15 Apr 2014

Chapter 2.1: Taking the Initiative: An Introduction to Musical Power Analysis

This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject

> The key terrain of power struggle in the pop song is the moment of transformation between verse and chorus.

>> There are no stakes higher than this moment.

>>> To control this transformation is to control the direction and meaning of the song, and to subjugate it to particular goals or interests.

Over the course of Part 1 of this essay series, I’ve tried to lay out the fundamental opposition – between ‘vocal-subject’ and ‘objective musical forces’ – that produces what we know as songs. I have introduced the notion of a power relationship between these two elements, instrumental in creating meaning and even political potency, but so far I have focused on a power relationship that effectively works in only one direction. The elements which come together to form the band track, accompaniment track, backing, beat, riddim etc. – the ‘objective musical forces’ – constitute a monolithic environment, flow, space-time, lifeworld, habitus, etc., within which the vocal-subject exists, to which it is subject and against which it can resist with varying degrees of success.

In the pop song, however, the vocal-subject also has the capacity to affect the musical forces, to alter it, shape it and even command it. We encountered examples of this in Chapter 1.2, in the Schumann Lieder and their Romantic ideology of the subjective individual, in terms of the agency of the vocal-subject. The difference between the music that I will discuss in Part 2, and the music discussed in Part 1, is that the agency of the vocal-subject here goes beyond free movement across the surface of an unchanging musical backing (which I discuss in Chapter 1.3 in terms of ‘anti-lyric’) but extends to arresting and redirecting the musical flow. Vocal-subjects can even be heard to create new flows or terrains, as a way of achieving their ‘goal’ in a song, whether this be some kind of action to perform, idea to communicate or emotion to express. This notion of a ‘goal’ behind a song becomes particularly important in Chapter 2.3, when I talk about ‘song acts’.

Changing States

Pop music can be heard as a series of ‘states’, at a number of different levels:
  • a series of discrete ‘sections’ (i.e. verse-bridge-chorus-verse);
  • a series of discrete riffs, phrases or motifs within each section (some of which may repeat as a state of repose, some of which may have an ‘active’ transformative effect pushing towards a new section or state);
  • a series of chords within each riff or phrase.
On a micro level, there are also progressions from timbre to timbre, beat to beat, ‘sound object’ to ‘sound object’, though these are often heard as composite elements of larger-scale states, through repetition.

[Of course, these ‘states’ are never properly static; if they create a sense of stasis, or security or repose, it is through repetition: states of constant and consistent activity. They are (in a properly Deleuzian fashion) states of becoming as opposed to being, of an endless flow which is, nevertheless, ‘territorialised’ on a particular chord or key area, riff, texture or motif, structural position, rhetorical level or power relationship. In the same terminology, derived from Deleuze’s and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, the charged moments at the end of four-beat bars, four-bar phrases and four-phrase sections (which Dai Griffiths called ‘pillars’ (see Chapter 1.3) but I’m imagining more as musical ‘crossroads’) constitute ‘lines of flight’: springboards for potential ‘deterritorialisations’.]

In the preceding chapters, I’ve discussed a range of power strategies and technologies, available to the vocal-subject and objective musical forces in their mutual struggle for control over the direction and meaning of a song. For the vocal-subject, these include linguistic signification, anti-lyric, and ‘asymmetries’ of timbre and topic. For the objective musical forces, these include regulating beats and tonalities, and oppressive timbres and dynamics. But the key terrains for power struggles in songs, which will become central to most of the following chapters, are the changes in state, between chords, bars, phrases, sections etc. It is these changes that produce both small- and large-scale structures in pop songs. Not only do these changes open up new areas, new possibilities and redirect the larger progression of the song, but they reframe what has come beforehand. For example, a section that the listener might initially have heard as a chorus can, on the shift to the next section, turn out to be a bridge. This is musical ‘politics’ in motion; changes, for better or for worse, are used to redistribute ideas of what is possible, what is normal, what is ‘reasonable’ or ‘neutral’ or ‘centrist’ or ‘obvious’.

The style of analysis that I propose in these chapters hears the transitions between states as necessarily initiated by one of the two ‘agential’ forces in the song-world: the vocal-subject or the objective musical forces. These forces can be more or less antagonistic, more or less independent, more or less motivated towards a goal or direction. The combination of hearing these transformative moments as ‘actions’ with ‘effects’ and inferred ‘intentions’, alongside all the other levels of signification in the song, suggests the relative attitude of each agent.

