The Verse Chorus Paradigm

September 21st, 2007

(Lots of links, dear readers, but it’s a) worth your while and b) going to take a long time to get through this. So don’t start unless you have an hour or so to kill.)

It’s a sorry state of affairs in today’s music industry. Music-as-business has been around since about the 1920s, when Decca Records, one of the first record labels, was incorporated in Great Britain. By 1939, Decca and EMI were the only two record labels in Britain – a monopoly that still exists today in a similar form. Eighty percent of the U.S. music market, as well as seventy percent of the world music market, is controlled by just four music groups: Warner Music, EMI, Sony BMG, and Universal Music. A music group is kind of a conglomerate holding company that controls many different facets of the recording industry under a corporate umbrella. Music publishing, music recording, distributors, and actual record labels are all typically retained under the brand name of a music group. There are many side effects of the near-complete centralization of the music industry, two of which are worth mentioning here:

1. Artists must sign a contract with a music group to get their music out to the public.

This was particularly bad in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, due to the lack of both the internet and independent labels that had the ability to cater to exotic genres and non-mainstream sound design. To get your music heard, you had to go with one of the Big Four. This meant that the record labels could exercise an appalling amount of creative and financial control over the artist. A standard contract for a first time artist generally included a pennies-on-the-dollar royalty scheme, leaving said artist reliant on ticket sales and merchandise sales to be able to continue profiting and making music. A great deal of the time, lesser artists signed away their rights to their own music as well, ceding them (the rights) to the record label in question. The label generally selected the producer, the studio, and the songs to be recorded, in addition to retaining the ability to edit or censor songs and titles of songs in post-production, without the approval of the artist. Many times the producer that the record label hired would co-write the songs with the band, playing as a sort of modern-day Minimus, making sure that everything that’s produced is in sync with the perceived current popular trends in music, in addition to controlling said current. All of the music of the last two decades that you hear on the radio has gone through this process. It is literally filtered through and designed by the label to both pander to the tastes of the consumer and control what the consumer hears. And who do you think, owns most of the radio stations? You only get one guess.

2. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality has stifled creative growth by potential new artists.

The question remains: exactly how much influence do producers and record labels have in the actual writing and performing of songs? Generally, the more popular a song/artist is, the more that the producer/label has meddled in the song’s creation. This says something very deep about the average listener’s appreciation of music, which I’ll get to in a little while.

Exempli gratia: Max Martin and Jim Vallance are two world-class producers and songwriters who are responsible for a sizable amount of the popular music of the 80s, 90s, and 00s. Check out the links, but I’ll sum up: Vallance writes metal and hard-rock tunes. He’s most “well-known” for writing a lot of the Scorpions’ material, in addition to penning the Bryan Adams hit, Summer of ’69. (I say “well-known” because the fact that the producers – not the performers – are behind these songs’ creation is generally kept on the down-low. Thanks, Wikipedia!) Max Martin is single-handedly responsible for the Backstreet Boys’ rise to fame, as well as Britney Spears’ first wave of hits, including …Baby One More Time[1], which he wrote himself. Since U Been Gone, performed by American Idol’s Kelly Clarkson (a consumer-as-pseudo-controller paradigm which I’m not even going to get into), was also authored by Martin. To wit:

“I want to be part of every note, every single moment going on in the studio. I want nothing forgotten, I want nothing missed. I’m a perfectionist. The producer should decide what kind of music is being made, what it’s going to sound like – all of it, the why, when and how.” – Max Martin, L.A. Times, 6/05/00

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Everything I’ve written so far is the background and introduction. The two following sentences are the raison d’ĂȘtre of this article, which hopefully I’ll convince you of:

1) 99.99% of popular music (ever since there has been music one could call “popular”) presents itself within a common form which I have dubbed the Verse Chorus Paradigm, which is simultaneously informing and subverting creation and appreciation of new music, regardless of its popular or underground origins.

2) The fact that the V.C.P. exists and persists says something truly deep w/r/t the public’s interpretation and perception of music, and of art in general.

POINT ONE:

The Verse Chorus Paradigm is a system of organization that delineates a song’s possible structures. It has very strict rules of form and function (the reason for the V.C.P.’s name should now become clear):

Intro / Verse / Verse /(Pre-chorus) Chorus / Verse / (Pre-chorus) Chorus / Bridge / Solo / Verse / (Pre-chorus) Chorus / Outro

Intro: usually instrumental (viz. no singing) in nature, introduces the key and tempo of the song.

