The Thought of Wising Up: Aimee Mann, “Wise Up” (1996)

ClaudiaClaudia singing along with “Wise Up” in Magnolia

Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” is a magnificent example of deep effects achieved by simple means.

At first the music seems to consist of nothing but a lovely G major 9th chord. That is the regular G-B-D plus F-sharp plus A—really a G major chord spliced together with a D major chord. Here one chord works as two, an alternation between G and D being suggested by playing just those F-sharp and A notes that belong to D every other measure. Over the piano a vocal melody shoots upward to that high A (it’s not/what you thought . . .) that’s a bit displaced in relation to a G chord but right at home in a D.

It’s surely one of the greatest of all first chords, and the first of two great hooks. The song works powerfully right off the bat. The initial hook is a question: which of the two superposed chords, and which implied key, is me? G with displacement or D as home?

We’re taken then to another place – not the answer to the question, but the framing of the feeling of the possibility of an answer, a sweetly serious realizing that a person could, before the game is over, wise up. The song puts a move on us without spoiling its enchanting simplicity. It sets up a repetition of the phrase we expect to be penultimate, the phrase that ought to precede the chorus’s resolution because it uses the teaser of going from G to E major:

It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop

and there could very well be a third time just the same, after which we’d go from the E (the fifth of A) to an A (the fifth of D)

[till] you wise . . .

in order to pivot in the usual way back back to home chord D:


That’s not what happens. Instead, the third time starts straight up with D, a gentle surprise, followed by A, C, and G, making up the grand four-chord progression of I, V, bVII, and IV in the key of D.[1]

not     going to stop till you wise . . .

The words are still “It’s not going to stop,” but putting the four-chord platform under it turns it from a yearning or oppressed feeling into a positively stated thought, a view, a thesis even, which in the melancholy world of “Wise Up” is tremendously hopeful.


[1] On four-chord progressions see the post Triumphant Return to Four Chords.


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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