Not long ago, I heard a song that was released in 2014 by an artist named Avicii called “Wake Me Up”. It’s well written, efficiently constructed (in the same way a pre-fabricated plastic shed one might purchase at Home Depot is efficiently constructed) and has a strong, sing-song melodic hook which the composers modified slightly to make the verse and chorus distinct from one another.
This is a very basic piece of music and only deviates from its Bm-G-D, Bm-G-D-A chord structure in the bridge/outro sections when it sheds the dominant chord and cycles on its initial three chord sequence. The minor to major transition provides a slight tinge of bittersweetness but overall, it is an upbeat, light and carefree ditty.
It also manages to distinguish itself from many other pop songs by cleverly straddling an assortment of unlikely musical genre-bedfellows, such as folk and EDM. The buoyant, bouncy “cotton-eyed Joe” acoustic guitar strumming/stomp that comprises body of the song is reinforced by handclaps on upbeat eighth notes which enter with the song’s chorus. This is later juxtaposed against a charming, cheery smattering of EDM that comprises its bridge section and outro, wherein, the beat reverts to four on the floor.
The song’s EDM aspects interact tastefully with the acoustic guitar and vocal while enhancing the overall structure. Breakdowns occur prior to the bridge and outro sections that create dynamic drops exactly where they’re needed, and parity is elegantly created between the stomp feel/handclaps in the body of the song and the upbeat eighth note hihats which are gradually introduced into the bridge/outro sections. These dynamics are linear and predictable but they work.
Pristine, streamlined and perfect, every single event belongs exactly where it was placed. It was tailor-made to appeal to everyone without offending anyone.
In addition to all that, “Wake Me Up” just happens to have been the most played song of 2014. In fact, the last time I checked YouTube, it was teetering precariously close to having been viewed 700 million times.
“Wake Me Up” is an undeniably catchy and infectious piece of music. Although about two weeks have elapsed since I last heard it, on occasion and without warning, it will suddenly pop into my head.
In spite of all the above, I feel absolutely no emotional connection to this song whatsoever. I feel no desire to own it or, for that matter, to ever listen to it again in my life. I know that at some point in the near future, it will stop playing in my head entirely. I also know that if I ever hear it again after the point in time that it has ceased being a part of my consciousness, I will be completely unable to recall exactly what I found appealing about it.
This is not because “Wake Me Up” is in any way bad or unpleasant. It’s actually very pleasant- one could even say it’s nice. Put in relative terms, it’s much like a painting you buy from a furniture shop specifically to go with the decor in your home- as opposed to a painting you buy from an art gallery because it communicates something indescribable that you have felt a powerful urge to immerse yourself in.
However, there is an important detail about songs, pieces of music- or, indeed, any form of art- that this one is lacking. Without a reasonable quantity of subtext to co-exist in a piece of art and counterbalance surface aspects such as “pleasant” and “nice”, these adjectives quickly become meaningless and useless. Subtextual information (such as contrast, engaging orchestration and arrangement ideas, opposing movement, intent embodied in performance, etc) is essential to a piece of art because it provides dimension and depth that greatly enhances its surface aspects and gives them deeper meaning.
For the sake of context, one could also use the adjectives “pleasant” and “nice” to describe “Girl From Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. It is light, breezy and carefree- some of the same adjectives I used earlier to describe “Wake Me Up”.
It is also rich with emotion, contrast and subtext that adds broader meaning, illuminates and re-contextualizes the song’s surface aspects. Its casual, carefree quality takes on an entirely different significance when juxtaposed with the unrequited adoration and sadness the singer is expressing. These contrasting elements resonate to create a unique sense of melancholy and this helps to transform “Girl From Ipanema” from being a charming ditty about an attractive girl on a beach into something much more.
Contrast, subtext and depth are determining factors in the anatomy and function of a piece of music and in the case of one as deconstructed and simple as “Wake Me Up”, they are absolutely vital. If we consider a song as a living entity, the absence of these elements has a detrimental effect on its DNA- particularly with respect to its longevity. In this sense, “Wake Me Up” is analogous to Roy Batty, the Replicant from the movie “Blade Runner”. It is a candle that burns brightly, but for a very short time.
And, while “Wake Me Up” has many of the surface requisites of being a terrific song (and certainly, its staggering popularity should confirm this in the most ironclad of terms), in truth, it is a simulacra of a great song. It possesses all the appearances and surface aspects of a familiar form, but has none of the requisite substance and depth that ultimately designates it as the genuine item.
That, right there, is the distinction between art and artifice.
