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Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker
February 11, 2012 6:30 AM   Subscribe


 
It's not as if tear-jerkers are new. "Loch Lomond" is how old, exactly?
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:45 AM on February 11, 2012


Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern.
One more nail in the coffin of the Loudness War.
posted by Lanark at 6:55 AM on February 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


Very cool. Thanks for the post.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:56 AM on February 11, 2012


Huh.

I've heard this song in the background at the shops and so on, and it doesn't really stand out to me as a song, even, though I like Rolling in the Deep very much. Someone Like You does nothing to invoke much emotion for me, much less a sad one, dissonant notes notwithstanding.

However, whenever I listen to Prefab Sprout's I Remember That the waterworks start up with a quickness.
posted by droplet at 6:59 AM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


The title makes me cry because it's an indirect reminder of how great Mercury-era Rod Stewart was, and what an abortion his career was after that.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:02 AM on February 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


Damn. Read the article, liked the science, never heard the song, clicked the embedded link and now I have something in my eye.
posted by jkaczor at 7:07 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't particularly love the song, but it does give me the tingly chills, at exactly the scientifically "right" moments in the song, according to the article. Weird.
posted by fancyoats at 7:08 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ever since watching everyone around me become enraptured and breathless by the yodeling Whitney Houston did during her song I'll Always Love You, I find that vocal tricks do very little to invoke emotion in me. Lyric content and association of certain songs with special people in my life are far more powerful. I can't even sing along to Stan Rogers' - Mary Ellen Carter because my voice hitches and lurches.
posted by Randwulf at 7:13 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I need the vast majority of things in life explained to me.

However, this is one thing I just intuitively "get".

I'm happy with that.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:18 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


This song is catchy but there's something trite about the melody that irks me.

Also, even though she has a tremendous physical voice, in terms of interpretation and style I don't think Adele has the distinctiveness of someone like Dusty Springfield.

Her whole "soulful white girl" image feels a bit forced.

I guess I don't really get the love? I am probably the only girl I know who isn't crazy about her.
posted by timsneezed at 7:27 AM on February 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


Dusty for comparison.
I wish modern singers could just sing a song straight, rather than ruining it with excessive trills.
posted by timsneezed at 7:35 AM on February 11, 2012 [18 favorites]


Hmm. I think they're not putting enough emphasis on how the lyrics effect this. You couldn't sing a song about flowers and puppies and the world's most delicious sandwich to a melody like this and produce tears.

That said, the one song guaranteed to make me cry, Tom Waits' Martha* does follow this formula pretty closely.

*(He wrote that song when the was twenty-one! Twenty-one, for shit's sake!)

posted by Jon_Evil at 7:37 AM on February 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


The way she pushes through her vocal folds, forcing air through too quickly so that the folds don't fully adduct (which is one way to get that yelp-like attack) leaves little question as to why she's had so many vocal health issues. I'd hope it's an interpretative choice (as that yelp is probably an "intensity/emotional-appeal" inflection) rather than a lack of understanding about her instrument, but if she's not careful she'll completely wreck her voice -- which would be an awful shame.
posted by sinnesloeschen at 7:39 AM on February 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


Sigh. As a classical musician of many decades, it annoys me when people write columns like this throwing around musical terms with very specific meaning in an incorrect way as though they've discovered something new and different. A few years ago it was all about use/overuse of "melisma" as though singing more than one note on a single syllable were something that Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey invented. I haven't done an exhaustive study of this Adele song, but needless to say it does not seem to particularly feature lots of appoggiatura. If anything, much of this music tends to feature suspensions (and complex stacked chords).

Meanwhile, it's not exactly revelatory that music which creates/resolves harmonic/melodic tension and builds to a climax is effective. Hey, I know! How about a song about an older guy who scratches out a living as a clown in a traveling commedia dell'arte troupe with his beautiful younger wife who he discovers is having an affair just before he has to give a performance in which his character is cuckolded by his wife's character -- and in which he reflects that the audience doesn't see him as a man but only as a clown, and laughs while he cries from the broken-hearted sadness that poisons his heart? Yea, I guess they've been doing this for a while.
posted by slkinsey at 7:41 AM on February 11, 2012 [18 favorites]


sinnesloeschen: Could you expand on that for us non-experts in vocal anatomy?
posted by leotrotsky at 7:42 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know much about music but I think Gershwin's Porgy and Bess has a lot of these dissonant half tones? At least that's what I respond to in it. Maybe a musician among us could explain the correct terminology.
posted by timsneezed at 7:43 AM on February 11, 2012


I like this version way better than the original.
posted by desjardins at 7:48 AM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]




Hah, I can try (although my knowledge is admittedly limited).

So you have little flaps of cartilage in your throat, and they vibrate when you speak or sing. When you sing, air is pushed up from the lungs via your diaphragm, and that air goes through those little flaps (the vocal folds) and depending on how quickly those flaps, er, flap -- you get a specific pitch.

What Adele *seems* to do is to force air through the little flaps while they're closed (or trying to close) when she's starting a particular pitch, which creates a lot of tension in her throat. While the vocal folds are pretty flexible and able to handle significant stress, doing this repeatedly for days/weeks/months is a recipe for wrecking that flexibility and causing all sorts of problems for the singer.
posted by sinnesloeschen at 7:54 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's odd but I think the producers should have gone in the opposite direction and added more background/instrumentation for the chorus at least. Maybe that's partly why the song falls flat to me.
posted by timsneezed at 7:59 AM on February 11, 2012


If "Someone Like You" produces such intense sadness in listeners, why is it so popular? Last year, Robert Zatorre and his team of neuroscientists at McGill University reported that emotionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs. This makes us feel good and motivates us to repeat the behavior.

Seriously. I've been avoiding sad songs for months because of this. I definitely can't stop at one, and before I know what's happened it's been three hours and it's the end of the world (The End of the World, even), and I might as well have set fire to all the disgusting sunlight, fresh air, exercise, nutritious food, meditation, nights out, Wellbutrin, etc. I force on myself, and snorted the ashes.

But I woke up feeling awesome today, and immediately spent all morning getting as sad I wanted. David Ruffin gave me the best cry I've had in ages with Let Somebody Love Me, then I listened to Chuck Jackson's I Wake Up Crying while I recovered, and then I listened to Goddamn Lonely Love by the Drive-By Truckers, and wept again to the point of like, euphoria. Sad music feels so good, I don't know how people who do actual drugs even stand it.

Anyway, I agree with timsneezed about this particular song. I like Adele, and love Rolling in the Deep, but Someone Like You feels like an air balloon tethered to the ground. Katy Perry's Firework gave me the exact same feeling last year. Two deeply frustrating songs, and both in any case overplayed to the point that I associate them more readily with deciding what kind of cheese to buy at the supermarket than with human feelings of any description.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 8:00 AM on February 11, 2012 [11 favorites]


He wrote that song when the was twenty-one! Twenty-one, for shit's sake!

Adele's been writing her own songs she she was 17.
posted by empath at 8:00 AM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Not keeping up with pop music, Adele seemed to be an overnight sensation on my radar. While I would describe the style as heartfelt and soulful, and I can see how she could have mass appeal, the emotional impact that she seems to be famous for eludes me. On the simplest level, the songs don't have many distinguishing hooks to my ear. I've not done a good listen to lyrics, so meaning doesn't have much impact. And her delivery reminds me of a female Michael Bolton, formulaic and overwrought. Her voice has some good innate qualities, but most of all, I think her material just doesn't let it show off that well. The samples in the article just don't demonstrate to my satisfaction what they're intended to.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:06 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


As a longtime Dan Wilson fan (the songwriter who collaborated with Adele on this track), that melody is so, so much a Dan Wilson melody. He uses resolution and pitch jumps (not to mention a lot of heartfelt language) to great effect in his solo stuff, and it was a significant part of why I liked his work with Semisonic so much. It almost always happens that when I hear a new Dan Wilson tune, I think, "He can't possibly hit that note that would fit the melody here...HE CAN!" The new (and still pretty rough) "Something I Don't Know" is a good recent example of that.
posted by jocelmeow at 8:10 AM on February 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


I had a longer delivery route than normal the other day, and took along my iPod and FM transmitter thingy so I could listen to some of my music once I was out of range of the NPR stations.

My partner's 89 year old father had just died (fuck cancer!), and he has been kind of in a place about it. The fact that he's currently working in Detroit while I'm here in Spokane means our only real contact for a while has been IRC and a bit of video chat. And while I never met his father, I've certainly known his son for long enough to be feeling a bit of loss myself, and by proxy.