Western pop music pretty much exclusively works in regular phrases of four-bars, so the beginning of one of these phrases is the key terrain for power struggle, the potentiality for some new 'event'. The relationship of a vocal line to the beginning of a new phrase is absolutely integral to my power analyses, since it is far more common in pop music to hear instruments without voice than to hear voice without instruments.

Some questions to ask at the end of every phrase:::

  • Will the next phrase be the same or different?
  • Who will determine this: vocal-subject or instrumental forces?
  • What change will they introduce?
  • How will the other elements - vocal or instrumental – respond to this change?
  • Who gets to decide what this change means and how we as listeners are intended to feel about it?

A Basic Power Analysis: ‘Not Following’ by Ellie Goulding

In the next chapter, I'll get deeper into the rationale behind the analytical method, offer a codification of 'high-power and low-power gestures', and try to justify its basic principles a bit more clearly. For now though, I want to offer an immediate illustration in the form of an analysis of an early Ellie Goulding song (which she never properly released and ended up selling to another artist), called 'Not Following' (or alternately 'Not Following You'). The song's dynamic of power and control is played out on a modest scale, in a cat-and-mouse game of coy teenage infatuation, but the simplicity of the musical material and the subtlety of the lyrical content only magnifies the effect of these small but meaningful gestures. In keeping with my basic thesis that (for the vocal-subject at least) a song unfurls spontaneously in time, I will go through the song section-by-section as it is experienced, reproducing lyrics as they emerge, before reflecting on the overall trajectory, the resulting structure retrospectively conceivable as a 'whole', and possible meanings.

I should say that I like the song, I think it is very sweet and very effective, and it is this effectiveness that I hope to account for...


'Not Following' describes a covert romantic pursuit, both obsessive and self-effacing, with lyrics that mix ironically disavowed second-person address with moments of frank confession. The rapid fluctuation between confession and denial, the desire to take the initiative and then the retraction and repudiation of that desire, is all played out in the instrumental forces from the moment they're introduced. The bass riff suggests a quiet but dogged determination, rising gradually and then ducking down again, and the strummed backbeat (nudging along the regular 4/4 metre) also adds to the evocation of 'following' in a physical sense. This two-bar instrumental phrase, which I will call the Following Motif, is allowed to cycle round four times before the vocal enters, clearly establishing it as a context or attitude into which the vocal-subject is placed.

Verse 1

If I'm catching your eye it was an accident,
If I looked at you strange it's not what I meant

The first two lines, with the vocalist in 'denial' mode, enter after the beginning of a new riff cycle - on the second quaver and second crotchet of the bar respectively. The vocal-subject's lines can thereby be heard as 'reacting' to the start of a new accompaniment phrase, compelled by it, structured in relation to it. This subordinate position is accentuated by the fact that these opening lines only occupy one half of a pair of instrumental cycles, leaving the phrase to continue cycling on unaffected.

I wanted to talk but you're occupied,
I tried to explain but I'm tongue-tied

Contrast this with the second two lines. The vocal leads into the third line with over two beats worth of 'anacrusis' (or lyrical material preceding the strong beat of a measure), corresponding to the more active, honest lyric: 'I wanted to talk...'. The word 'talk' in particular is emphasised by being placed at the beginning of the new line, actually coming in a little 'early': one quaver before the downbeat of the new phrase, which provides further accentuation. This is significant, because at this point the instrumental phrase changes, for the first time in the song, to a VI-III-v-i progression (the capital letter numerals indicate 'major' sounding chords, and the presence of chords VI and III in this new progression, fleetingly suggesting a possible new key centre in VI (G major, via an imperfect cadence) or maybe even III (D major, via a plagal cadence) which creates a new moment of 'hope' at the start of each cycle, although the v-i that follows does rather too quickly bring this hope back to earth (the 'i' indicates a minor tonic or 'home key' - in this case B minor)).

The most important thing to take away from my analysis is that this new progression is experienced as initiated by the vocals, through the particular placing of the vocal line in relation to the continuing cycle of the accompaniment. The vocal-subject is on the 'front foot', if you will, taking the initiative both in the lyrical narrative and in the controlling of musical structure and its rate of change.

I wait in the wings again 'til you find me out:
"What is the hold-up?"