Aesthetically, “Wake Me Up” is like an extraordinarily beautiful, disembodied head that has no brain and lacks sentience. It sits there looking stunning, but can only stare vapidly into space because it is absent the requisite neurological equipment to form ideas and communicate with others.
Popular art is both a reflection of its creators and a signifier that indicates the state of the society in which it was created. With this in mind, the ephemeral nature of “Wake Me Up” should be unsurprising since it was created by individuals who exist in, and are products of a consumer society infused with impermanence and planned obsolescence. And if, on some level, this song is a reflection of a greater and further reaching sense of transience, it is also a reflection of its creators’ mortality since, like them, it was born to die.
That is neither the physiology or function of a great song. A great song isn’t something flashy or shiny that catches your eye for a moment but quickly loses its luster, the same way that gum loses its taste after a few chews. A great song drags the listener face to face with an artist and permits him not an inch of latitude to escape.
It’s like a mega-dose of brain-scorching LSD that simultaneously chews you up and spits you out while infiltrating your entire being; or a genetic mutation that fuses with your molecular structure and alters you irrevocably and forever.
A great song is not forgettable in the short or the long term. It is both a curse and a constant companion down through many eons- a well-indented neural pathway like a drug yen or an obsessive urge that never fades. It is a monkey on your back that screams at you every moment all day and night- it claws and beats at your brain and your senses, yet you are unable to escape it, ignore it, reason with it or beg it to leave you in peace.
Not that you really want it to.
And then, even after you are finally gone, it still remains. This is because a great song can’t die- it’s an emotion trapped in sonic amber for all eternity.
“Wake Me Up” is not a great song simply because it was not built to be one. Ultimately, it is an ephemeral, gorgeous, empty vessel- merely mortal and inevitably, forgettable.
And inevitably, it will be forgotten.
I like the fact that she’s looking for authenticity and finds it in a fake unauthentic DJ show. Very much the time we live in. As far as the girl from Ipanema goes, if you ever sat on the beach in Rio and watched the clouds go by, The clouds are in the string parts. If you listen to João singing it, it has a completely different meeting. To me all great singers move notes snd there are very few in his class. Have you heard his version of “Estate “live. Take a minute and check it out on YouTube. By the second verse the chords are moving in a completely different timing then he singing. It’s completely sublime. You’re absolutely right , context is everything. If you’re younger generations don’t know all this incredible music that we’ve already done then they think what they’re doing inside their computers is amazing. To bad…….guess we didn’t care enough to teach them!
And this is why we need to take the time and explain to them simply why. Humans have the innate need and capability to express themselves through every thing and medium they encounter. Kids don’t need to emulate music of bygone eras, they do need to know its significance to us and why what they do must be similarly significant to them. as for me- I’ll be checking out that Gilberto song- thanks.
I recently went on YouTube and got sidetracked by a Taylor Swift song on a front page. It had an appealing title and preview image. I clicked on it and listened. And then I listened again. And again. And again. And again.
And then I stopped, completely. If I hear the song again, it will be too soon.
Every now and then, my thoughts drift back to the experience of hearing it. I try to pin down exactly what about it that makes it fall so short of what I know to be great music. Everything you said about the Avicii song is synchronous with that experience. I wish I could articulate it half as well.
Michael, I’ve read your book and hope you don’t stop writing. This type of conversation about modern music needs a broader audience.
Yes- it’s amazing how limited the shelf-life of these songs truly has become. Funny, how only recently, has popular music had such an ephemeral quality. Even schlock/ bubblegum pop from the sixties and seventies has managed to retain some kind of audience. The current audience summarily discards all the big pop hits within a year of first encounter- again, this is not a commentary on their traits but on what they are being spoon fed. What is more unfortunate is that popular music that does not engage emotionally, essentially fuels the engine of disassociation that encourages people to stick their noses further into their iPhones and disconnect from one another with greater efficiency. Thanks for your kind words regarding my book.
“…A great song drags the listener face to face with an artist and permits him not an inch of latitude to escape…”
That is the most perfect statement I have heard in a long while and it is going on the wall of my music studio! In fact, I may begin every rehearsal, recording session and gig with a live reading of it from now on!
I mean, that’s “it”. That is exactly “it”.
Many thanks to Bobby Owsinski’s podcast for leading me here.
Thanks for saying so- I’m glad this resonated with you.
Spoonfed Monkees… Retreating from your home ,traditions Children! For a night of dancing & grinding with black folks. This kind of programming is what corrodes America today. Yes I believe this song to be hand crafted.Perhaps by the same minds that crafted the panther president. Honorless fools
Such a great article! Found this blog via the Pensado’s place interview, and now whether I like it or not, I’m going to have work my way through the archives it seems.