Verse (V): generally either 4 lines or 8 lines long, tells a story or otherwise moves the “plot” of the song along its thematic path.

Pre-chorus (PC): harmonically more “tense” than the verse, somehow leads inexorably to the chorus – this can technically be considered part of the chorus as it never appears without it, but sometimes there’s only a chorus with no harmonic/thematic lead-in, which is the main reason for this explanation. It’s generally 2-4 lines long, and sometimes only instrumental in nature (usually in rock/metal/punk only).

Chorus (C): generally close to the same length as the verse, states the theme of the song, also usually contains the song’s “hook” – that is to say the part of the song which is designed to be catchy or easy to remember – which can be lyrical or instrumental, and tends to have an affect that is clever (country), or poignant/romantic (R&B and Top 40), or a statement about the artist’s cleverness/romanticism/poignancy (hip-hop, rock, “pop-punk”), but nearly always repeats more than once. There are never more than three distinct choruses within a song; if you hear three choruses without hearing a bridge, there won’t be a bridge. This rule is never broken.

Bridge (B): melodically different than the verse, usually containing a thematic or stylistic change w/r/t the song’s established motifs, and can vary in length dramatically.

Solo (S): traditionally instrumental, as in “guitar solo”, but can also feature vocal acrobatics – this is temporally interchangeable with the bridge, i.e. the solo may come first and the bridge second.

Outro (O): clean segue out of the song, traditionally containing either a repetition of the song’s chorus, or a fade-out, or an instrumental diversion that relates harmonically/melodically back to the intro’s key and theme.

Listed above are the parts of the song and the order in which they appear. The sections in bold are never skipped – the sections in normal type are optional. My argument is that the vast majority of popular songs – and by “popular” I mean “written by a band or producer for a major record label” – follow this format. I dare you to find a song written in the last twenty years, that you’ve heard on corporate radio, that does not follow the V.C.P. explicitly. While the verses and choruses are compulsory, the most typical format is I-V-(PC)C-V-(PC)C-B-(PC)C-O; that is to say, an intro, two verse-prechorus-choruses, a bridge-prechorus-chorus, and an outro. Here are three examples, with the song structures explicitly laid out. I strongly suggest you listen to each one and follow along, otherwise it’s not going to make any sense (the title of the song links to the file; right-click and select “open in a new window/tab” to follow along).

1.) Justin Timberlake – My Love (I-V(PC)C-V(PC)C-B(PC)C-O) (2006) [2] This a pop song; you’ve probably heard it.

Intro (0:00-0:16) Sets up the theme with a vocal cue, then brings in the backing beat and melody for what turns out to be the

Verse (0:16-0:49) Four lines about love, the last of which is repeated in other verses (This ring here represents my heart…), which provides a harmonic and thematic tie-in to the

Pre-Chorus (0:49-1:06) Four more lines about love, which repeat in other pre-choruses, and lead directly to the

Chorus (1:06-1:36) My Love, etc. It’s the hook. Pretty melody in the second half, too. Note that the Chorus and Verse differ in length by about three seconds.

Verse (1:36-2:09) If I wrote you a love note, and made you smile at every word I wrote, what would you do?

Pre-Chorus (2:09 – 2:26) All I want you to do is to be

Chorus (2:26 – 2:56) My Love. (By the way, I’m guilty of really liking this song.)

Bridge (2:56 – 3:46) different style / theme / type of singing. This part’s pretty cool. It’s roughly twice as long as the verse.

Pre-Chorus (3:46 -4:02) Girl, you amaze me. Ain’t gotta do nothing crazy. See, all I want you to do is to be My Love.

Chorus (4:02 – 4:05) Subtly different this time, an indication that the song is ending.

Outro (4:05 – 4:06) Just a quick fade-out so the ending isn’t too abrupt.

2.) Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine (I-VC-VC-BC-O) (2005) This is generally considered “left-field” pop; i.e. not played very often on the radio, but music videos are still made for the hits, and the albums still go gold/platinum (100,000 / 1 million albums sold, respectively). Music that has a “following” [3] is generally in this category: pre-1990s Metallica, Bjork, and Iron Maiden are good examples.