So I broke out Indigo Girls albums. Listened to three of them in a row while I was making my rounds. The three I chose, I picked specifically because they have each have a totality to them, an energy curve which runs across the songs, and toward the end of each album, there is an lyrically and musically intense song which somehow sums up deep emotions for me.

Along the way through each album there is a microcosm of the range of human emotions. Laughter, love, rage, puzzlement, introspection, joy...

I guess I like my emotional experiences to be a bit more long-form than a single song, because while the "peak" songs on each of those albums stand alone just fine in their own right, in context they become completely cathartic.

I guess my question is... Where does Someone Like You fit in with the rest of the album, and does it work better in context than it does as a radio single? I don't own any Adele, but if she's doing good albums in addition to doing good songs, I might actually pick one up one of these days.
posted by hippybear at 8:10 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


timsneezed, I don't care much for Adele either. I find her music very boring.
posted by girlmightlive at 8:11 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder if the song makes Alison Moyet cry.
posted by davebush at 8:17 AM on February 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


leotrotsky: I'm not sinnesloeschen, but I have trained as a classical vocalist for a long, long time, and I've studied vocal anatomy and voice science with some of the most notable figures in the field (one of whom uses a stroboscopic video of my larynx as the "healthy example" in her lectures).

There are several techniques Adele uses that don't necessarily bode well for vocal longevity. I should hasten to point out that many singers use these techniques and have long careers, usually due to some combination of (a) not actually performing all that often, thus giving the voice instrument time to recover, and (b) having a remarkable healing factor through the luck of genetics. In thinking about any of this, we have to understand that vocal sounds are produced by vibrating the vocal folds, which are two flaps of flesh and cartilage in the larynx that are less substantial and more delicate than your eyelids. Here is a stroboscopic film (magnified many times) of the vocal folds in action. By strobing the light source slightly out of phase with the frequency, it makes the action of the vocal cords seem slow. Anyway, since this is all very delicate tissue, there are lots of ways you can screw it up if you abuse it.

One thing Adele does is employ a fair amount of "vocal fry." This is that scratchy sound she uses to start a lot of tones, and the growling sound that comes into the tone sometimes. Vocal fry is a kind of "half vocalization" that is only partially pitched, and makes this characteristic sound by alternating an extremely forceful closure of the cords with a slackening of the cords to create the characteristic popping/scraping noise.

Another thing Adele does is to sing in an ultimately unhealthfully forceful way in the higher parts of her voice when she's singing loud. This is harder to describe, but I will try to sum it up as best I can: the vocal folds fundamentally work in two opposing ways to make pitches. Either the muscle of the folds is contracted and the cords are short and long, or the muscle of the folds is realized and the cords are stretched long and thin. Generally speaking, the short/thick way corresponds to lower pitches and the long/thin way corresponds to higher pitches, and in practice we are usually employing some mixture of both ways with the mix shifting depending on the pitch. As the pitch gets higher, if we increase (or really, if we do not decrease) the pressure of the air pushing up against the vocal folds -- called "subglottal pressure" -- then the only way for the vocal cords to fully close is to work in more of that short/thick muscular way of singing in order to force the cords to close against the pressure. This means that the collision of the cords against each other is increasingly violent, and over time this can result in any number of bad things happening. One of the most common things is that the cords develop callus-like bumps called "vocal nodes" or "vocal nodules" at the point of strongest contact. These can sometimes be removed surgically, although with mixed results, and their effect on the vocal tone can vary depending on their size and location. Singers with a "husky" tone often have them. The other thing that happens over time is that the cartilage of the vocal folds respond to the increased strain by calcifying, which permanently stiffens the vocal folds and results in loss of flexibility, range, etc.

If Adele is running into vocal troubles at her young age, this does not bode well for a long singing career unless steps are taken to correct the habits leading to these troubles. On the other hand, it's generally speaking true that many people singing in this style just don't have good sounding voices for very long, and there may be some features inherent to the style that damage the instrument over time.
posted by slkinsey at 8:19 AM on February 11, 2012 [47 favorites]


WSJ not only covers science and music, but has a performance cafe? What are they, Billboard?
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:19 AM on February 11, 2012


That live version linked above.. damn. I'm a guy, and not afraid to admit that some music makes me tear up. That's one of them.
posted by mrbill at 8:22 AM on February 11, 2012


This is the song that's been reliably bringing up a tear or two for me, recently. -- you can hear it pushing all the buttons mentioned in the article, including repetition, adding voices and jumping octaves -- that boy's choir at the end just murders me.

Every other m83 song is the same way for me, too....

posted by empath at 8:23 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


For a really good cry.
posted by timsneezed at 8:30 AM on February 11, 2012


Oh, God, if this thread becomes a collection of links to sad songs, I'm never going to get out of the house.
posted by tzikeh at 8:34 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Dan Wilson was my babysitter when I was a boy. True story. I talked to him about it once, and he didn't particularly seem interested in the subject. His brother Matt, however, also babysat me, and when the subject was broached preceded to discuss it for almost 20 minutes. I guess some people remember babysitting more than others.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:36 AM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Another aspect of Adele's SLY that I think may contribute to its success are the metrical and phrase length tricks it uses to immerse the listener into the world of reflection on past time. (You get a lot of these in Beatles songs too).

Check out the pre-chorus section of SLY ('I hate to turn up...')... The song is in 4/4 time and this pre-chorus starts with 4 bars - as most pop songs would normally unfold. But it ends with an extra bar of 2/4 added on to it, where Adele appropriately sings 'it isn't over...', thus yearningly stretching out the phrase. Then it goes into the chorus, which lasts (I think) ten bars and then at its end (this is where Adele is Beatle-esque songwriter) the missing half of the earlier bar that should have been 4/4 but was changed to 2/4 is 'paid back', at which point we hear the piano linger on for an extra inserted bar of 2/4 *just before* she starts singing the next verse. Time lost and then remembered.

This time element is further emphasised later in the song, at the next pre-chorus when Adele again sings 'it isn't over.' This time we have a full bar of 4/4 appended to the end of verse, making it an irregular 5 bars instead of 4, so that the phrase is stretched even longer. The piano amplifies this effect even more by slowing gently, and to top it there is also an additional yearning chord (I think it's a polychord where the root is 'out of place' against the main triad).
Great integration of harmonic and rhythmic ideas with the poetic text of the song.

The ear is therefore fascinated by a song that reflects on the passing of time and actually manages to build these little tricks into its structural unfolding, playing with our expectations and delighting (saddening) us every time.

When she gets to the bridge ('nothing compares') she sings the melody over a 5 bar sequence, instead of the far more common pop structure of 4 bars of 4/4 (or 8 bars of 4/4 as per classic middle 8). I think that this is successful because the ear, every time, retrospectively hears the 'bittersweet' phrase as an interjection into the normal unfolding of 4 bars - a lesser songwriter would *not have inserted bar 4 ('bittersweet') into the song and would have instead written it as a 4 bar bridge*. I try to imagine this by humming the lines as 'Nothing compares no worries or cares, regrets and mistakes they are memories made, who would have known how bitter [DELETE BAR 4]... taste...' but it's hard to hear the song any other way now - but that's why it's a remarkable song. This is also the way Beatles songs with irregular phrase lengths can 'capture' our ears, apparently forever from looking at their record sales. I think maybe the norm of the in-out breath/pulse/heartbeat and a standard of regularity against which we can experiment with literally transforming time is one of the main little bits of magic that songs seem to do to us.

I also think the brain may interpret the incredible whispering shriek that Adele does at 'don't forget me' as an interpolation into the chorus (like a thought that breaks into her mind). The the ear also never knows whether it feels more 'right' or not for her to sing the final line ('sometimes it lasts in love' etc) once or twice. When she sings it twice, we have a structure that emphasises the middle shrieked section as an interjection (again you could think of this deleting the two bars that start with 'forGET me' and end with 'sometimes it LASTS'. You would end up singing a conventional 8 bars like a million other songwriters would have done, and the song would lose another big part of its appeal. And of course pop songwriters have to pull off all this while appearing totally intuitive, instantly accessible, and built into our patterns of speech.

