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'Teenage Dream': Simplicity and Repetition

Pop music is not within the purview of these pages. Still, one had to take notice when Ted Gioia stirred quite a pot last week with an article for The Daily Beast deploring the state of pop music criticism (Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting, March 18). This takes up some of the same ideas about the popular music industry that have drawn my attention before, particularly John Seabrook's revealing profile of Lukasz Gottwald, known as "Dr. Luke," for The New Yorker (The Doctor Is In, October 14, 2013). Namely, that what Dr. Luke and other pop song wizards produce is not really about music, but as Gioia put it, that "lifestyle" and image trump musical concerns -- and it is true of how the music is produced and, increasingly, how it is being assessed by journalists. (Hesiod James wrote a similar screed earlier in the month, Rant in Ab Major: Or, Why Your Favorite Pop Music Critic Is A Fucking Idiot, for Trop Magazine.)

Gioia inspired several responses: Ian Rogers at The Vine, Mike Powell at Pitchfork, Jody Rosen for Vulture. All basically dismissed Gioia as an old-fashioned, technophobic, obscurantist crank, but their responses were laced with varying degrees of wounded defensiveness. In some cases, the criticism leveled by Gioia clearly stung. Owen Pallett, a pop musician with a classical music education, attempted to show how such criticism might read -- in a tongue-in-cheek way -- by writing an analysis of a Katy Perry song, Teenage Dream, co-written with Bonnie McKee and Dr. Luke, among others (Skin Tight Jeans and Syncopation, March 25) for Slate. It was a fun idea: I had never heard Teenage Dream before, so clearly I had to listen to the song to see what Pallett was talking about.

It took about five listenings to figure the song out and be able to play it at the piano. First, the basics: the song is in what we might call "pop meter," basic 4/4 Moderato (about quarter note = 112). The vocal ambitus of the melody is rather narrow, pretty much a fifth between G and D, with occasional dips down to low D; so, call it an octave. If given this melody to harmonize, I would probably give it chords in G minor (or G-Dorian or G-Aeolian), because G feels like do and D feels like sol. A large percentage of the melody -- almost all of the refrain, which is repeated many, many times -- just oscillates between the notes B-flat and G. (Not sure if I should include a transcription, since it might violate some copyright law. For your reference the song, without the distracting video, is embedded below.)

The harmony, though, is in B-flat major, and Pallett made a point about the sense of "suspension" established by it, a feeling "listeners often associate with 'exhilaration'," because the song avoids the I chord. I think the idea Pallett is going for here is stasis, because under each of the song's three basic phrases, the harmonic structure consists of the alteration of two basic chord areas. These two chords (sometimes with added sixths and sevenths, of course), if we assume the key is B-flat major, are IV and V (the latter preceded by something like I6-4) -- a pre-cadential and cadential chord perpetually in search of the tonic chord, which never appears (illustrated, in C major, above). The pattern -- and the ambiguity -- are established in the opening two bars, where B-flat and D are heard, followed by B-flat against C (parts of the same IV-V progression, extended). That pattern, in running eighth notes, is repeated almost constantly throughout the song. This is made clear again by that ostinato bass motif (E-flat/F, later E-flat/G/F), which eventually runs underneath all the phrases, pointing to the same static alternation of chords in each phrase. In the layering of harmonic elements that makes the song grow in sound, the ostinato grows heavier, including the addition of strong parallelisms (IV-vi-V, all in root position and in parallel motion), which is a hallmark of this kind of music.

There are basically just four phrases of music, repeated in a modified strophic form with refrain. The phrases are always periodic, 8 or 4 bars in length, and most are repeated many times in each iteration. The verses have an A phrase, eight bars ("You think I'm pretty..." and so on) that are themselves a two-bar cell that is repeated three times, followed by a little tag -- and a B phrase, four bars heard twice ("Let's go all..." - "We can dance...", heard later with the same words); the refrain (C) is eight bars long, always heard twice ("You make me feel like...") and again itself a two-bar cell that is repeated three times plus a tag. The pattern works out to AAB CC AB CC, after which there is a pause, followed by a variant of the verse's music (four bars long, repeated twice, so let's call it B'), again followed by CC and then B' again. The pattern, therefore, is slightly irregular, except for the refrain, but each of the phrases is repeated many times and is made up of repetitions of extremely repetitive cells, which adds to the sense of stasis established by the harmony. The song never modulates to or even hints at any other key, other than the ambiguity between the relative keys of B-flat major and G minor.

available at Amazon
T. H. White, The Once
and Future King
In other words, the appeal of this sort of music is in the simplicity and repetition outlined here, a sort of music that does not require much reflection to understand. Listening to Teenage Dream just a few times, in fact, reminded me of a favorite passage from T. H. White's book The Once and Future King, when Merlyn turns Wart, the young King Arthur, into an ant. The king learns that the worker ants constantly hear repetitive and monotonous songs in their heads:
It was either a noise or a complicated smell, and the easiest way for us to explain it is to say that it was like a wireless broadcast. It came to him through his antennae, like music. The music had a monotonous rhythm like a pulse, and the words which went with it were about June -- moon -- noon -- spoon, or Mammy -- mammy -- mammy -- mammy, or Ever -- never, or Blue -- true -- you. He liked them at first, especially the ones about Love -- dove -- above, until he found that they were not variable. As soon as they had finished once, they were begun again. After an hour or two of them, he was to feel that they would make him scream.
The ants, who do not do much thinking, seem to love listening to these songs, delighting in their repetition as they go about their work.

1 comment:

Barry Lyons said...

I enjoyed reading this analysis, and it got me thinking about more sophisticated songs -- such as "Say It", a rather Beatlesque song by XTC. Can you tell me what those opening piano chords are all about? Something off and strange about them (strange within the narrow confines of pop music, of course):