Intro (0:00 – 0:11)

Verse (0:11 – 0:56) Chorus (o:56 – 1:19) Four lines, half the length of the chorus. Awesome hook, though, and it’s not repeated. Way to be a rebel!
Verse (1:19 – 2:04) Chorus (2:04 – 2:26)

Bridge (2:26 – 2:54) Melodically/thematically different, leads to the final Chorus (2:54 – 3:17)

Outro (3:17 – 3:44) Repeats the chorus and ends with a short melody that references the intro.

3.) Matisyahu – King without a Crown (I-VC-VC-S-BC-O) (2005) Hasidic Jewish reggae from Texas. Popular in its own right, rather than produced/written/overseen by industry insiders. Nevertheless:

Intro (0:00 – 0:46)

Verse (0:46 – 1:26) Chorus (1:26 – 1:46)

Verse (1:46 – 2:37) Chorus (2:37 – 2:57)

Solo (2:57 – 3:37)

Bridge (3:37 – 4:07) Chorus (4:07 – 4:27)

Outro (4:27 – 4:40)

The only unusual parts are that the intro’s a little longer and the first half of the last chorus doesn’t have any singing in it, both of which are probably idiosyncratic and due to the fact that it’s a live – and therefore imperfect – recording.

Pardon the excessive examples (and there will be more), but I feel it’s necessary to make a point of how ingrained this paradigm is in popular music. Part of that is a function of the corporation-artist relationship [4] that is necessary to bring the music to a sizable audience in today’s society, but I feel that the corporation-consumer relationship [5] is just as relevant. After all, we buy the music. We actively listen to it. We follow the trends on MTV, willingly vote for the Top Ten Videos on TRL, download the singles from iTunes. And that’s not to say that popular music is the only “genre” of music that uses the V.C.P., just that we as consumers whole-heartedly buy into what the corporations are selling, and what’s more, we won’t stand for anything else. There’s a reason that hundreds of popular artists have sold millions of albums despite the sameness inherent in said albums, after all, and that reason is two-fold. Us and them. The consumer and the corporation. We want it, and they’re selling it.

The Paradigm has infiltrated into many other types of music, through constant social exposure of the Paradigm to new generations. Musicians that grew up with 60s and 70s pop, and later on MTV, are now producing progressive rock, death metal, synth-pop. [6] It’s still got that good ol’ inevitable sameness, though, and you can listen to it and siphon out the V.C.-ness yourself:

( These songs all rock, by the way. They’re worth listening to a priori)

Freezepop – Stakeout (I-V(PC)C-V-B(C/PC)-C-O)

Variations: Instead of the second chorus, it goes right to the bridge, and then when the chorus comes in it’s overlaid by first the bridge, and then on the second iteration, the original prechorus. They also play the intro melody between some of the segments.

Nile – Lashed to the Slave Stick (I-VC-V2-C-B-V2-V2-C-O)

Variations: Instead of the second verse mirroring the first verse’s structure, they introduce a different one (chords instead of fast picking). It’s about the same length. The bridge is the *really* fast part, and then they go back to the second verse style for twice as long as before. The outro is a repetition of the chorus (Lashed! To! The Slave Stick! *screaming*), then part of the chorus in reverse. It ends abruptly.

Dream Theater – 6:00 (I-V(PC)-V(PC)C-S-B-S2-V(PC)C-O)

Variations: The intro is lengthy and encompasses several themes. Because they are progressive, they don’t get to the chorus on the first iteration – the second verse kind of interrupts where the first chorus would have been. There’s also a second solo section – it’s after the slow-motion bridge, and features wah-wah guitar. The outro is a crazy guitar solo.

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Granted, these are significant variations, and certainly you’re not going to hear them (the songs) on the radio any time soon, both for stylistic and commercial reasons. I can analyze their forms w/r/t the V.C.P., however, which indicates that whatever revelations or unique ideas that are brought to the recording studio are still subsumed under the all-powerful and ubiquitous Paradigm. The fact that I can point out verses and choruses, and that you can hear them without too much mental conditioning, is proof enough. The question remains: why does the V.C.P. persist?