I think it's a fantastic, wonderful song and I hope I haven't made too many mistakes trying understand it! For those who are interested, Adele's 'Turning Tables' also inserts bars of 3/4 and 5/4 into its structure. She's incredible.
posted by colie at 8:39 AM on February 11, 2012 [145 favorites]


Yes, there are reasons why well-constructed songs (and books, and movies...) are more emotionally satisfying. But no, Adele and Wilson did not "stumble" on the reasons. They learned it by having good ears and listening to lots of music: talent and education, like everything else in the world.

Also, I agree with other posters that her music is all a bit dull and same-y. De gustibus and all that, eh?
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 8:43 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I hear this track everywhere, including supermarkets, along with people singing along to it, which is not too usual, so it's very effective. When I hear the chord progression in the chorus, my brain makes a mental segue to U2's With or Without You, another singalong anthem (even in supermarkets).

So I thought this analysis was interesting, as many of the general remarks (soft intro, repetitive pattern, slow build, octave jump, etc.) also apply to U2. Someone should do a mashup ...
posted by carter at 8:45 AM on February 11, 2012


Not exactly a sad song, but to me very emotional: The Wood Song.

Actually a pretty sad song (and a good b-side for Someone Like You): Ghost.
posted by hippybear at 8:45 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, God, if this thread becomes a collection of links to sad songs, I'm never going to get out of the house.

Hunker down!
posted by Beardman at 8:46 AM on February 11, 2012


Interesting, but she could have saved herself the trouble by just writing it in D minor, the saddest of all keys.
posted by Buckley at 8:49 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


"...dreams came true" is the part that gets me. Which is so cheesy, but I tear up every time. The darkroom lab tech at my school once played the whole Adele album three times in a row. Probably on accident, but I'm surprised I didn't ruin all my prints by sobbing all over them.
posted by book 'em dano at 8:54 AM on February 11, 2012


This WSJ article appears to be churned version of a Boston Globe story from earlier this week.
posted by honest knave at 9:04 AM on February 11, 2012


Btw, this disco remix of Adele is glorious, if you all haven't heard it.
posted by empath at 9:04 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think it's a fantastic, wonderful song and I hope I haven't made too many mistakes trying understand it!

I think you did fantastic, and I'd rather have 1 post like this than 100 people telling me why they don't like the song any day of the week. As far as I'm concerned, you made the thread worthwhile.
posted by empath at 9:10 AM on February 11, 2012 [27 favorites]


it's not exactly revelatory that music which creates/resolves harmonic/melodic tension and builds to a climax is effective.

Yeah, I knew much of this, but there were some interesting bits I didn't know, and I plan on using my new-found knowledge for evil.

This is one of my contributions to the sadness wars (warning: accordion).
posted by malocchio at 9:13 AM on February 11, 2012


I'd like some scientific explanation of why that song does nothing for me but this one, despite a lack of appogiaturas, octave jumps, crescendos, etc. pretty much kills me.
posted by Wolfdog at 9:18 AM on February 11, 2012


desjardins, I remembered your post about Jay Brannan the moment I saw this one. That was my introduction to this song and I went nuts for it. Funny to note that he doesn't resolve the notes in the same way they describe in the article... and because I heard his version first, I have to admit I've never noticed it before (because I was singing like Jay Brannan too loudly in my car, no doubt).

I am such a sucker for this kind of thing. Thanks for the post and all the great links in the comments.
posted by juliplease at 9:21 AM on February 11, 2012


If Adele can tame the auto-tuned horrors they play in my grocery store I'll be very thankful to her.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:22 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Every once in a while, I find a song that makes me deliciously sad, and when I get really stressed at work, I'll play that song over and over, tear up, and somehow end up feeling much better and able to face the rest of my day.

For quite a while, the song was Neko Case's "Deep Red Bells" ("tastes like being poor and small" - god) and now it's Adele's "Someone Like You" and "Rolling in the Deep."

I don't know anything about music theory - I just like the contrast of the melodic parts with the more forceful parts.
posted by Squeak Attack at 9:31 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Squeak Attack-- "Deep Red Bells" doesn't make me cry, but virtually ALL of her music gives me a lump in my throat . . . "Things That Scare Me" blows my mind. I sing it at the top of my lungs in the car . . . drewbage1847 said in another thread, "If you've never seen Neko Case live, fly to her next show. As amazing as her voice is in the studio, there's something frightening and shamanistic about it live". I get that even from the studio . . . there's something really intense about it.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:38 AM on February 11, 2012


U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Angie Johnson and Sidewinder perform a cover of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep."
posted by juliplease at 9:48 AM on February 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


I'm a sucker for a bluesy, whiskey-tinged voice like Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, and Adele.

I think Adele is particularly good at singing torchy songs. She even makes Bob Dylan incredibly sad.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:49 AM on February 11, 2012


Jon_evil,

Interesting to point out Wait's "Martha" (one of my favorites) in comparison to "Someone Like You."

This part of "Someone Like You"

"I heard that you're settled down
That you found a girl and you're married now."

always reminded me of this part of "Martha"

"And I feel so much older now
And you're much older too
Oh, how's the husband and how's the kids
You know that I got married too..."
posted by saul wright at 10:11 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


You've heard the song and read the article, now watch the SNL sketch!
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 10:19 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Was listening to the radio one commute, and the DJ intro'ed one off her songs with "Dude, you're getting Adele."

Made me weep for reasons unrelated to her singing.
posted by radwolf76 at 11:06 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Cool, a while back I had an askMe about why music made me cry sometimes.
posted by dejah420 at 11:11 AM on February 11, 2012


I'll tell you why it makes me cry.

It makes me cry because it is so devoid of any spark of real personality, originality, attitude or angle. It makes me cry because its like someone took a person with an undeniably good singing voice and then wrote a computer-programmed song specifically designed to tick boxes, poke emotional weak spots, meet targets, leverage resources, ring bells, make canines salivate and score points as a result.

This is the music of safety and reassurance. This is the music of plaint-by-numbers. This is the music you put on after the excitement and edginess of Coldplay, as the evening winds down and you want to feel something a little bit deeper, even though you have been trained by the jabbering compressed tinnitus shitstorm of competent sonic mediocrity to only plumb about half a fathom, max.

I remember when music used to shake me. To my fucking spinal cord. Not make me want to sniffle, masturbate and then buy an iPad.
posted by Decani at 11:20 AM on February 11, 2012 [17 favorites]


Well, Decani, don't hold back. Tell us how you really feel.

*set up tent on Decani's lawn*
posted by hippybear at 11:23 AM on February 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


It makes me cry because its like someone took a person with an undeniably good singing voice and then wrote a computer-programmed song specifically designed to tick boxes, poke emotional weak spots, meet targets, leverage resources, ring bells, make canines salivate and score points as a result.

I'm crying right now for your dead soul.
posted by empath at 11:27 AM on February 11, 2012 [32 favorites]


Ok, does no one listen to words anymore? While it has a pretty melody the words are down right stalkeriffic.

An ex-girlfriend shows up out of no where at your door and wants to know why you're not happy to see her. You broke up for a reason and moved on -- yet there she is going on and on and on about how special you were. You're not shy, you're trying to get rid of her. Your wife wants to know why she's here and isn't happy to hear the ex is pulling this nasty routine.
You try to shut the door and she's out there -- wrist to forehead -- "Don't worry about me."

This song doesn't make me cry -- it creeps me out.
posted by Alles at 11:28 AM on February 11, 2012 [12 favorites]


While it has a pretty melody the words are down right stalkeriffic.

Welcome to the world of pop music.
posted by hippybear at 11:31 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


MetaFilter: I'm crying right now for your dead soul.
posted by yaymukund at 11:35 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ok, does no one listen to words anymore? While it has a pretty melody the words are down right stalkeriffic.

Of course-- its pathetic. But a lot of people do pathetic things when relationships fall apart. That's part of what makes the song sad. Because you're embarrassed for her, and at the same time, you understand the emotion behind why she did it.
posted by empath at 11:37 AM on February 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


its like someone took a person with an undeniably good singing voice and then wrote a computer-programmed song specifically designed to tick boxes

But has anyone actually created a type of box-ticking computer songwriting software that can generate Adele-level sales (20 million albums) which are presumably based on some kind of emotional connection? If so, would love to understand how it works; if not, why not?
posted by colie at 11:40 AM on February 11, 2012


Emmylou Harris - Calling my children home does that for me.
posted by joost de vries at 11:45 AM on February 11, 2012


Of course-- its pathetic. But a lot of people do pathetic things when relationships fall apart.

