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Review: Sinitta - Cross My Broken Heart

I

"SAW ruined the charts in the late 80s. This was the reason I got into alternative music." -- "Bathsheba", anonymous forum poster, July 16th, 2008.

SAW? Not a band, but a production trio: Stock, Aitken, and Waterman. You haven't heard of them, but you've heard them. Let me explain: assume for a moment that you're a regular millennial internet user. Perhaps you've hit upon "You Spin Me Round". Seems like there's a whole cluster of songs that sound awfully familiar, danceable with a cheesy 80s vibe. Turns out they're all produced by this same trio. But, let's pretend it's all new, okay? We'll need fresh ears to understand what SAW did to the charts, and what alienated poor Bathsheba.

Click the button when you feel ready:

What's going on here? Almost without introduction, you're inside some overwhelmingly dense pop music. Completely synthesized, yet warm, vibrant and friendly? Banal, simple, yet curiously engaging? These are the paradoxes inherent in SAW's pop tenure. To straighten things out, to understand these higher-order effects, we'll have to understand the foundations. They produced hundreds of tunes using the same general formula. Get one and you'll get them all. Let's start digging.

II

What are the elements? The drums are a standard late-80s Linn-style kit. Thumping 4-to-the-floor kicks at 115 BPM, punch-you-in-the-face snares, little panned tom fills. Crash. The bassline is idiosyncratic: "woody" in that Yamaha FM-synth way, funky moving 16th notes. These elements don't change.

That's the easy stuff, and there's a lot left. Starting at the beginning, after the stabs and snare roll: (0:02) a thin synth-brass patch, introducing the chorus' vocal melody, topped with another classic Yamaha FM patch: the twinkly bells. A SAW standard. Left channel has proto-rave chord stabs in the background (cf. Gypsy Woman, same patch). A brief transitional phrase (0:18), and these elements cut out for the verse (0:22). The singer comes in, alongside a strum-like electric piano placed way in the background, and a plucky little countermelody in the right channel.

Steel drum fill (0:37), and we hit the pre-chorus, SAW's key strength. The vocals gain an upper harmony, and an airy, Fantasia-like pad appears. Music theory-wise: the song is in C major, but the pre-chorus has an out-of-key C minor chord. This minor-major pattern creates a "mysterious" mood and adds slight harmonic depth to an otherwise bland pop chord structure. The singer and synthesizers ascend and open up voice-wise as we move into the chorus (0:55), returning to that brass patch, the twinkly bells, etc.

That's an insane amount of stuff packed into 75 seconds of music. But the rest of the song doesn't add much: another verse-prechorus-chorus, then a chopped-up bridge where the brass and twinkly bells do a cute counterpoint. Repeat chorus and fade the hell out.

Phew, okay. How do these moving parts all relate to each other? As effective pop music, it coheres seamlessly into a whole. The kick and bass add motion and keep the song moving. Each aspect of verse-prechorus-chorus is brief, which keeps the song varied. Little, almost unnoticed details tie the pieces together: drum fills, crashes, stabs, slight variations on melodies. The melodic density (how many moving parts are there?) follows the typical pop formula: leave space for expression in the verse, use a dense arrangement in the chorus. This is where their mastery shows: each element "just fits".

What makes SAW unique is both the quantity at which they churned this stuff out, and the use of what was, at the time, relatively new digital equipment. They'd repeat this successful style again and again and again. My guess is that one of the trio would write some chords and melody, then they'd take turns adding elements, leading the songs to grow dense and complex in an organic way. Contrast this with the single-minded expressiveness of acclaimed indie or folk music and certain objections begin to make sense.

III

We need to take one more step upwards: all the elements seem to aesthetically fit, but into what? Ironically, this entire production is supporting... a teenage love song. The singer is dating a crush, her friend says "don't do it", the crush was cheating on the singer with her friend. But the song's aesthetics aren't depressive or sad. No, this is pop music.

