What would it be like to hear real love in music? What would declare it adequately? Would there be a sound of ecstatic transport–soaring high notes, a fluttering up and down scales, Melisma City? Or would there be a sound of tenacity, of a single note really, really meant?
I lean toward the latter ideal. The great singing of love can’t be packed into just one note, of course, since lover and beloved and and what they are going through all have to be expressed; but it may feature one note that intensely sums everything up. It should be a note of Finality, proclaiming unbreakable partnership, and of Beginning Everything.
For the greatest-loving vocal event, I nominate “my man” in Laura Nyro’s song of extravagant remonstrance, “Tom Cat Goodby” on New York Tendaberry. It’s a long song that catalogs everything wrong with a husband’s behavior: slipping out on Rosie Pearl, betraying the whole family (“What about the children?!”), sliding by on bullshit plans (“You know you’re never gonna be a movie maker/Always be a silly faker”).
It’s also an anthology of entertainments, the music always lifting Rosie’s shrill complaints to beauty. When the note that maxes out her passion comes at the end, our confidence has been won that whatever this song makes us hear, we will really want to hear.
Push has come to shove and Rosie’s planning to kill Tom–so she says. “I quit loving you . . .” If she really quit, wouldn’t she let go? She has not let go. Loving in extremis, there is no way she is not going to claim “my man” to the end. The idea of killing him is just a symbol for the finality of her love.
Going to the country, gonna buy me land And I’m going to the country to kill my lover man, Gonna kill my lover, gonna kill my lover, Gonna kill my lover man . . . Can I find him Gonna kill him My lover man My man!
The singing of these last two lines manages to be both operatic (refined and attention-commanding in special occasion mode) and scrapishly soulful (tearing down decorum, blurring ethnic boundaries). It soars and swoops, but with burning insistence on one musical moment. It’s the total package.
My own gender and sexuality position has something to do with this song hitting me so hard, no doubt, but there’s a lesson about our culture in the asymmetrical opportunity a woman has to sing with ultimate seriousness about “my man.” I don’t think even “Bess, you is my woman now” comes up to this level of seriousness, and I can’t think of a “my girl” that comes anywhere close. Why is this? Is it because we take the female to be the one whose very existence establishes the Home of the love bond and who therefore fights for Home existentially, while the male is the one who might or might not decide to “stay home”?
I knew with my last post I’d taken at least one too many swipes at love in song, and it was past time to go positive on this topic. But getting there isn’t easy: the next great trope I think of brings on the spiritual heebie-jeebies all over again. At first, the much-sung idea that the beloved is so fine sounds noble, generous, appreciative rather than possessive–but is “appreciation” of a “fine” thing ever separate from the desire to have it? Probably not, as the Chiffons’ unavoidable rhymes remind us:
He’s so fine Wish he were mine That handsome boy over there The one with the wavy hair I don’t know how I’m gonna do it But I’m gonna make him mine He’s the envy of all the girls It’s just a matter of time
The “so fine”-loving lover is hungry to move up or exults in being on top, as in: owning a mansion, driving a Mercedes, clubbing with a classy boy/girlfriend. Envied by all. There’s a brighter Darwinian future to think of, too, hooking up with better genes (that wavy hair). In fact, the last verse of “He’s So Fine” effectively lifts up the biological perspective as more important than immediate social advantages (although the usual interpretation would say the beloved’s value is “personal”):
If I were a queen And he asked me to leave my throne I’d do anything that he asked Anything to make him my own For he’s so fine
My second thought about “so fine” was that there may be redemption for it in Jefferson Airplane’s “Watch Her Ride,” where the rhyme with “fine” is “blow my mind.” You laugh, but there’s this to be said for hippie values, they’re a refreshing change from material greed and social climbing. “Watch Her Ride” certainly isn’t about upscale equestrianism. It’s not about gratifying lust, either: Paul Kantner writes and sings “Watch Her Ride” as though the dirty meaning of the title phrase never occurred to him. It’s about a mental transfiguration.
And my mind becomes alive with you It’s all that I can do to sit here and let you blow my mind Blow my mind, you’re so fine In my mind you’re so fine
We’re out of the frying pan and into the fire, I guess, if “you’re so fine” is so closely associated with dropping a very fine tab of acid. Even apart from the acid, there’s something basely acquisitive in cherishing your beloved as a Very Fine Experience.