This second half of the verse also comes a lot faster, leaving fewer gaps, an intensification of action and intent culminating in the moment of 'discovery': '...until you find me out'. This is appropriately underpinned by a harmonic progression that appears to be centring on D major (formerly chord III), by resting on its preparatory dominant (A). This apparent consummation of the more 'hopeful' progression, to happier territory, is thwarted when, instead of cadencing in the new major key, this cadence is 'interrupted' (V-vi), setting up the original key of B minor (via a stealthy chromatic ascent, with a dominant function redirecting the harmony to the home key) at the moment when the vocal-subject is called out on her behaviour: "What is the hold up?".

Chorus 1

I'm not following you

Walking this way too

I've had enough of dreaming,
And all my dreams are you.

With this 'interrupted' cadence, there is a sudden switch back to the previous distribution of power, accompanied by a switch back to the previous instrumental riff. The instrumental forces 'right themselves' or 'revert' to their previous form, or 'wrest themselves back' from the vocal-subject's control, depending on how the transition is heard. This switch is doubly marked, since the new vocal lines have shifted even further back from the beginning of the phrase, padded out by the little 'oo-oo-oo-oo' motif, placing the vocal-subject firmly on the 'back foot'. The 'oo' phrase, suggests a sudden turning away, the pretence of innocence, maybe a casual whistle to mask the furtive activity of the preceding section. It's disconnection from the rest of the vocal line is affected by the new register and harmonies; its repeated shape mimics the nonchalant freezes in the children's game Grandmother's Footsteps.

['Oos' and 'ohs' and other vocalisations become consistently more important in the next few chapters. Their pretence, here as elsewhere, of 'contentlessness' only renders more palpable their functionality. An 'oo' cannot hide behind the lame excuse of linguistic communication.]

Verse 2

If I sat next to you that wasn't my intent,
And if my hand falls on yours it was coincidence,
I'd stay in the room until you're gone,
I'd switch to the chair that you sat on,
I'd sit there alone, again 'til you find me out:
"What is the hold-up?"

Chorus 2


I'm not following you


Walking this way too
See I've had enough of dreaming,
And all my dreams are you.

This same switch in initiative - in control of the situation - occurs in the second verse. This quick and delicate oscillation perfectly reflects the complicated play of passivity and assertiveness in the lyrics - both in the narrative and in the intention of the lyrics, their desired effect on the hypothetical addressee. In a way, this dance from front foot to back foot is written into the Following Motif itself, with its very prominent backbeat counteracting the dogged arc of the bass riff. The vocal subject's interjections then 'line up' with either the determined bass shape, or the pull of the backbeat, 'revealing' the subtle tussle over control which is fundamental to that rhythmic gesture. At the same time though, the rhythmic dynamism that is achieved from a melodic bass overlaid with a backbeat creates this sense of stasis and stalemate, echoed through the repetitive cyclic nature of the instrumental phrase and in the untenable narrative that the vocal is describing: the obsessive, fetishistic pull of desire disavowed, the jouissance of infatuation, unrequited love cultivated and prolonged for its own sake, it's all in there.

Middle 8

I wish you would notice me,
If not now eventually,
Then I wouldn't have to follow you around,
And hunt you down.

The middle 8 functions as an oasis of self-reflection and free commentary, which is indisputably its a conventional role in pop lyrics. Such moments often correspond with a relatively high degree of power and freedom for the vocal-subject, and this middle 8 is no exception: the forward momentum of the Following Motif is dissolved into a simple oscillation of two chords, which takes a lot of the character out of the accompaniment and foregrounds the voice. The third line - 'Then I wouldn't have to follow you around' - then sees the vocal-subject taking even greater ownership and occupation of the phrase, completing the tendency first begun in the third and fourth lines of the first verse. This line is particularly significant for various reasons: because it is the longest in the song, covering four bars, because it expresses most clearly and honestly the logic and truth of the lyrics (that the vocal-subject feels like she is compelled to follow the addressee around), but also because it locks into a sturdy and regular syncopation, and in doing so privileges the backbeat that had been undermining the bass pulse from the start. The vocal subject gives voice and meaning to this backbeat by identifying with it metrically, as the hidden logic which runs counter to the furtiveness of the melodic motif.

