Kidnapped, or, The Adventure of Displacement: Prince, “When Doves Cry” (1984)

For Simon

Probably going back to when I was first tossed and caught by my dad, I’ve often thrilled to experiences of friendly displacement:  moved suddenly to a new place at a new angle, I’m a little bewildered, but then everything lines up again and I can go on just fine.  I’ve learned that life isn’t a flowing stream, it’s a series of kidnappings and distinct episodes I have to connect.

A lot of the stimulation in pop music, maybe more than you think, comes from intentionally inflicted displacements.  What gets talked about more commonly in music analysis is “variation,” but variation is just an additive piling up of things to pay attention to, whereas displacement is as much about snatching away from you what you thought you had as it is about giving you something new.

Some displacements are so familiar and easy to take that I don’t consider them displacements any more—most of what counts as “syncopation,” for instance.

But certain very simple displacements seem ever-fresh.  One of the coolest things about “When Doves Cry” by Prince is a displacement in its main rhythm figure.  The arrangement is so stripped-down that you must pay attention to this feature, and the displacement itself is so obtrusive that you must stumble in your dancing along (just as the song’s protagonist is stumbling in his relationships).

“When Doves Cry” figure

1   &    2   &   3   &   4   &     1   &    2   &    3   &    4   &

X         X   X    X                     X      X      X    X

(correct spacing on mainpage)

In this repeating pair of measures, the second snatches away from you the straight duple groove (ONE and TWO AND THREE and four and) you thought you’d been given by the first.  It’s more disturbing than a straightforward change of pattern because the change is structurally slight, though kinesthetically vivid:  in the second measure, the second note of the four-note figure has been moved to just slightly earlier than where the first measure promised it would be (now it’s halfway from 1 to 2-and instead of halfway from 1 to 3), and the third note, though on the same time-spot, feels slightly stronger because it’s now the terminus of a triplet figure.

And this is your groove.  The displacement is your new normal.

Another great totally-overt displacement song is “Vasoline” by Stone Temple Pilots.  The riff notes keep coming either earlier or later than they should (depending on whether you’re relating them to four beats per measure or two main pulses per measure), their whole fabric ripping apart from the fabric the beats or pulses are in; but as you’re being repeatedly kidnapped by the riff, the algorithm of displacement is dangled in plain sight (as in “When Doves Cry”), simple and clear and most acceptable.

“Vasoline” start

What are some other great displacement songs?  Starting with
“Black Dog” . . .

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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