POINT TWO:

There’s a definite tendency among the non-artists in society to just not give a shit about art, one way or the other. A classic layman’s “critical” response to a Jackson Pollock or Rothko that we’ve all heard refers to the so-called critic’s child and said child’s questionable artistic talents, and questioning as to whether or not critic’s child’s artwork’s merits might be better than or equal to the Pollock’s. So it goes. The problem is that the meaning behind the art isn’t in the execution, anyway, but in the concept or intellectual drive behind it. To wit:

“I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else… I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.” – Mark Rothko, Conversations With Artists, 1961

In popular culture there tends to be an equivalence made between a piece’s technical aspects and its inherent value. We place value on artists for their abilities to paint photorealistically, on musicians for being divas or blow-your-mind guitarists, on movies for their special effects or theatre-quality acting. Much ado is made of the technical in today’s society, and the creators suffer. Why else would the identity of the writer of a pop tune be consciously hidden, and the performer lifted to great financial and social status? Whatever concepts lie behind great art and music are lost to the average listener. This isn’t to say that the technical has no place in great art; just that the technical aspect plays second fiddle, is a level of abstraction below. Art is built upon technique, but art is not equivalent to technique.

The point is this: Listeners aren’t interested in being intellectually challenged or forced to interpret something new. The point behind a song’s creation is not relevant – only the sounds that create the song matter. Aesthetics over intellect. And as far as aesthetics go: the average listener is interested in one thing, and one thing only. Entertainment. The uterine stasis of pop music is, above all, aesthetically pleasant. The V.C.P. persists because it is pleasant and familiar. Broken down into symbols, the V.C.P. is nearly as simple as possible: A B A B. Verse Chorus Verse Chorus. It’s pure aesthetic hedonism – someone who is pretty singing about something that is pretty within a context that is predictable and repetitive. Or if you’re a rebel – someone who is angry singing about something that is awesome within a context that is predictable and repetitive. That’s what it is, anyway. Music-as-business is business-as-music. Sell people the thing that sells: conformity.

The necessarily intellectual and conceptual approach to music-as-art is being threatened by the overwhelming presence of music-as-business and its attendant Paradigmatic form [7]. So much of non-mainstream music is based upon the V.C.P. that it’s hard to tell where the long arm of the market ends and the artist’s ideas begin. These days, if you use the V.C.P. you’re buying into the status quo, and if you avoid it, you’re subtly making a self-conscious reference to the fact that you’ve chosen to eschew it. This isn’t to say that music is dead, only that its growth is becoming increasingly limited by society’s penchant for surface-level diversions. See also television. Don’t confuse great entertainment for great art.

 

 

[1] Guess how many of the songs on Britney’s debut album were actually authored by her? That’s right, none. Twenty-seven million copies sold, though, as of this writing. See here for specifics.

[2] Did you know that Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and several notable actors all originate from the cast of the 1990s Mickey Mouse Club cast? The M.M.C. is the Skull-and-Bones of the entertainment industry.

[3] (= bands that have been around for 8+ years but haven’t really declined in popularity, the superficial temporary fixation of the public eye notwithstanding)

[4] i.e. corporate knows what sells based on what has sold in the past, and actively leads artist’s hand down said path, and artist’s willingness to co-opt the so-called artistic vision leads to a cornucopiac career, full of televised performances, royalties, and name-recognition, I mean come on.

[5] i.e. corporate knows what sells based on what consumer has bought in the past, and actively kind of stagnates on this one thing that the consumer likes, viz. understandability [5a], prettiness (both music- and musician-related), repetition.

[5a] can you name any pop tunes that aren’t about love, sex, having a good time, friends, or some negative consequence of the above (divorce, violence, breaking up, drug addiction)?

[6] The Beatles wrote in the V.C.P. So did Buddy Holly. So did Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra (both the songs they wrote and the songs that were written for them.) The beginning of the V.C.P. is beyond the scope of this article, but it’s related to the growth of the music industry as well as the schematics of both the blues and pre-Romantic classical music. I’ll get to it at some point: it’s a fascinating subject.

[7] Also, don’t get me wrong: there are other paradigms and other forms, as well as great new music that succeeds in exploring interesting conceptual space. Tune in next week for a spicy discussion.

