elated and energised when it arrives not because of a sense of arrival and fulfillment (the ineluctable pull of gravity at the moment of release) but because of a sense of sudden freedom (like jet engines suddenly thrusting off from the ground). And that’s the power of first inversions, kids.

Harmonising Ambivalence

My last example, which is a little more complicated, is Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’, bizarrely but welcomely still entrenched in the UK chart. This song’s harmonic logic encroaches into the more complex arena of singer-songwriter music, but it can be usefully compared with the other two since it has a chorus which refuses to comfort us with a stable tonic chord. In keeping with its fantastically ambivalent lyric, loaded with desperate deadpan sarcasm, passive aggression and barely-veiled vulnerability, there is a tension set up throughout the song between two keys (the same ‘bittersweet’ axis which I've previously explored in my 'Paean to Four Chords' post). Those keys are the funereal F-sharp minor of the opening, and a warmer sunnier A major (the ‘relative major’) which is intimated in the chorus, befitting the more tender (tenderer?) lyrics.

So the song opens in a resolutely minor key - gloom and sadness - but the chorus begins with a kind of bridging passage (‘it’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you’) which feels like it might tip the rest of the chorus in another direction, by lingering on the dominant chord (V) of the relative major key (E major, which suggests a transition to A major). So when we hear this declaration, we think we’re turning to a happier page. Instead, on ‘tell you all the time’, the potential for a lovely arrival on a new sunny tonic chord of A major is dashed, since the bass drops down one note instead of five, to D. We do get A major as the next chord, but the chorus proceeds as the very definition of ambivalence, with the bass continuing to slide down, (via a sexy ‘phrygian’ inflection - look it up, it totally makes the song), to that same opening key of F-sharp minor again. It is as if Lana’s attempt to look on the bright side just crumples so smoothly and sadly down into the same despondency. But she tries again, the bass continues down to the same E major that suggests an A major key, and again to D and up to A (happy?), but from the A it slides down again in the same descent through the phrygian inflection and F-sharp minor ‘tonic’ - this pitiful loop is repeated several times. The slippery step-by-step movement downwards mirrors all the weariness in her lyrics and in her voice. The leap upwards from D to A major - to the ‘happy home’ key - is an effort, and every time it is quashed by the sad sameness of her situation. Here’s Revolutionary Road in a harmonic sequence. It’s a great song.

Robyn Transcends

The use of a completely different key for a chorus, which usually supports a lyric that deals with ‘inner thoughts’ or ‘ideals’ or ‘wishes’, in contrast to the ‘realities’ and ‘narrative’ of the verse, isn’t too rare, especially as we move away from chart pop. Del Rey’s attempt to infuse her ‘hopes and dreams’ chorus with the sunniness of the relative major is destroyed before it even has a chance to establish itself, but if we make a quick comparison (a long way from Top 40 world) with Robyn’s ‘Indestructible’, we can hear what real transcendent hope sounds like as a harmonic progression, and it’s actually pretty extreme.

The song starts in a grounded, serious B minor, but by the bridge - ‘and I never was smart with love’ - the chord changes speed up and brighten up, as if to suggest a switch to the relative key of D major, a lot like in the Lana Del Rey song. However, instead of that happening, with the launch of the chorus, the harmony totally transcends the key, making a leap through hyperspace to C major (a chord that doesn’t exist in either B minor or D major keys) and instead suggesting chord IV in the key of G major. Not only does the chorus suggest G major, a positive place a long way away from the ‘realities’ of B minor, but it also avoids the tonic chord of that key, instead moving between chords of C, D and E minor, floating above the implied key in a similar manner to the Minaj song.

So while ‘Video Games’ looks to the relative major key for a chance of consolation with each chorus - a small shift to the ‘bright side’ which never quite convinces - heroic Robyn smashes through any and all barriers between bridge and chorus to assert her manifesto for heroic love, on her own (harmonic) terms. Del Rey’s protagonist slooshes around in murky ambiguity when she states: ‘Heaven is a place on earth with you’. In contrast, Robyn’s protagonist, despite all the candid vulnerability behind her assertion: ‘I’m gonna love you like I’m indestructible’ (i.e. ‘even though I’m not’), truly believes in the sincerity of her own words, and in her own strength to uphold them. And that, boys and girls, is the magic of harmony...