But “Watch Her Ride” is great because it’s not complacent about the issue I’m raising. It’s not sunny. It’s in strangely combined minor chords conveying anxiety, even torment, embossed with nauseous mutations of blues licks by the lead guitar, the vocal verse lines in strained recitative. Who would ever choose such elements for a celebratory love song? Listen to the chords by themselves and consider how they would affect a song’s atmosphere:
In “Watch Her Ride” these chords indeed create uncertainty about how to feel. There’s enough energy in the song, enough exploratory enthusiasm, that it never resolves into a downer–but you can’t say it’s an upper either. It’s on unfamiliar terrain, and it wonders at it.
 It’s possible that my assumptions about wavy hair are not the same as The Chiffons’.
 The experientialist emphasis goes way back; compare the Fiestas’ “So Fine”:
So fine . . . My baby’s so doggone fine, She loves me, come rain, come shine Oh oh yeah so fine. She thrills me, she thrills me She thrills me, yeah. My baby thrills me all the time. She sends those chills up and down my spine.
 The bridge’s one chord (D) is major. But the bridge is relatively subdued, emotionally, with a lower melody.
This is not exactly a neglected topic, but you know how it is: you hear a song you really like and it starts you thinking again.
Concerning the nature of creepiness in love, for my opening move I’ll suggest that the two primary modes are Dependence and Domination, and that they are intertwined: obsession with Domination is a form of Dependence and infantile Dependence is a potent form of Domination.
In music we have an obvious place to start in “Every Breath You Take” by The Police (1983), a song that occasioned a major cultural event of missing the point. What Sting presented as an exposé of controlling obsession, the world embraced as classic romance—which shows that we have some pretty scary assumptions about romance.
. . . Since you’ve gone I’ve been lost without a trace I dream at night, I can only see your face I look around but it’s you I can’t replace I feel so cold and I long for your embrace I keep crying, “Baby, baby, please”
Oh, can’t you see you belong to me How my poor heart aches with every step you take Every move you make and every vow you break Every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you
To set things straight, Sting put out another hit song two years later, “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” (1985).
But I want to nominate a quite different and much less famous song, a really good creeper-out in a vein of strong Domination (that nevertheless may be finally indistinguishable from just-me-and-Mama Dependence): “All To Myself” (perfect title) by the one-album wonder of 1994, The Philosopher Kings.
I’d take away the Eiffel tower I’d take away the port of Spain I’ll take your yellow coat No more romantic walks in the pouring rain
Then I’d make washboard, wind-blown Sea-side, serenading, prep school boys disappear That flock in the summer like gulls to the beach And pick at your heart like the garbage on the street
I’ll take away all the things That make you look away from me I’d take away everything Then I’d have you all to myself
The love song is always a con: the music knows how to make us feel good about love’s overbearing propositions. We’re beguiled with a warmly carrying groove, pretty chords, lush sonics—emotional reassurance laid on thick. Unusually, “All To Myself” commits to a funk con, not a smooth con; it goes bravely funky to try to repel the threat of nothingness in a loveworld defined by radical subtraction. If there’s nothing there in the relationship except pretty chords or swelling strings and you can’t get out of it, you’ll perish from boredom even if you manage not to be melted into your lover’s psyche.
This guy who, as we’ve just seen in the lyrics, wants to deprive you of all the people and things in the world, the whole outdoors, what’s he going to provide besides the monotonous reassurance of his doting gaze? Well, there is something else: the interesting tensions of funk are ever-present in the musical current of the song underneath the gestures of devotion. At 2:43 an overt turn is made from the romantic refrain “all to myself” (complete with corny electric piano flourishes) to something much more engaging:
You may have been thinking that the song’s funk is all about the sexual stimulation that the guy intends to provide, and indeed to monopolize. But here he charmingly acknowledges that he needs a band, with other players, to be interesting enough.
 From Wikipedia: “Sting later said he was disconcerted by how many people think the song is more positive than it is. He insists it’s about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow. ‘One couple told me “Oh we love that song; it was the main song played at our wedding!” I thought, “Well, good luck.”‘ When asked why he appears angry in the music video Sting told BBC Radio 2, ‘I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite.'”