The relationship is over long enough for one of the people to be married! And the singer knows that. This is just scary.
posted by Alles at 11:46 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I remember when music used to shake me. To my fucking spinal cord. Not make me want to sniffle, masturbate and then buy an iPad.

This approaches Faze-worthy. Props.
posted by Rory Marinich at 11:58 AM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'd like to think it's not just science at work, but if you check out song producers like Stargate you will see there's a distinct formula behind many of their songs. I want to believe I'm immune to these sort of programmatic compositions but I can't argue that in cases when I like one song, I almost immediately like the other.

Look at Beyonce -- Irreplaceable and Chris Brown's With You. You can virtually sing one on top of the other.

Ryan Tedder from One Republic is another guy who knows a good formula. Beyonce's Halo and Kelly Clarkson's Already Gone are extremely similar, which Kelly did not like too much and perhaps even eliciting a song from her called Wash, Rinse, Repeat -- something a lot of songwriters end up doing whether they know it or not.
posted by thorny at 12:03 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can't even sing along to Stan Rogers' - Mary Ellen Carter because my voice hitches and lurches.
posted by Randwulf

I hear you, Randwulf, I hear you. I used to listen to that cassette on my Walkman while I waited for the schoolbus. I was the saddest 16 year old ever. And I wasn't even Canadian!

I'm not a huge Adele fan, mostly for the reasons Two or Three Cars stated above. That sort of strangled yelling doesn't do it for me. I remember trying to sing along to broadway stuff in high school and pushing and pushing to get that bright brassy sound. My throat would feel so swollen and tight afterwards and it wasn't until I started studying with a jazz singer that I learned to relax and let my own voice through.

There's a commercial for Anderson Cooper's interview with Adele where you can hear her sing unaccompanied for a moment and she sounds terrible. I hope she can figure out a way to keep her uniqueness without sacrificing her instrument.

Anyway, I'm not too proud to admit that Josh Groban's "Don't Give Up" makes me cry in the supermarket. I don't want to know why. I just let it happen.
posted by Biblio at 12:10 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would love to see an article exploring why it is that, while it is basically a universal fact that music can make people cry, it's never the same music for everyone.

Although I don't deny that Adele is musically talented, most of her songs produce little emotion in me other than boredom. "Someone Like You" just strikes me as the standard radio pop-music you can half-listen to in your car or at the supermarket. Yet clearly it provokes strong emotions in some people. And I don't want to judge them for it. Musical experience is subjective and it doesn't help us to all become aesthetic tyrants judging each other for bad musical taste.

Most articles about musical taste end up tackling the question from a scientific and technical perspective, but I think a large part of musical taste is related to culture and class (hurray for Bourdieu!) that end up classifying which sounds are connected to which emotions. There's a kind of symbolic adherence between certain musical tropes and certain emotions that kind of need to grow into you, like learning a language, in order for certain songs to be able to communicate what they are supposed to communicate and thus evoke specific emotions. When I introduced my mother to Radiohead (whose music does provoke strong emotions for me) and her reaction was basically "why are these random weird noises considered music? You like this?!". I don't think you can find a scientific reason for her reaction.
posted by adso at 12:16 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


The relationship is over long enough for one of the people to be married!

In a lot of cases, that's not very long at all. At this point, the couple that splits up/divorces, with the woman remaining single for a long time and the man getting married/married again within a year, is a cliche in my peer group.
posted by asterix at 12:16 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I guess I don't really get the love? I am probably the only girl I know who isn't crazy about her.

I'm right there with you. And the people who think she sounds contrived. I also cringe every time I hear her try to hit the high notes in the chorus of "Someone Like You" and I can hear her hit the ceiling of her vocal range. I can't imagine it's good for her vocal cords.
posted by clavier at 12:35 PM on February 11, 2012


Also, this song, by the Romanian folk singer Maria Tănase. The tears just flow. Especially when there's alcohol involved.
posted by adso at 12:37 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


This interval, this appoggiatura, is all over the place in Brother Iz's "Over the Rainbow".
posted by klarck at 12:47 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I bitterly weep every time it comes on the radio in the office. All 900 times a day.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 12:57 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wouldn't this be true of any hook in a song? Change meter or range to draw attention. Whether it causes tears just depends on the subject. Obligatory tear jerker: A Coral Room
posted by smidgen at 1:07 PM on February 11, 2012


U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Angie Johnson and Sidewinder perform a cover of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." This seriously made my weep, for reasons not necessarily obvious to the performers. They are all so young, and so serious, even when they are performing. Thanks for the link.

Pop music has its own levels of greatness, and one of them is the ability to reach out across race and class, and in this case, nationality. This is what pop sometimes does, and in my opinion, it is mean to blame it for that
But that's just me

(who was also trained as a singer and failed but knows all the technical stuff...)
posted by mumimor at 1:19 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Decani, I'd agree completely, not being an Adele fan. Except you use Coldplay as a positive example.
Maybe this whole thing isn't that simple
posted by mumimor at 1:28 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


if you check out song producers like Stargate you will see there's a distinct formula behind many of their songs.

Yes, but most of the songs that team (for example) have put out (Rihanna, Katy Perry etc) seem to lack the emotional connection that we're all considering is a very real possibility with Adele . They're interesting pop artists but even their fans are probably not going to insist that they are emotionally charging them up like Adele's fans do.

"Someone Like You" just strikes me as the standard radio pop-music you can half-listen to in your car or at the supermarket. Yet clearly it provokes strong emotions in some people.

But then, that's the trick - how come? How do these emotions connect to people for songwriters who quickly become part of the mainstream like Adele, Elton John, Beatles, Bowie? I think it might be something to do with the way the music actually works, or at least that's a worthwhile thing to explore. A lot of the surface style of Adele (bluesy singing etc) is irrelevant I think - it's a more structural and harmonic thing.

Of course-- its pathetic. But a lot of people do pathetic things when relationships fall apart.

I agree absolutely - part of the song's lyrical success is how throughout the song Adele attempts so many different styles of talking in her attempt to re-woo her old love - chatty news update, jokey-sneery (the way she sings 'dreams came true'), remember-the-old-times, I'm-still-sexy-aren't I?, life is so long and so short, I'm a wreck please help me, who would have known, oh-well-fuck-it, actually I do really care, I'm finished... etc.
A direct predecessor in this mould is Abba's 'The Winner Takes it All' - with the 'I don't want to talk if it makes you feel bad' and 'tell me does she kiss like I used to kiss you?' lines. I think the songs are quite similar in many ways (and of course sales).
posted by colie at 1:31 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Decani, I'd agree completely, not being an Adele fan. Except you use Coldplay as a positive example.

I believe his example of Coldplay was meant ironically.
posted by wabbittwax at 1:38 PM on February 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


but most of the songs that team (for example) have put out (Rihanna, Katy Perry etc) seem to lack the emotional connection that we're all considering is a very real possibility with Adele.

Colie: But a lot of what I'd personally consider mediocre singers (at least in terms of their interpretative abilities) elicit strong emotional responses in their fans -- Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera.
posted by timsneezed at 1:44 PM on February 11, 2012


Also, this song yt , by the Romanian folk singer Maria Tănase. The tears just flow. Especially when there's alcohol involved.

Excellent. I wasn't really expecting to find something profound in this thread. Thank you.
posted by ovvl at 1:58 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Man, I had never even heard of Adele until Sean Maher kept mentioning her on his Twitter and then a couple of months later she's everywhere. Clearly, Simon Tam is a harbinger of pop culture.
posted by kmz at 2:25 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


timsneezed: Although Adele is in many ways just another big-voiced pop singer like Mariah and Christina, I'm suggesting that she's more importantly a strange new type of songwriter and has achieved a link between her musical style, vocal style, personality, and her lyric text that seems to connect in interesting ways, so that merits inquiry armed with any musical insights we can gather, I guess.

(For fans: Adele in America a few months ago, receiving a gift from a fan, of a furry toy dog on stage:
posted by colie at 2:29 PM on February 11, 2012


There are few songs that make me tear up--Kentish Town Waltz is one of them, because Mrs. Example dedicated it to me on Facebook one evening and I'd never heard it before and OH MY GOD YOU GUYS.

There are songs I use to deliberately induce other moods, though, chief among them Steely Dan's Deacon Blues. I listen to it at full volume when I want to feel like the smoothest motherfucker on the planet.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:40 PM on February 11, 2012


I remember when music used to shake me.

