6 Shallow Songs That Are Surprisingly Smartly Put Together
Pop music is a contentious beast. Some argue that it all sounds simplistic and homogeneous, while others argue, "shhh, let people enjoy things." The former pines for musical complexity; the latter wants something catchy and/or danceable. This debate is as silly as having a moral crisis over deciding whether to have eggs or fruit for breakfast -- the real answer is "why not both?" Hang on, let me finish this sausage, egg, and blueberry sandwich, and then I'll explain.
Britney Spears' "Toxic" Completely Breaks Music Theory
Why It Seems Easy: As society slowly realizes it was way too hard on Britney Spears, some noise is being made about what a genius she was with her creative vision, particularly her ambitious approach to concert production. Choreography, costumes, spectacle—that's as much a part of being a musician as learning your instrument. But there's always going to be some music snob who sneers, "it's just pop music; there's no real thought behind it." That snob is wrong. Not just because catchiness and danceability are good qualities to have in music, but because a lot of Britney's music had some absolutely bonkers writing behind it.
The Move: None of the instruments in "Toxic" are playing together, but it somehow all works. YouTuber 12tone explains it better here, but essentially, all the instruments seem to be working against each other in real-time. The iconic main riff is a relatively short phrase with many fast, staccato notes immediately colliding with longer, drawn-out ones. It's the musical equivalent of Neo fighting Agent Smith at full speed, and then bullet cam slow-mo hits out of nowhere.
When Britney starts singing, she employs microtonality, a term for sliding around the space between notes. This is common in Arab and Indian music but nearly unheard of in American Top 40 radio. Basically, she's quote-unquote out of tune, but on purpose, and in a way that is meant to evoke unease in her primarily Western audience. The melody also uses a note that used to literally be banned by Catholic Church for sounding Satanic (and employed by WandaVision specifically to sound Satanic). This is speculation, but maybe all that dancing with snakes was alluding to the Biblical Serpent and Eve engineering the fall of Adam. I mean, the song is about a woman who is, what's the word ... toxic. I'm just saying there's a flimsy connection to be made.
Then, after all this weird collection of synth drums and synth strings, a surf-style guitar riff hits right after the chorus. "Finally! Something American!" your xenophobic uncle in a Beach Boys T-shirt yells. Except no, surf rock wouldn't exist were it not for Dick Dale, a Lebanese-American guy who used techniques most commonly heard in Arab and Eastern European music to create that classic California sound. Or more simply, "that Pulp Fiction song."
If you've ever heard "Toxic" and wondered why it works when it seems like it shouldn't, that's because it employs roughly 700 hundred genres, eight million schools of musical thought, a singer not known for technical talent finding the perfect non-control of her voice, and somehow it was engineered to appeal to a Top 40 audience. It's an absolute achievement. Never let anyone say Britney isn't a genius.
Blink 182's “”Dammit" Overcomes Having Only One Chord Progression
Why It Seems Easy: Songs are made of chords. Whether it's a rock band or a pre-produced track, the instruments making the sounds have to all be playing the same notes. Irritatingly, some chords are easier to play on instruments than others. Worse, sometimes a singer has a different vocal range than how the song was written. If your band has a standard piano-guitar-bass-drum-singer setup, some songs are simply going to be more of a pain for one of the players because of the way instruments are built, and the way voices work.
An ingenious way to circumvent this problem is something called the Nashville Number System, which basically amounts to assigning number values to chords based on the standard 8-note scale (that do-ray-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do thing). It makes it really easy for the guitarist, bassist, pianist, and singer to all agree on what notes they're playing, and 1 = C, 2 = D, 3 = E just makes it simpler to jam, man.
Blink-182 has spent most of their career writing 1-5-6-4 chord progressions and moving them around, with founding member/UFO hunter Tom DeLonge calling it "the most basic chord progression we've used a thousand times." Other songs of theirs will throw in some variety every now and again, but "Dammit," their first big hit, is purely that one-chord progression. It's one of the most common progressions in music history (an advanced version is the soundtrack to getting married), and Blink-182 basically decided it was all they needed.