Moreover, in this phrase, we have a reversal of the hierarchy of the respective 'flexibility' of the voice and accompaniment. While most of this song has been characterised by a largely inflexible instrumental groove over and above which the voice interjects, in this line it is the voice which is inflexible, oscillating between two pitches while the backing moves in a stepwise harmonic progression, to change the implied harmony of the sturdy vocal phrase. There is a sense that, despite beginning after the downbeat of the phrase, the vocal-subject pushes on far enough to lead into the next significant downbeat, and thereby steers a 'back-foot' gesture into a 'front-foot' one, pushing the harmony along with her. It is an incredibly significant moment, but it is just as significant to ask how this revelation of the 'truth' behind the song, and the potential power of the vocal-subject to control the instrumental forces, affects the remainder of the song, when the moment of inner reflection dissipates and we return to the 'reality' or the 'present' of the verse and chorus.

Verse 3

Promise we'll get along if you talk to me,
We'll tell each other our stories imperfectly:

We can see the transformational effect of this central moment on the remaining verse and chorus - however seemingly 'back to normal' - by looking back at one of the ambiguities of the first verse. While I believe that the increase in the vocal-subject's control over the third and fourth lines of the verse is undeniable, and integral to the formation of the song's structure, it cannot be denied that there is a change in the harmony of the preceding phrase which in itself prepares the new phrase - in particular, the more 'hopeful' VI chord. This would suggest that the instrumental forces did have some complicity in 'initiating' the new progression. The third verse has a stranger structure, in keeping with the new sentiment in the lyrics. The 'preparatory' harmonic progression does not occur after the second line, in the way that it did in the previous verses, but quite unexpectedly the original Following Motif keeps on looping. This occurs simultaneously to the oddest lyric in the song, the repeated word: 'Imperfectly'.

This brings us to one of the other most indicators of initiative from the vocal subject; when the vocal repeats the word 'imperfectly', the other instruments cut out. It is a striking moment (albeit fairly conventional) because the chug of the accompaniment rhythm, with its gently insistent backbeat, has been a constant throughout the song up until this point. This cutting out of the instrumental texture is the first of two high-power 'interventions', to 'put right' the structure of the verse, complicated by the extra repetitions of the Following Motif. Such unaccompanied moments allow the vocal-subject to clearly 're-order' the instrumental forces, freely conjuring them back from nothing.

I wanted to talk but you're occupied,
I tried to explain but I'm tongue-tied,
I wait in the wings again 'til you find me out,
Say: "What is the hold-up?"

The second step in the intervention of the vocal subject in the third verse is to re-initiate the original third and fourth lines with the same anacrusis and accentuated first beat, but without the preparatory progression. This heightens the initiative of these 'front-foot' lines, with their harmonic progression called up immediately by the voice, perhaps in a gesture of increased assertiveness in reaction to the potential 'imperfect' outcome dwelt on in the previous lines. 

Chorus 3

I'm not following you


Walking this way too

I've had enough of dreaming,
And all my dreams are you.

There is yet another display of vocal initiative at the very end, when it is the vocal-subject that has the last word, effectively stopping the song with its concluding line. This is in stark contrast to the opening, in which the first words were tentatively interjected across an already solid instrumental riff.

There is, I believe, a complicated play of power relations in the song, in keeping with the ambiguities of the lyric. It is hard to pin down who really has the initiative in creating the structure: voice or instrumental forces. One particularly ambiguous moment is the stuttering of the instrumental phrase just before the entry of the second verse, which gives the strange sense that the previously dogged Following Motif does have the potential to exhaust itself. In a way, it is the re-entry of the vocal-subject, back in denial mode and bolstered with a glockenspiel, that actually resuscitates it. Ambiguity here begins with the voice's peculiar control over the diegesis of the whole song. In the lyrics, the vocal-subject is free to go in and out of 'real' or 'hypothetical' speech and her own thoughts (perhaps suggesting that the whole address is being rehearsed on her own, or in her head, and is never intended to be heard), which works strangely with the frustration and impotence described in the actual events. There is a weird sense in which she is more in control than she makes out, both in the lyrics and in the music, that she is playing out this lack of control for the thrill of the chase, the narcissistic pleasure of melancholic unrequited love that we recognise from the Romantic poets and from teenagers, the logic of Lacanian desire through lack, by which we experience jouissance perpetually circling an object of desire without ever attaining it.