 In a more appealing, healthier loveworld, the lovers enjoy their shared experience of everything around them. I take the term “loveworld” from Robert Solomon’s Love: Emotion, Myth, and Metaphor (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1990), which is a wonderful account, though rather neglectful of the point I am making here.
“Riff” is a term of uncertain origin and very loose usage. The theory that it’s an abbreviation of “refrain” (as part of a song) is plausible, given that repetition is the premise and in some sense the goal of riffing. I’d like to tighten up the definition so that we can focus on a distinctive major asset a rock song can have. A riff, I submit, is a much-repeated motif dominating a song’s rhythm and bass parts that also has significant melodic interest, so that there’s a kind of short-circuit surprising charge to it as these diverse song-values come together. It feels like The Very Principle of The Song thrust unexpectedly in your face, repeating every four beats (“You Really Got Me”) or taking eight beats (“Satisfaction”)–long enough to be of melodic interest and short enough to be powerfully repetitive. Unlike various sorts of strong motif that are allotted their particular moments, the true riff carries large portions of the song, including verses. (“Purple Haze,” no; “Whole Lotta Love,” yes.)
A riff can strike us as pleasingly Simple, as in all the examples I’ve given so far, or as impressively Advanced. For me, as for many guitar and bass beginners through the years, the original Advanced Riff is in “Day Tripper”(The Beatles, 1965).
It’s hugely satisfying to play that figure once, twice, endlessly, and to meet the coordination challenge of singing the song over it.
A proper riff is a signature statement and a sturdy mobile platform – like a locomotive that will pull your train however long you want it to. “Sweet Home Alabama,” possibly the gold standard of radio-ready riffing, goes on almost five minutes, and you may not be averse to hearing it again.
Speaking of radio, the most consistently interesting band for riffs may be Radiohead. Surprising in retrospect, they did not start out living by the riff. They’re not doing it yet on Pablo Honey (1993) or The Bends (1995). In the last track on The Bends, “Street Spirit,” we hear a familiar device closely akin to riffing–the repeated articulation of a chord that lodges in your mind as a main physiognomic feature of the song. But that figure isn’t vying for melodic status or grabbing at the beats the way a riff does.
although no, that motif won’t actually be used as a riff. It’s Track 2, “Paranoid Android,” that defines the mature Radiohead approach and is built on a beautifully phased-in riff sounding at first like this:
A few tracks later, “Electioneering” gives you a robust riff possibility as an opening statement and then constantly reminds you of it, barely keeping a lid on it, during the verse – making it a Latent Riff:
It’s a riff! An interestingly borderline riff, just barely melodic and rhythm-accenting enough to qualify. Throughout Kid A Radiohead plays with the subtle difference between riff and background pattern, between vaguely melodic propulsion and submelodic texture. With many of these tracks, depending on your mood you can feel either the strongarming of a riff or the sliding-by of a pattern (e.g. in “In Limbo,” aptly named for my point):
“National Anthem” is a boldly riff-driven number where the riff is obviously a bass line first picked out on a guitar but then played as though it were an electronic loop in a process piece. A nice touch: as “National Anthem” transitions into the horn frenzy of its last half, the first horn we hear is a traditional honking saxophone reminding us of the grand heritage of riffing:
“Pyramid Song” (Amnesiac, 2001) offers a slow-motion piano-chord riff that is nothing like guitar-bass rock riffing–until after two minutes the bass finally comes in to prove that all along this has been precisely a dreamy revisit of “Satisfaction”:
Then a chorus gets layered over the riff feel (the riff’s melodic part drops out but is still implied by the continuing percussion pattern), so you get the relentless reliability and the chorus’s enlivening change all together.
Will Radiohead ever quit riffing? The evidence of their last album is that they will not. You can’t tell at first; the opening tracks of King of Limbs (2011), “Bloom” and “Morning Mr. Magpie,” have patterns, not riffs (do you agree?):
In my estimation, Radiohead’s riffing train is still rolling.
As reverent students of the riff we should not leave our subject without saluting a prime historical source and overflowing fountain of riffing, the Count Basie Orchestra. Their riff mania starts at 2:08 in this youtube for “One O’Clock Jump.” It raises the question, can rockers go polyphonic with their riffing? Can riffs be layered and braided Count Basie-style? Or does that defeat the take-charge purpose of a rock riff?