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Productivity is King

September 16th, 2007

Prozac and Adderall are popular drugs. They both have one thing in common; they are behavior-altering medications which are designed to help the user more easily conform to what’s perceived as a Perfect Person, viz. happy and hard-working. Prozac “fixes” anxiety problems and general malaise; Adderall “fixes” short attention spans and disinterest in working.

The obvious question here is why do the drugs exist in the first place?

Joe’s been writing poems for a couple years, as he finds the act of creation rewarding. Chances are that Joe is a little disillusioned, here. He’s unhappy with society as society doesn’t reward poets. His friends like to watch football and Wheel of Fortune – his wife’s always at the office. The work he does at Intel is bland and unfulfilling, there’s no end to the data entry/office gossip/editing of software, and he’s neither recognized nor rewarded for anything above and beyond the eight hour grind. Everyone at work grumbles about Mondays, looks forward to drinking on Friday night, calls Wednesday “Hump Day”. He feels stuck in a pattern that treats him as a pair of eyes and hands, faceless, valuable only as long as he shows up at nine, useful only insofar as he is used. Even worse: there’s a second-level realization inherent in Joe’s drudgery. He knows that everyone is unconsciously buying into the Workaday Paradigm. There’s no questioning, here, no second-guessing. This is the way it is. There’s nothing better, nothing to be wished for, nothing to be sought. No change. Everyone – his wife, his friends, his co-workers – are playing a part in a complex play, their actions and hobbies and likes and dislikes all predictable and socially safe, a play within a play, people walking and talking and acting and working like they think they should, everyone doing what they’re told, everyone coloring within the lines. A functional system, to be sure. There’s no place for introspection in this system, no place for poetry. Joe doesn’t fit. He’s broken. He cries a lot but has a hard time explaining why. Everything seems hopeless. Everything seems wrong.

Joe: “I can’t sleep at night. What’s the point? Every day is like every other day. I suppose I’ll eventually get too sick to work. Then what?”

Naora almost failed out of high school her senior year. She was taking College Prep English and there was a term paper due, a term paper that had to be completed. It was on Hamlet or something, a Shakespearean play. She didn’t hand the paper in on the due date – she didn’t even start the paper or attempt to read the play. When asked about it, she’s hard-pressed to come up with a reasonable excuse. “I don’t know. I had enough time to do it. I finally forced myself to start, finally sat down to start writing it at about midnight the night before it was due, but I just couldn’t do it. I bought the play, fully intent on reading it, and I was sitting at my computer, and I just couldn’t start. It seemed pointless. I sat there and stared at the empty screen, my fingertips lightly resting on the keys. I just stared at the screen, frozen almost, just waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. I felt so stressed and so useless that I couldn’t think straight.” She eventually typed up something over the next four months, because she was faced with the possibility of having to repeat her senior year due to one mistake. She couldn’t face the social consequences. She didn’t want to be left behind.

Naora hands in the term paper on the last day of school. She gets a sixty percent in that English class – a D minus. Her GPA for her senior year is barely a 2.0. Failing, failing, no reason, really no reason at all. She gets into art school but withdraws after a couple years, due to poor grades and several incompletes. She moves back home and gets a job at the local supermarket, never goes back to school. She works and works and gets sadder and sadder. She stops reading and writing, buys digital cable.

Naora: “I knew this was going to happen. Some stupid shit always comes up. Oh well. That’s life, I guess.”

Sari works in construction these days. She gets paid 15 dollars an hour and is a member of a local union. Her main job is to turn those signs from Slow to Stop and back, controlling the flow of traffic past various construction sites. She majored in Women’s Studies at the local community college, but dropped out her junior year. She’s slept with a couple guys, but she thinks she’s a lesbian now. Or at least bisexual. Her parents basically stopped talking to her after she dropped out. Most of her collegiate friends have graduated and left town. She has a couple friends from high school that she still keeps in touch with; every couple weeks they get together, smoke pot, and watch Family Guy or The Big Lebowski or Office Space and laugh so hard they start crying. She’s a member of the Democratic Party.

Sari: “Women’s Studies just wasn’t going anywhere. It was interesting on like an intellectual level, but I couldn’t see a future in it. What am I supposed to do, just stay in school forever? It just seemed like a waste of money. I feel like a failure sometimes. My parents went to college, you know. Blue-collar work is a total drag. I feel ignored, as if I missed some important meeting and I’m permanently stuck in a waiting room somewhere.”