You should consider that between "music" and "you", one is more likely to have actually changed than the other.

Your hate is tiring.
posted by flaterik at 3:02 PM on February 11, 2012 [12 favorites]


Lady with the braid if we're going for sad as in inspires pathos.
posted by The Whelk at 3:03 PM on February 11, 2012


For the record, the final minute or so of "Let Down" by Radiohead gets me every single goddamn time. No idea if there's any appoggiatura in there, but in any case it's always sounded to me like someone giving up entirely at the end of a very long struggle, like the harmonic arc of a beautiful, failed dream.
posted by gompa at 3:06 PM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


The first -- and only -- Adele song I heard was one where I misunderstood the lyrics. I really really thought she was singing about "chasing penguins," which was so unusual for a pop song, so charming, so weird. I can't even begin to tell you how disappointed I was when my interpretation of the chorus was corrected. In protest, I'm just not listening to anything else of hers.
posted by .kobayashi. at 3:07 PM on February 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


No idea if there's any appoggiatura in there, but in any case it's always sounded to me like someone giving up entirely at the end of a very long struggle, like the harmonic arc of a beautiful, failed dream.

Radiohead albums always sound like a bad trip to me. And that album in particular... It captures a particular feeling, not of sadness, but of discomfort-- maybe of despair, of being in a world where you just don't quite fit. The whole thing is just subtly skewed and tilted, there's just a constant feeling of vertigo and of the world struggling to cohere and make sense... But at the same time, it's so beautiful...
posted by empath at 3:16 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm really loving all the explanations here - really interesting. For me, I really like this song and Adele in general but it's never had that "punch me in the gut" effect.

Samson, by Regina Spektor, on the other hand ...
posted by lunasol at 3:29 PM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's weird; I am usually a total sucker for emotional tricks in music, and have a long history of songs that trigger massive emotional meltdowns, but SLY leaves me *completely* cold. I even like Rolling in the Deep but for some reason this song just doesn't do it for me.

I look forward to computer listening algorithms getting better and better so that eventually I can hand a machine my list of top tearjerkers and get a bunch more back. I'm sure there are common threads that link them; I love 3/4 time, for instance, and songs that start slow and progressively get faster.
posted by troublesome at 3:32 PM on February 11, 2012


Karen Carpenter's voice consistently brings me to tears, and I think it's because she always sounds like she's putting on a happy face over intense pain.
posted by timsneezed at 3:41 PM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ok, does no one listen to words anymore? While it has a pretty melody the words are down right stalkeriffic.

An ex-girlfriend shows up out of no where at your door and wants to know why you're not happy to see her. You broke up for a reason and moved on -- yet there she is going on and on and on about how special you were. You're not shy, you're trying to get rid of her. Your wife wants to know why she's here and isn't happy to hear the ex is pulling this nasty routine.
You try to shut the door and she's out there -- wrist to forehead -- "Don't worry about me."

This song doesn't make me cry -- it creeps me out.


Yeah, if Adele posted that as an AskMe, there would be an epic pile on.
posted by vidur at 3:48 PM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I really really thought she was singing about "chasing penguins," which was so unusual for a pop song, so charming, so weird.

"I love you so much, that I feel... like... I'm... chasing penguins..." (orchestra swells)...

(Jessamyn: "Just take it MefiMusic, kids.")
posted by ovvl at 3:58 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is my i-need-to-cry-what-do-i-listen-to? song. It's the constant, but slowly building banjo [yes I said banjo] that just lets loose in the end where they all harmonize with the repetitive mantra-like lines. It just sounds so desperate, but human.
posted by FirstMateKate at 4:05 PM on February 11, 2012


This song by Sia gets me every time. Although, this could be because I will forever associate it with the finale to Six Feet Under.
posted by kookaburra at 4:10 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well if you take most romantic songs at face value they sound more than little creepy and stalker ish. Sting is on record saying he does not know why anyone would get married to " Every Breath You Take."

This is why I like Dory Previn, all the characters in the songs are being strange and needy and stalker ish and that's the damned point.
posted by The Whelk at 4:13 PM on February 11, 2012


"Another aspect of Adele's SLY that I think may contribute to its success are the metrical and phrase length tricks it uses to immerse the listener into the world of reflection on past time."

As a musician and particularly as a trained percussionist who has spent a lot of time thinking about time signatures and rhythm and how/if these speak to something innate in humans, I am extremely skeptical of that analysis. It strikes me very strongly as a conclusion that found an argument and I'd very much like to see a) some serious musicology that supports this argument in theory, and especially b) some scientific empirical evidence for it.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:17 PM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I like Adele okay -- really dig her voice, in fact -- but every time I see her perform I'm reminded of Eddie Izzard's advice for singing the national anthem: Confirm and deny, confirm and deny.
posted by mudpuppie at 5:07 PM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yeah, if Adele posed that as an AskMe, there would be an epic pile on.

Help! I want to show up on my ex-boyfriend's doorstep, uninvited. Although he's married now and settled down - all his dreams came true - he did tell me never to forget him. I want him to see my face and remind him that for me it's not over -but also, never mind, I'll find someone like him. I also think to remind him of the good ol' days and I want to tell him that sometimes it lasts in love, and sometimes it hurts instead. He may be a little shy about it, so what's the best way to go about this? Thanks Mefi!
posted by benk at 5:09 PM on February 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


Vesti la Giubba.

Nobody?
posted by penduluum at 5:25 PM on February 11, 2012


GAH so literal, people. It's a metaphor for how she can't move on and keeps hanging around his memory, okay??
posted by palliser at 5:52 PM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


The relationship is over long enough for one of the people to be married! And the singer knows that. This is just scary.
posted by Alles at 2:46 PM on February 11 [1 favorite +] [!]


Once upon a time, before we were sheathed on the outside and the inside, sometimes people just did things that were a little fucked up. Actually, I myself have done things without giving it a whole lot of thought. I was hurt, and I just was hurt. And I was not knife-wielding or bullying or psychotic or a vampire or a zombie, (emotionally speaking of course). I was neither the hero nor the villain. I wasn't a stalker. I was just confused and lonely, and I showed up. I've been on both sides of the door, and life has gone on.

Thus, my favorite torchy tearjerker.
posted by thinkpiece at 5:59 PM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Linda Ronstadt Long, Long Time

The Verve So Sister
posted by sourwookie at 6:10 PM on February 11, 2012


Although, this could be because I will forever associate it with the finale to Six Feet Under.

The finale of that show just absolutely wrecked me.
posted by empath at 6:36 PM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ever since watching everyone around me become enraptured and breathless by the yodeling Whitney Houston did during her song I'll Always Love You,

Well, that did it. :(
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 6:41 PM on February 11, 2012


Vesti la Giubba.

Nobody?


Ahem.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:41 PM on February 11, 2012


The song on its own doesn't get any tears out of me, but the performance of her crying while singing it always does. I almost feel as though i'm doing something wrong each time, witnessing something private and raw.

My own personal Every Goddamn Time song is Papa Was A Rodeo. (I originally heard it from a link on Metafilter, actually! Cheers for that.)

First listen through, I was slightly non-plussed at the flat intonation of the singing but I let it go another few times and by the third I was starting to tear up.

From then on, it's floods every time. The 'after all these years wrestlin' gators' verse slays me. (I am doing it right now. God damn your voodoo magic, Stephin Merritt.)
posted by pseudonymph at 7:00 PM on February 11, 2012


The way she pushes through her vocal folds, forcing air through too quickly so that the folds don't fully adduct (which is one way to get that yelp-like attack) leaves little question as to why she's had so many vocal health issues

OH IT'S NOT JUST ME. I'm a classically trained singer and I've been trying for quite some time to replicate where exactly she's singing "from" in Rolling in the Deep. It's been making me crazy trying to figure it out - there's something about it that just sounds... good, but off in a way that I can't get. I'm really, really very good at projecting my voice and the issue I was having wasn't hitting the notes, but placing them.

And I figured it out - she's singing from the back of her throat. Which is exactly where I've always been taught not to place my own voice because if you do that for too long, you'll actually wreck your vocal cords. I found it really hard to believe that this is what she was doing and that if so, that she wasn't totally destroying her voice. I assumed that I was just missing something in her technique - but it sounds like I had it right. She's singing from the back of her throat and it's absolutely not a viable long-term strategy.

(Might I suggest she try focusing in her cheekbones instead, it's a nice resonant sound without killing your voice.)
posted by sonika at 7:07 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


This song by Sia gets me every time. Although, this could be because I will forever associate it with the finale to Six Feet Under.