The Move: When they go from verse to chorus, they do two things to break up the monotony. First, they switch singers. Second, they cut the feel in half—instead of playing each chord for one bar, they play each chord for two bars. The drums drop to match, resulting in a less frenetic pace for a "big moment" type feel. It's a shift from the angsty verses to a more resigned chorus, and they pull it off while playing the same four notes over and over again. It's a series of small changes, but it really makes the song work. When you've only got three people in the band, and you've handcuffed yourselves by only using one chord progression, all of the little changes add up. Songwriting is all the small things, with true care, truth brings.
Nirvana's "Lithium" And "Wrong" Chords
Why It Seems Easy: Grunge, with its emphasis on mood and tone over technical playing ability, is often credited with killing the super-shreddy 80s hair metal genre. The perception is players like Slash and Eddie Van Halen were masters of their instruments, while players like Kurt Cobain were sloppy and careless. That's the idea the alarmingly hairy guy in line with you at the gas station probably has, anyway. But I think Cobain was a genius, specifically at making "wrong notes" sound catchy. That's never more apparent than in "Lithium."
The Move: Remember how Blink-182 uses the same four chords over and over? There's a reason that works. Wanna know exactly how well? Those four chords are the chorus to "Let It Go" from Frozen, a song so catchy it literally changed the course of the movie. Those four chords trick your brain into feeling a certain way; they send a sense of comforting familiarity to your ears. Nirvana spent their entire career saying, "Screw all that."
I mentioned the standard eight-note scale. The stupid thing about an eight-note scale is that there are 12 notes, so to play "correctly," you're supposed to leave out four notes. To play one of those four notes is literally called an "accidental." The Nashville Number System that's so easy? Accidentals complicate that.
So it's very rare for an earworm, radio-friendly hit to have a chord progression with not one but three accidentals. If your guitarist played eight chords and said "oh whoops" three times, you'd fire that guitarist. Instead, Nirvana routinely turned into the skid, and I can't think of anyone who's had a Top 40 hit turning that hard since. It's like watching skateboarders jump 60-foot ramps, thinking, "Surely this will be the time this man falls into the mountains," but instead, they do 360s. It's the polar opposite of the four-chord thing Blink does or the three-chord progression that makes up the blues, and yet it still sounds like a radio hit. That's why Cobain's a genius: he played all the wrong notes until they were the right notes.
Weezer's "Falling For You" Changes Keys More Times Than Seems Possible
Why It Seems Easy: Part of early Weezer's genius was their ability to do truly weird things while seeming like they were putting in no effort at all. Their infectious first single, "Undone (The Sweater Song)," does the Blink-182 thing of using the same chord progression throughout. Except out of nowhere, the guitar solo totally shifts keys with no warning, then shifts back to the original for the last chorus. Remember in The Hangover how Zach Galifianakis's Alan was a goofy weirdo the whole movie, then morphed into Rain Man long enough to win $80,000 at blackjack, then morphed back into a weirdo? That's what Weezer does in "Undone (The Sweater Song)."
But we're not talking about that song; we're talking about "Falling For You," a track that was never a hit but ramps that Nirvana "wrong note" thing up to 11.
The Move: I have spent years of my life trying to sit down and analyze the chord chart for "Falling For You," and it's simply never going to make sense to me. The keys and chords change directions harder than the DC Universe pivoting from the darkness of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to the campiness of Aquaman: The Friendly Shirtless Drunk. This song is like how when you go to a buffet and pile your plate with every single item, and all these different foods are touching and leaking juices on each other, but it still tastes awesome.
The wild thing is, you'd never notice how complex it is at first glance. It sounds like standard rock music with a few off-kilter guitar solos, but nothing like, say, bebop jazz. Yet from a chord perspective, it reads closer to John Coltrane than John From Accounting's Bar Band. It's catchy, and if you were ever drunk at a local show in a low-ceiling basement with a bunch of angsty nerds sometime between 1998-2008, and the band covered "Falling For You," you definitely threw your arms around your friends' shoulders and absolutely yelled that pounding "I'm shaking at your touch / I like you way too much" chorus into the sky. And the whole time you were doing that, the band was focusing super hard at remembering the chords that make no sense.
