Intensity Ruse: Joan Osborne, “Right Hand Man” (1995)

Blast off
Music is intense—it’s an intensification of tone and felt time—but a paradox of music is that its intensity ploys generate their own defeaters. The especially pure or loud tone just is the recognized idiom of that singer or instrument—the means, no longer the end. The insistent repetition just is the beat, or the chorus that always comes after the verse. “Yeah, yeah!” is just a genre tagline.

To achieve intensity you have to defeat the defeaters. Consider the very intense “Right Hand Man” by Joan Osborne. Osborne is singing with typical soul intensity, the band is banging on the beat with typical rock intensity, the repeated phrase “right hand man” is so much at home it might as well be “yeah, yeah”—but something has been done to take the whole thing to a shocking new level of impact.

The defeater of the defeaters here is a seven-beat meter. Nobody acknowledges it, everyone keeps pushing as if every measure were 4/4, but actually every four is followed by a three, so that the backbeat alternates between coming on 2, 4, and 6 and coming on 1, 3, 5, and 7. With the backbeat marked in bold, here is the whole 14-beat cycle in the chorus:

1………………..2………………..3………………..4………………..
……..My……..right………….hand,………………….my

5………………..6………………..7………………..
right-hand………..man

1………………..2………………..3………………..4………………..
……..My……..right………….hand,………………….my

5………………..6………………..7………………..
right-hand………..man

Thus every repetition of “right hand man” is a beat earlier than expected. With no deviation at all from rocking on the beat, it feels like she’s pushing impatiently through the restraints of musical form. Thanks to this impatience the sharp edges of her vocal really cut, her repetition really amplifies what’s repeated, and her tagline becomes a shout from that ultimate libido deeper than rock or sex.[1]

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[1] Another method of intensification is to add an extra beat or measure to force the listener to stew for a moment. The last beat of the seven-beat cycle in the verse of “All You You Need Is Love” is interesting because you can hear it either as a rushing ahead (3 beats instead of an expected measure of 4) or as a coy delay (3 beats instead of a sufficient 2).

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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One Response to Intensity Ruse: Joan Osborne, “Right Hand Man” (1995)

  1. Ted B says:

    Nice post! I noticed this phenomenon just the other day, listening to the song while walking — I couldn’t keep stepping with the same foot on the first beat, and realized it’s 4/4 followed by 3/4. There’s a similar meter in Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

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