Oh man, if you'll ascuse me, I'll be here crying into my cat.
posted by sonika at 7:12 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Though the one that gets me every damn time and I still can't listen to it without misting up, despite my son being nearly a year old is This Woman's Work. It captures the birth experience a little TOO well. I have no idea if this is true for those who have not launched a small person from themselves or if this is a "just me" thing.

I am now done posting in this thread and really, I'll be crying into a cat.
posted by sonika at 7:15 PM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


The two songs that get me are the Iron and Wine cover of Such Great Heights and Selfless, Cold, and Composed, but that's because they take me to very specific memories. I think musically they're beautiful, but without the context of memory, they are not the keys that get my tears out of eye-jail.
posted by Ducks or monkeys at 8:14 PM on February 11, 2012


Oops. Second link above is Ben Folds.
posted by Ducks or monkeys at 8:18 PM on February 11, 2012


It's interesting to hear from trained vocalists that the techniques used could be doing harm. My counterpoint is that I think we can hear it when it is straining the voice and it's what makes us listen. Maybe damaged vocal cords is just scratching the surface.

If there is a science to psycho-tearometric response generators I'm putting this one forward as something to study. What is going on with this one.
posted by vicx at 8:30 PM on February 11, 2012


The relationship is over long enough for one of the people to be married!

I definitely took to this song when I first heard it, at least to the point where I searched for a video on YouTube (and then just as quickly tired of it). I found one video of her performing this song at her home that included an interview and she told the story behind it; that she had imagined what it would be like to be in her 40s and alone and run into an old love. While it's melodramatic, I think that for a 21 year old, she does a fair job at capturing those moments of loneliness where one reviews one's life and thinks about relationship regrets and capturing the feeling, however momentary, of regret about a relationship that came close, but didn't quite make it; of wondering about the road not taken, particularly when the road taken hasn't panned out so well.

All that being said, it doesn't make me cry. But then again, I don't cry that readily and if something is going to make me cry it's usually a book or a movie, rather than a song (and sometimes, much to my embarrassment -- certain sappy holiday commercials -- I'm looking at you Hallmark).
posted by kaybdc at 9:12 PM on February 11, 2012


I hate how they always dress her in black on a black background, or seated sideways to obscure her curves. It's like some kind of popular culture cognitive dissonance that there can't assimilate romance and sex in a fat body.

The woman is a stone fox. WTF?
posted by latkes at 9:44 PM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


The relationship is over long enough for one of the people to be married! And the singer knows that. This is just scary.

It's nice if you've never acted inappropriately due to strong emotions, but this is not the experience of most people.

Also, good music and art is often the product of strong emotions, and strong emotions can cause people to do crazy/inappropriate things.

I mean, c'mon, are people only supposed to sing about acting polite and politically correct?
posted by bearette at 10:10 PM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Speaking of wearing black I've gotta go with The Cure's Plainsong as my sad song trigger. Sure, some may dismiss it as just a moody 80s synth pop ballad, but I prefer to think of it as an epic apocalyptic love song:

"'I think I'm old and I'm feeling pain' you said
'And it's all running out like it's the end of the world' you said
'And it's so cold, it's like the cold if you were dead'
Then you smiled for a second

Sometimes you make me feel
Like I'm living at the edge of the world"

I'm off to fetch my black lipstick and clove cigarettes now and curl up into a fetal position.
posted by Dr. Zira at 11:34 PM on February 11, 2012


Keep it hid
posted by The Whelk at 11:42 PM on February 11, 2012


davebush: "I wonder if the song makes Alison Moyet cry."
Nothing makes Alison Moyet cry, because that is an activity reserved for mere mortals.
posted by Dr. Zira at 11:55 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


somebody mentioned U2?
posted by liza at 12:02 AM on February 12, 2012


Nothing makes Alison Moyet cry

I believe she once cried a river over someone, although she was eventually all cried out.
posted by Wolof at 12:07 AM on February 12, 2012


She's not my cup of tea, but I admit she has talent. I just wish my mother wouldn't keep mailing me youtube videos of her.
posted by broken wheelchair at 12:15 AM on February 12, 2012


As a musician and particularly as a trained percussionist who has spent a lot of time thinking about time signatures and rhythm and how/if these speak to something innate in humans, I am extremely skeptical of that analysis.

Ivan Fyodorovich: I may not be expressing this well, but I didn't mean that alterations to phrase rhythm or disruptions to the metric surface in pop songs were interesting to humans because of a physiological preference for a foursquare regular phrase length... at least I don't think I do.

I think I mean something more similar to what Walter Everett puts across in this essay (only a summary online) about phrase rhythm:

While the Beatles' phrase rhythms are foursquare often enough to permit the establishment of regular norms against which abnormalities can be measured, a large number of their songs feature contrasting unit lengths, expanded prototypes, reinterpretations of accentual function at the phrase level, tonicization-related stretching and elision, adjustments required by changes in harmonic rhythm, metric modulation or thoroughly asymmetrical patterns. In many cases, the rhythmic technique is found to be closely tied to the phrase's central formal function within the song as a whole.

Also you might be interested in 'Defining Phrase in Popular Music' which is all online here. I haven't got through it yet!

For me, the phrasing and meter stuff I mentioned earlier is maybe just another way for a communicating singer like Adele to build in something that sounds somehow familiar and yet surprising every time we listen. It also feels like a little puzzle that the brain loves to solve every time, like a little exercise. (btw I'm not a professional musician so I'm just winging it here.)

Another example in this kind of 'solve the puzzle' songwriting is Adele's 'Turning Tables'.

The chorus begins with three bars of 4/4, but right after Adele says she won't let him close, in the fourth measure where we'd expect another measure of 4/4, she deletes a beat at the end and we get a bar of 3/4 (it's - deceptively - at a fast tempo according to the sheet music I've got). Two measures later she sings 'ask you', but this time pauses (as if waiting for an answer) for an additional beat - to our delighted puzzle-solving brains, it's as if she is inserting into the sixth measure the beat that was *missing* from the fourth. Here's a little diagram:

I won't / let you / Close enough to hurt me / no [DELETE BEAT, fourth measure is 3/4]

I won't / ask you [ADD EXTRA BEAT TO MAKE MEASURE SIX 5/4] / You to just desert me ....

It's obviously a tight package with the lyrics for her to be singing that she won't let him close and then 'pulls away' with that missed beat, and then reflects with a quick moment of mourning by adding the extra beat just after (or like changing her mind in the middle of an argument for a split second).

I'm always surprised how few pop songs seem to get hold of this kind of thing into their box of tricks.
posted by colie at 12:44 AM on February 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think 'close enough to hurt me no' is 5/4 actually...
posted by empath at 1:03 AM on February 12, 2012


Oddly enough, although I have a difficult time not shedding at least one tear for many songs sung by a female vocalist for deep seated psychological reasons I'm not going to get into here on Metafilter, this one is not one of them.
posted by wierdo at 1:08 AM on February 12, 2012


I think 'close enough to hurt me no' is 5/4 actually...

The sheet music I have notates it as I've described and seems otherwise accurate... but I'd be interested to hear how it could be interpreted differently during the chorus, as there are clearly beats shifted around in those few measures somehow.
posted by colie at 1:39 AM on February 12, 2012


Yeah, I just loaded it in ableton, and you're right, it's a short measure... though I dunno if i'd call it 3/4 or 6/8, though... i read it more naturally at 75bpm than at 150 bpm...
posted by empath at 1:59 AM on February 12, 2012


If we interpret it at the slower tempo, which is more natural, then I guess it's a single measure of 7/8 (and the sixth measure is 9/8).

It is a subtle effect here, though. I can only think of a comparison with Led Zeppelins's 'The Ocean' which is known for having an alternation of 4/4 and 7/8 measures in the riff (resulting in that jerky 'cut-off' feeling as it repeats).
posted by colie at 2:07 AM on February 12, 2012


I've gotta go with The Cure's Plainsong as my sad song trigger

No one does bittersweet loss and heartbreak like The Cure. My own favourites are Just Like Heaven, Edge of the Deep Green Sea and Strange Attraction.
posted by Summer at 4:47 AM on February 12, 2012


OH IT'S NOT JUST ME. I'm a classically trained singer and I've been trying for quite some time to replicate where exactly she's singing "from" in Rolling in the Deep. It's been making me crazy trying to figure it out - there's something about it that just sounds... good, but off in a way that I can't get. I'm really, really very good at projecting my voice and the issue I was having wasn't hitting the notes, but placing them.