Listen to Stevie Wonder getting a similar effect in “Superstition”:
 The expression “riffing on,” such as might be done by a comedian, implies an idea being used as a base for a series of forays, but now the “riffs” are the forays rather than the base. In music, riffing is what maintains the base.
Our words wait quietly in the dictionary with their meanings ready, paws tucked under. When we take them out, sometimes we try to make them sit still there, there, and there, like in info-speak; or let them run, like in poetry; or we jerk on their leashes orally for a momentary effect, like in every third or fourth moment in live conversation.
It’s a human imperative not to let live conversation seem run-of-the-mill, and so we inflect many words, especially pronouns, to make them seem unique in that moment: “Thenk YEW!”
Some words have to be said nonstandardly because that’s their (standard) meaning. “Unique,” for example, needs to be a shriek, “yew-NEEK!”
As we go blathering and listening along, we unconsciously put together a performance dictionary of special-enough ways of saying the standard nonstandards. Popular music contributes heavily to this dictionary. Whenever it’s time to make “you” sound special, especially in reproach or wheedling mode, I’ve got Dylan’s “Didn’t yewwww?” in “Like A Rolling Stone” to draw on.
Here’s a beauty: “extraordinary” in Fiona Apple’s song (at 1:03 in the clip).
It’s an extraordinarily difficult word because of the fast pace at which the words are coming out and the big jump (an octave) up to the impossible syllable following “ex,” which phonetically is something like “st[r]au[r].”
The word feels really good, and not just as a vocal-melodic lark with a touch of big-city impudence; it strikes us as a justified comment on the quality of rhyming and phrasing and philosophizing that we’ve heard in the song so far.
Apple’s “extraordinary” is one of the many items in my performance dictionary that’s aspirational—I can’t actually perform it. But I have it ready to jump in my imagination.
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:
……G….E………….G….E It’s not going to stop ……G….E………….G….E 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)
E…….A [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.
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.
Even joke music means something, right? Because otherwise, why go to the trouble of striking a jokey attitude? You’re making some kind of run at what you’re joking about. It’s all for fun, we know, but . . . what is your point?
Harry Nilsson raises this question constantly with his almost relentlessly facetious yet affecting work. He even raises the question “What’s the point of having a point?” on his album The Point!
The final track on the parody-fest Son of Schmilsson is “The Most Beautiful World In The World,” which obviously grows out of the philosophical humor of the title—treating the ultimate frame of reference as a thing within that frame of reference. David Hume noted in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion that you can’t judge our world to be intelligently designed because you have no way of comparing the making of worlds to distinguish better design from worse. The world is what we got, period (WWGP). So apparently Nilsson jumped up from reading Hume and thought he’d explore the absurdity of evaluating the big WWGP.
The point is, you’re equipped with this word, “world,” and you’re intent on having a relationship with what the word refers to, with you turning to It (or preferably He or She) and It/He/She turning toward you, even though “world” is just “what is” and there can be no choice about it. It’s so strange. You can
Tell her she’s beautiful [and]
Roll the world over
And give her a kiss and a feel
The song starts as a Caribbean spoof (remember the “lime in the coconut” on Nilsson Schmilsson?), which would be sufficiently entertaining. But at its midpoint it pivots to another style entirely. After a few lines of a vague sort of song prologue we’re no longer used to, it becomes clear that for some reason we’ve been switched to a Tin Pan Alley idiom of the 1930’s, very refined and romantic. This too is parody, of course, but in juxtaposition with the earthy faux-Jamaican sound of the first part it comes across as seriously meant. There’s a direct assessment of the philosophical situation in the lines
And though there are times when I doubt you
I just couldn’t stay here without you
Does Nilsson puncture the dream of seriousness with “Roll the world over/And give her a kiss and a feel”? Or is that precisely where he makes his point?
 “Have worlds ever been formed under your eye?” David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part II, p. 324 in Essential Works of David Hume, ed. Ralph Cohen (New York: Bantam, 1965). Much the same point is made in Hume’s classical model, The Nature of the Gods by Cicero.