This article articulates so perfectly something that I’ve been trying to describe to people for so long but couldn’t. Thanks so much for making the distinction!
Thanks, man- I appreciate your comments!
There is a lot more music being released these days due to the simplicity in producing music, a computer and cheap software and you can end up with very professional results! This leads to to over supply, shelf life of a track is a lot shorter as you mentioned. I remember the 90’s (my time as a teen) and people used to say, nah, they don’t make it like the 60’s, 70’s etc, but there were loads of great hits in the 90’s, just like there are now, ask the teens of today! 🙂
The difference is that now, fewer tracks will gain that “hit song” factor that may last due to the next hit being released very shortly after, even by the same artist. This means that you may not have the time (or pleasure) to enjoy the song like in the older days where radio stations would play that song for months before it was actually released. That in my opinion also brainwashed people into liking particular songs, as it became routine for them to hear it, and they would link the song to events in their lives and they would go back to that music, in some cases they would go back purely because it was great music of course ;).
The variety of music being released presently cannot be contested, more genres than ever before, even if most are rubbish, but each to their own.
Avicii did really well with Wake Me Up, mixing two genres and ending up with a really good track, which I enjoyed and I am sure it will end up being one of the better tracks of the current generation to go down in history. I also heard “Girl From Ipanema”, it did not make that impact on me like it did on you.
Remember, what you may like may be different to what the next person likes, you shouldn’t be over analytical on any art form, enjoy it for what it is! Don’t talk about a journey when you listen to a track because it isn’t, it’s all in your head! When you produce a track, you can plan whatever (subtle) journey you like for the listener, but they are likely to hear it differently. Sometimes, it’s one particular sound which will make the music emotional for one person, for the next, it may be the vocal etc, as in, we’re all different, we hear and see things differently.
Much like paintings, some people pay a lot of money for something which I (along with many others) may think a little kid has painted, I do not see what the purchaser of that art see’s and paid millions for, it doesn’t mean that I know less or more, I just don’t agree with it.
Enjoy the music with your ears, try not to use your brain to analyse it too much 😉
Fair enough- however, one question. After having been released for a few years, who cares about this song now?
This is a great post, and it does not overlook much about the superficiality of modern pop music. One thing I think is very important, however, is that there is a massive difference between recording and performing live- and that was not touched on here. In the studio, you are given all sorts of leeway as far as retakes and the umpteenth overdub (which sounds very disingenuous, when you consider there won’t be 18 guitarists onstage playing slight variations of the same riffs live).
A lot of artists have subscribed to the so-called “speech-level singing” for the recording phase, and it really doesn’t cut it at a venue. You almost need to be an opera singer these days to be heard over the din of the other instruments. The point is, *most* singers are not going to have this kind of intense and prolonged training, and that is reflected in the power and longevity of their music. For example, take the screaming hipster-cum-commercial ditty-ist with no training, give him a hired support band, and watch him shred his voice in the first year after garnering a Back-To-School radio hit, and then read about how he got vocal nodules, canceled all future shows, slipped out of the spotlight, and was never heard from again. The main frequencies that make a sung tone carry and cut through a noisy mix is “the singer’s formant”. This not only prevents the backing tracks from burying the singer, but it also makes it easier to mix in the first place- as well as sing resonantly night after night without vocal problems. This is where the *type* of training, not the fact that the singer has been coached, becomes important.
Ideally, a “has what it takes” pop group is going to require talent, charisma, stage presence, and a humble enough ego that they are willing to put in the hours to properly train and strengthen their voice so that it will carry them well into old age without damage. If they don’t do this, we can only hope for temporary pop stars with anemic (not anthemic) “hits”.
That said, a major part of good songwriting lies in the llfe experiences that inform it. It is almost impossible to get to middle age without learning something, so… Maybe it’s time for the 30-and 40-somethings to shine? After all, the earliest pop music was not made by teenagers…(Frank Sinatra was 25 when he got noticed, 27 when he started his solo career, and 31 at the peak of his fame ) There might be good reason for that, and if it led to timeless music before, that is where I would start to look for pop music’s future: not in the youthful, but in the EXPERIENCED. Maybe then, pop music will once more become the main story, rather than the also-ran.
Pop music has been derailed and marginalized for so many reasons, not least of which are; the business and society from which it emanates. If an artist can somehow inure himself against the former while maintaining involvement in the latter (part of the time as a spectator and part as a participant), it is possible that he could accrue the life (and artistic) experience he needs to be a convincing practitioner of his craft. I’m convinced that there should be an entire alternative to the music business as it presently exists.