And I figured it out - she's singing from the back of her throat. Which is exactly where I've always been taught not to place my own voice because if you do that for too long, you'll actually wreck your vocal cords. I found it really hard to believe that this is what she was doing and that if so, that she wasn't totally destroying her voice. I assumed that I was just missing something in her technique - but it sounds like I had it right. She's singing from the back of her throat and it's absolutely not a viable long-term strategy.

(Might I suggest she try focusing in her cheekbones instead, it's a nice resonant sound without killing your voice.)


One of the perils of studying voice is that we say lots of things that, strictly speaking, aren't actually true. We say these things because the voice instrument isn't directly consciously manipulable in the way that fingers are, for example. So we suggest certain thins to the singer in the hope that it will encourage certain mostly unconscious and indirectly manipulable behaviors, and then we try to routineize that behavior. Singers and teachers and schools of teaching develop various mutually understood vocabularies, and these often come to be held as "true." For the most part, when it comes down to it, they are actually anatomically incorrect (even though helpful!). In point of fact, of course, there is no such thing as "singing from the back of the throat" or "focusing sound in the cheekbones." All sound is generated in the vocal folds, where it makes a sound rather like the buzzing of a trumpet player's lips, and various frequencies within the complex sound are either reinforced or suppressed through the acoustics of the vocal pathway to produce the different vowel sounds and otherwise color the character of the vocal tone.

Pop singers like Adele have fundamentally different concerns from classical singers because they are using amplification. A pop singer doesn't have to actually be very loud to sound like she has a "big voice." She only has to have a certain tone quality. And if she's smart, she actually will try to sing as quietly as she can so that the microphone does most of the work. Classical singers, on the other hand, have to manipulate their vocal pathway to (a) produce tones that will have carrying power and "cut" into 3,000-seat halls and over large orchestras; and (b) so that singing at high amplitude doesn't damage the voice instrument. Although, of course, it's a lot more complicated than that.

"Vocal placement" as it is often called, just has to do with some fundamental characteristics of the tone and, more to the point pedagogically, the subjective feelings experienced by the singer when singing using certain configurations of the vocal pathway. For some singers it's valuable to imagine "placing" the tone behind the eyes and nose, and to configure the vocal pathway so that singing produces a kind of "tingling" sensation in this area together with the sensation that this is the origin of the tone or a major portion of the tone. This is often valuable imagery for the singer in order to reduce downward pressure on the larynx from the base of the tongue and to avoid overly muscular singing that might result from focusing on the larynx, and also to get a good result that has plenty of energy focused in the higher frequencies and therefore plenty of carrying power. A good example of this from the operatic world would be the great Spanish tenor, Alfredo Kraus. But... there are lots of different kinds of voices and lots of different ways to approach the voice instrument. An equally successful but diametrically opposed way of singing is exemplified here by the great Italian tenor Giuseppe Giacomini. That is certainly an example of "singing in the throat" if every there was one.

For the most part, I don't find Adele's singing and overall vocal tone in "Rolling in the Deep" especially troubling for a pop singer. Except that there is an slightly "hoarse" quality to her sound which suggests that there was already a certain amount of swelling and edema in the vocal folds when she made the recording (perhaps resulting from long days of singing in the recording studio, but it's hard to say). But as I posted above, this is not a kind of singing that's healthful to do a lot of. The instrument needs time to rest and recover. And it may also be that Adele wasn't gifted with the same kind of healing factor that other famous singers in this style were lucky enough to have. If that's true -- and it does seem likely -- then this is something with which she will always struggle as a singer and she will probably not have a long career with good vocal quality. Whitney Houston, for example, developed vocal nodules and began her vocal decline in 1993 -- less than 10 years after she broke into the scene in a big way. If Adele is having problems now, at the very start of her prominence, it's not a good sign.
posted by slkinsey at 6:09 AM on February 12, 2012 [14 favorites]


I feel like I have a responsibility to listen to the songs mentioned and give my take on the time-signatures discussed. Honestly, I am just too resistant to listening to this style of pop music. It's the anti-me.

But, generally, colie, I feel better about your recent comment and your qualifications. If it's about establishing expectations—or more broadly, established expectations from well-known pop music—and then subverting them, then I have no problem with that. It just seemed like your argument implied an innate response to a particular time-signature that, when subverted, triggered a complex process of cognition which you described as a "reflection on past time" (which I think you intended to slyly reference Proust).

There's actually a lot of discussion and research about possible innate relationships between time-signatures and tempos and human psychology. But unless people are very, very careful, it's very easy to confuse one's cultural musical conventions for things which are innate—a longstanding fallacy in musicology.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:54 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


For the most part, when it comes down to it, they are actually anatomically incorrect (even though helpful!). In point of fact, of course, there is no such thing as "singing from the back of the throat" or "focusing sound in the cheekbones." All sound is generated in the vocal folds, where it makes a sound rather like the buzzing of a trumpet player's lips, and various frequencies within the complex sound are either reinforced or suppressed through the acoustics of the vocal pathway to produce the different vowel sounds and otherwise color the character of the vocal tone.

Right. What I was talking about is the feeling that you get when you're singing and you're trying to create a certain sound quality. Of course your voice is in the same physical place that it always is, but trying to "focus" it in certain ways changes the sound quite a lot. A lot of singers have a very "nasal" quality even though they're clearly not singing through their physical noses. Adele has a very "throaty" sound that honestly hurts to reproduce.

You hear this from voice teachers a lot about focusing the sound and trying to get higher pitches to come out of your forehead and other such things. It's, of course, just imagery but it really helps when you're singing and trying not to strain your voice to think about lifting the sound up.
posted by sonika at 11:17 AM on February 12, 2012


I feel like I have a responsibility to listen to the songs mentioned and give my take on the time-signatures discussed. Honestly, I am just too resistant to listening to this style of pop music.

I often don't care for it in terms of the surface stylistic elements either, especially those that are perceived as a bit 'musicianly' or retro-soul etc - so again that's why I'm wondering out loud whether Adele's exceptional success can be partly attributed to some of these 'deep-structure' elements.

Pop music, crappy old mainstream pop, despite its ridiculously high ratio of junk to quality, does seem to throw up these creations that tightly integrate form, structure and verbal expression like nothing else does (to me).
posted by colie at 11:27 AM on February 12, 2012


There's actually a lot of discussion and research about possible innate relationships between time-signatures and tempos and human psychology.

Shortening a measure absolutely does make people tense. Music is all about repetition and reinforcement, and music built in powers of 2 seems to be most natural at reinforcement, because you can easily layer multiple musical ideas that repeat at different frequencies (at 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc -- even 6 beat patterns). This repetition can induce a trance-like state, as you're constantly hearing melodies and patterns resolving, one after the another at regular and predictable intervals, so it can get kind of backgrounded. If you interrupt that with a short measure, you have to stop all of that, and your mind is going to notice that something happened, even if you don't quite know why.

But I think it's the transition to 3/4, not the measure itself. If the song had been built around 3/4 from the beginning, you wouldn't notice anything unusual about it.
posted by empath at 11:30 AM on February 12, 2012


It's definitely the mixing of time signatures that interests me - I would be very interested in any links to material about innate relationships between rhythmic variation and human psychology.

Although I'm not looking for 'innate structures' or whatever, we are all still living through time and struggling to understand anticipation, tension, release etc - all things that music (even nonsense pop music - or perhaps more so?) gives us a sort of sandpit to experience them in safety, and practice our emotions against.

(On the subject of interpolating a shortened measure, 'All You Need is Love' is one of the best examples of mixed meter - the verse is all alternating measures of 4/4 and 3/4. Lennon's pursuit of rhythmic invention, in particular, was awesome.)
posted by colie at 11:40 AM on February 12, 2012


tzikeh: Oh, God, if this thread becomes a collection of links to sad songs, I'm never going to get out of the house.

This is my go-to sad song.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 12:36 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hey everyone! I stumbled on an article from almost thirty years ago that touches on some of these same issues! Wow! Amazing!
posted by speicus at 2:36 PM on February 12, 2012


I would be very interested in any links to material about innate relationships between rhythmic variation and human psychology

You'd probably enjoy Poetic Closure by Barbara Herrnstein Smith. She's interested in what creates a sense of closure in a poem -- not necessarily "completeness" or "satisfaction," because that's not always what the poem's going for. And much of what she says is relevant not just to poetry, but to any temporal or spatial art form. (Are any art forms neither? Perfumery? Even there, I guess different "notes" succeed each other.)