Joe Feat. Mystikal's “Stutter” Turns A Single Phrase Into An Entire Song
Why It Seems Easy: At first listen, "Stutter" is a classic late '90s-'00s verse-chorus-verse-chorus-guy wilds out on the bridge-chorus song. Usher and Ludacris would later perfect the "crooning about cheating then aggressively rapping about it" format with "Yeah," but in a pre-"Yeah" world, we had "Stutter." What's cool about the song—besides Mystikal's aforementioned WILD OUT verse—is that it samples from "Passin' Me By" by The Pharcyde, a popular yet relatively underground hip-hop group. It's impossible to be in a bad mood when you hear a Pharcyde beat. Scientists have done studies and everything. Pharcyde cancels bad moods. But still, everyone samples; what's noteworthy here?
The Move: Sampling, or repurposing a piece of music and then writing new stuff over the, is foundational to hip-hop. Almost any song you've heard has done it. But the sample they chose is incredibly interesting. The "my dear my dear my dear you do not know me" line that grabs you by the throat when "Stutter" starts is little more than a weird, abrupt outburst in the otherwise mellow "Passin' Me By." The Pharcyde's track is pretty even-keeled until that ten seconds of verse hits. So the sample makes sense: the Pharcyde song is about pining for an unrequited crush, while the Joe song is about the anger of catching your partner cheating. And to take one single moment of a song, write a whole other song with the polar opposite energy and meaning around that single moment—that's one of the coolest things about sampling. It creates an artistic conversation. It's not stealing; it's taking a germ of an idea and creating something entirely new.
The truth that boomer dads spinning Led Zeppelin vinyls don't want to admit is that all art borrows from somewhere -- especially Led Zeppelin -- but if you're careful enough to walk the tightrope between theft and inspiration, you can create some truly wonderful things. Like when an otherwise melancholy beat drops and Mystikal screams, "QUIT YOUR LYING BITCH!"
Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" Makes A Hit Chorus Out of Broken Time Signatures
Why It Seems Easy: I'm bending the premise a little here because a song that became an anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement thanks to incredibly thoughtful and powerful verses and hard-hitting video is not shallow. No one should ever accuse Kendrick Lamar of being shallow. Personally, I'll be studying his performance on Jimmy Fallon for the rest of my life (even though … ugh, Jimmy goddamn Fallon). All I'm saying is that "Alright" was a huge radio hit, and it does something huge radio hits never do.
The Move: Most Western music is in the time signature 4/4, which basically means if you listen to most songs, you can count to four, and you'll hear the phrase start over. Seriously, find a pop song, try counting to four while listening, and it'll probably line up with the beat. There are other time signatures, but 4/4 is literally called "common time" because of, well, how common it is. The chorus to "Alright" spits in the face of all that.
See, to count the chorus, you'd have to go 3, 4, 4, 5. Most choruses are 4, 4, 4, 4. And sure, both scenarios add up to 16, but you can hear it in how the drums and chords change—there's a slightly "off" feeling. That's fitting for a song shouting an optimistic chorus ("We gon' be alright") in response to an incredibly messed-up situation (police brutality and white supremacy). It's as if Kendrick is letting us know we've got each other's backs in this unending fight, but there's no going back to any preconceived notions of perfection.
Once you know about the history of America, founded on stolen land and built on the backs of enslaved people in an exploitative system that persists to this day, you can't simply go back to normal. Your concept of the world is off-kilter now. But Kendrick is here to tell you that we're going to be alright. His drummer knows it, too, and nothing makes you feel more alright than a drummer you can trust.
You're not going to believe this, but Chris is a musician. He also has a podcast about poetry and a Twitter.
Top image: Jive Records, Top Dawg Entertainment