It is also important to remember that, while engaging in relations of control with the instrumental material in a way which generates structure, the vocal-subject's lyrics also retroactively ascribe meaning to these relations and events, as well as to her own role/presence in the diegesis of the song, and of the identity of the musical 'substance' represented in the instrumental forces. These are all fluid and up for reinterpretation, even during the course of the song, and the complex mix of modalities and registers involved in naming such 'substances' (e.g. physical, social, psychological, etc.) can seem off-putting, but I think it is important to just recognise this and allow it to be so. For instance, I say that the Following Motif represents the act of physically following - i.e. a physical aspect ascribed to the vocal-subject herself - as well as a dogged determination and an ambivalence and inner struggle inherent in the ulterior motives and furtiveness of the vocal - i.e. an inner state, which is objectified here and commented on, denied or identified with. But as something that the vocal subject struggles to take control of, it is also an objective state - a 'state of affairs' - i.e. the impossibility of the situation, its cyclical and non-directional nature, and potentially also representative of the resolute nonchalance of the pursued love-object, maybe even also representative of that person's physicality as well, with the melodic motif as this unseen person's casual gait, and the backbeat strum as the vocal-subject's tiptoed pursuit.

In this way, the vocal-subject's struggle for control over the instrumental texture can be understood on different registers:
  1. as control over the lived, interpersonal situation, effecting tactics in order to fulfil her romantic objectives as described in the actual lyrics, 
  2. as control over the 'truth' of the situation, being honest to herself and able to express herself truthfully in light of the obsessive irrationality of her actions,
  3. as control over the love-object, physically or emotionally, having the ability to lead them (towards union or the truth of her feelings) rather than being led by them (or 'following them'). 
One of the provisos of these analyses is that all of these are possible and legitimate interpretations, but moreover, that they can all operate together at once. There is not any one interpretation which is 'true', but that is not to say that one or several of these interpretations don't constitute how people 'really' experience this music as meaningful and 'good', however unconsciously.

>>>>>> An Aside on Structural Conventions

While it might seem extravagant to ascribe such complexities to this little song which was in the end rejected by a fairly banal British musician, and given to a banal German musician, I have to say that these are the most genuine terms in which I can describe my particular fascination with the track, and my interpretation of it. Moreover, I think it shows that - as far as I'm concerned - every element of the music can be heard to contribute to this particular narrative interpretation, from the basic rhythmic/textural content of the instrumental groove, to when and how each new section enters (i.e. the circumstances of each structural 'event') and the characteristics of these new sections (how much stays the same, how much has changed, how has it changed and why?), and most of all the relation that the vocal-subject and their lyrics have to all these events and characteristics. In this way, the 'conventional pop song structure' cannot be heard as a reified, pre-existent Thing into which a little word-painting might be piped (minor keys for a sad song, fast tempos for an exuberant song). While the structure might restrict the remit of the narrative here, this should not be taken as a feature of the structure but a feature of the narrative. After all, anything can happen in a musical structure. We don't actually know that the chorus is going to come back for a final time, and when it does, we don't experience it through some kind of meta-awareness, feeling spontaneously the decision of the songwriter to put a '(x2)' next to a line in a notepad in order to satisfy label bosses.

For one thing, there's a reason why 'successful', 'effective' structural conventions feel successful and effective (when they do, that is). This has been argued extensively in classical musicology around the logic of the sonata-allegro and its 'conventional' recapitulation of secondary thematic material in the home key. In the same way, there is a narrative logic to the structure of conventional pop songs, the kind of stories they tell (and attendant ideologies which privilege these stories), which means that the 'totalitarian' control of large-scale conventions of song structure are no more oppressive or reductive than the sonata principle (see Adorno). And, just like the sonata principle in late Romantic music, such classic song structures (like the '32-bar song') are hardly binding now anyway, but are constantly undermined or updated by the inexorable influence of dance structures (and other African-American/Minimalist-influenced structures) as much as the art-rock/post-punk/prog desire to innovate structurally. And secondly, even a conventional structure move has power implications. What does it mean for the instrumental forces to lead back into that particular chorus, in relation to the preceding events and their explications, or what does it mean for the voice to reinitiate it? If it feels like an arbitrary move, who is oppressed or curtailed or subjugated by such arbitrariness, forced to sing this section over again, and how does that affect our interpretation of the role of singer and instrumental forces, and the meaning content of the chorus material itself?

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