Anyway. She says that the reader's (or listener's) experience isn't "only continuous over a period of time, but continuously changes in response to succeeding events. As we read, structural principles, both formal and thematic, are gradually deployed and perceived; and as these principles make themselves known, we are engaged in a steady process of readjustment and retrospective patterning." Her main point is to argue that an evolving perception of structure—generally based on repetition and variation—allows for a sense of completeness as the work closes.

Even if you're not specifically interested in endings, it's worth looking at how the examples in her book demonstrate how the structural changes themselves match corresponding thematic changes, much as we've been discussing here.

Read some the introduction, at least; you might start about here in the Google Books preview, where she says "Analogies between music and poetry are always suggestive". Some of it will be a slog if you're not interested in poetry, but you'll love other parts of it. And if you are interested in poetry, keep reading, because there's lots of interesting material to come. (What's fascinating is the very long view: how over centuries we've trained ourselves to detect ever subtler kinds of similarity and deviation. But I don't want to stray too far from the point.)
posted by tangerine at 3:03 PM on February 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


But unless people are very, very careful, it's very easy to confuse one's cultural musical conventions for things which are innate—a longstanding fallacy in musicology.

I'm awfully glad none of this occurs to me while I'm listening to music.
posted by thinkpiece at 3:06 PM on February 12, 2012


Hey everyone! I stumbled on an article from almost thirty years ago that touches on some of these same issues! Wow! Amazing!

And it looks like SNL ripped off that skit:

The song is so famously sob-inducing that “Fridays” recently ran a skit in which a group of co-workers play the tune so they can all have a good cry together.

Though I've heard that song a bunch of times and never once considered it a tear jerker... it's way too up tempo...
posted by empath at 4:13 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I always thought my personal crying song was fairly universally tear-inducing, but it's kind of the opposite of the analysis in the article -- simple melody, very little range, no ornamentation, no large jumps in the melody, sung gently throughout. I think it's the devastating, almost cruel lyrics juxtaposed with the gentleness of the music that kills me.
posted by palliser at 5:07 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


And it looks like SNL ripped off that skit

Haha, looks like my trolling was too subtle.
posted by speicus at 6:41 PM on February 12, 2012


Hmm. I think they're not putting enough emphasis on how the lyrics effect this. You couldn't sing a song about flowers and puppies and the world's most delicious sandwich to a melody like this and produce tears.

Although I guess I knew it wasn't about a sandwich, this is not really true for me. Until I read this thread I never really had any idea what the song was about, although it does give me chills (and could probably make me cry if the time were right). I am pretty bad at listening to the words in songs I guess- I obviously hear some words and they affect me, but the meaning of the song is not what does it for me, it's the melody (or I guess it's all those things that contribute to a song being "sad" that do it for me). This Sigur Ros song is in a language i don't even understand, and it still makes me emotional (especially if I'm listening to it in the car and it's raining).
posted by chela at 6:54 PM on February 12, 2012


As far as lyrics and words go, there are plenty of genuinely emotionally laden songs which contain nonsense lyrics. The entire first Adiemus album doesn't contain a single world of any language, yet conveys emotion quite strongly. Another example is a lengthy segment of Vangelis' Heaven And Hell which has a female solo voice singing nothing but open vowels, but the stories that voice and melody tells are deep and affecting.
posted by hippybear at 9:11 PM on February 12, 2012


I'm also a (moderately) trained singer and Adele's technique does make me nervous. She has been having physical problems with her voice, including surgery quite recently, which does lead to concern about the longevity of her career. Hopefully the people who've been working to sort her voice out will be training her to avoid any further issues (although don't read too much into it yet, some reports were suggesting that the problem is something inherent rather than induced).

It would be a shame if a pretty decent talent was reduced to ruined voice at such a young age. I also think if she sorted out her technique she'd sound a lot better and a lot more emotionally engaging to me, because I wouldn't keep being distracted by inappropriate (possibly non-deliberate) vibrato, or the way she shapes some of her vowels, or that almost screechiness when she's pushing hard on the upper part of her voice. And it is a shame when these things distract me because she is singing some otherwise very good arrangements of some very good songs.

As for structure, dischords and resolutions thereof, and mucking around with the regular beat and stress patterns via short or long bars and suspensions are very old tricks and appear frequently in baroque music and earlier. They knew how to use appogiatura and accaciatura to add dissonance and its resolution, and frequently added it in far more explicitly in the notation as well. 17th-century instrumental consort music is full of it (and usually quite melancholy too, it seems to have been very fashionable). They also knew about short and long bars, even if they were writing before bars had really been codified (at least in the notation). There's some delicious tension in renaissance dances created by a juxtaposition of 3/2 and 6/4 in the same bar (effectively different parts are playing in different time signatures at the same time - see Holborne's The Fairy Round).

So really there's nothing new in anything the article says about the song structure... but that doesn't mean the old tricks don't still work.
posted by mathw at 9:33 PM on February 12, 2012


The relationship is over long enough for one of the people to be married! And the singer knows that. This is just scary.

Adele wrote the song about a man who broke up with her and then married someone else a few weeks later.

Jesus Christ, people. Heartbreak can set people off-kilter, and apparently so can lack of relevant information.

(Plus echoing "dudes it's a freakin' metaphor" from upthread)
posted by tzikeh at 10:00 PM on February 12, 2012


tangerine: thanks for the book recommendation.
posted by colie at 2:35 AM on February 13, 2012




And she's got a sausage dog!
posted by colie at 2:19 PM on February 13, 2012


Gack, I have only just gotten rid of the relentless earworm that has been Rolling in the Deep; I will now surely be driven mad by I Will Always Love You.
posted by thinkpiece at 5:35 PM on February 13, 2012


Slinky Sunbeam - the inspiration for Someone Like You.
posted by unliteral at 6:05 PM on February 13, 2012


I am WAY late to this party, but I must give props to a singer who makes me cry almost every time I hear her voice, Mary Fahl. In 199something, I picked up the first CD by her group October Project at a $1 sale, played it and freaking fell to pieces. Her voice is so rich, so 'ballsy' for a female singer (and I have a weakness for strong, unconventional voices like Alison Monet and Joan Armatrading), and almost every song on that CD was produced for maximum melodramatic effect, yet it never struck me as contrived, just stunning. The album tanked (which was why it was at the $1 sale), and she only did one more with the group and a couple solo projects, but part of me just believes Mary Fahl is just TOO awesome for the unwashed masses to appreciate.

At least she has enough of a following to get her music on YouTube, so here's the music, get your hankies handy:
The two official videos Bury My Lovely
and Return to Me
Several fan videos: Where You Are
Always
Arial
A Lonely Voice
From the second album (where there was an audible effort to lighten up, but there's no lightening up that voice): Deep as You Go
If I Could
From the movie 'Gods and Generals', Mary solo with Going Home
As long as nobody was listening, she recorded some songs on her first solo album in languages other than English. And even these knocked me out: Ben Aindi Habibi
Then to raise the level of difficulty even higher, she did a cover of the entire Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon album: Time, Eclipse
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:12 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Slinky Sunbeam - the inspiration for Someone Like You.

He could've had it all.
posted by colie at 3:19 AM on February 14, 2012


I'm crying right now for your dead soul.
posted by empath at 7:27 PM on February 11


Then we have that in common.
posted by Decani at 4:36 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Decani, I'd agree completely, not being an Adele fan. Except you use Coldplay as a positive example.
Maybe this whole thing isn't that simple
posted by mumimor at 9:28 PM on February 11


Dude. I did not use Coldplay as a positive example.

I'm afraid it's that irony difficulty thing again. You people really need to work on that. Christ alone knows why you continue to struggle with it so much.
posted by Decani at 4:39 PM on February 14, 2012


Yeah, Godspeed You! Black Emperor's "Sleep" always does it for me...though the effect in question is achieved not by a human voice's modulation, but through the use of a screwdriver as a bow, which in itself is quite beautiful.
posted by obscurator at 9:10 AM on February 24, 2012


Anatomy of a Truth-Bender
posted by Wolof at 4:45 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


(By MeFi's own speicus!)
posted by carsonb at 7:37 PM on February 28, 2012


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