The verse is wistful, regretful, yet matter-of-factly accepted. The pre-chorus communicates a more profound, anxious, liminal state: her friend about to reveal "the secret". The chorus is resigned, yet upbeat. The brass, bells, and vocals play in unison, a literal chorus, almost silly in its 1-2-3-4 melodic simplicity. "Cross my heart and hope to die" is playful in spite of its depressiveness, aided by the kitschy, major key accompaniment.

The above paragraph hints at an essential function of pop music. The pop song is happy in the face of despair. Some find optimism temperamentally unacceptable; authenticity often means reaching deep into the depths and dragging to light whatever you find. But "Cross My Broken Heart" is not emotionally syntonic, it's not authentic to the singer's feelings. No, this sort of pop music is emotionally aspirational. Goodbye, (I am sad, but) I will feel better. This lack of alignment might drive certain listeners into alternative music, but the pairing of sad content with happy tone resonates with many. Everyone faces struggles, sometimes you gotta keep going anyway, music and dance and play can help us repair. Sorry, Bathsheba.

One bit stands out as anomalous: the pre-chorus. For its brief span, you can feel a touch of anxiety, of a dizzying falling sensation, a hint at the "truth". This feeling, a sinking inevitability, is eroticized into "the drop" in modern dance music, although it's doubtful SAW were thinking in such terms. They took their pop and aesthetic sensibilities and built music. Sometimes the charts responded. Sometimes it spawned a massive hyperlinked meme. Given that we've now covered the mechanisms of their style in some detail, I can, in good faith, offer one of few honest links to this song, written by Stock, Aitken, and Waterman:

Review: Deep House Mix, March 31, 2009

Good day for self-promo, give it a few minutes:

I keep a folder of my old DJ mixes. I was most prolific in 2011, but they date back to 2008. High school. Messy transitions. Learning to tell right from left. In 2009, a surprise: early evidence of House, music a chasm apart from Happy Hardcore. Early evidence of taste?

2009 was the last time I'd play contemporary dance music. Around then, 30-something European DJs in IRC were evangelizing "Tech-House". The groove of the hour. Tingling transients, little "tip" kickdrums and other touches and taps. Delicately programmed? Or haphazard, arbitrary? Wiggling low-pass filters lift and release the tension. You couldn't design those patches in 1993. Gotta be digital, check out my new PC. Whoops, my sound card skipped.

Rather than tracks layered one upon another, Tech-House goes horizontal. The percussive synths and bass and drums smush together into a single pattern, a single sound-entity, that repeats and shifts. This one-bar-one-idea relationship forms a techno-gestalt which fills the space and from which atmosphere emerges. The crisp, modern textures are icy, unbreakable and pristine, rows of stalagmites, visually verified by VirtualDJ's beat viewer. High pass filters sweep like a cold wind, convolution reverb shatters the emptiness of wintry streets.

Halfway through, the vibe starts to warm. Encroaching bitcrushers; ballad pianos on loop, pseudo-analog bass licks simulate funk in quantized 16th notes. Virtual coziness. Sampled cowbell and Gameboy arpeggios. Polyrhythms break up the bars into longer, more indeterminate units of rhythm. Suddenly we're throwing back to Nervous Records with Juno Sixes and M1 organs and a couple words lightly processed yet deeply spoken. House can't help but pay respect and introspect. And I'd always lose focus halfway.

What did House mean to me at that age? No idea. To what degree was I aware of the artist's intentions? Not at all. What emotions did these tracks evoke? What musical point was I trying to make when I played these particular selections? Anyway, it's not relevant. Imitation works. I played it because it's what I had to play. A time capsule from last decade, but the feelings haven't dried out. We used to make fun of "Tech House". I changed my mind.

Review: Happy 2B Hardcore

Thesis: Trance. Antithesis: Drum N Bass. Synthesis:

We found this magic CD in the MDMA mines and gave it to your 15 year old son. It grants him the power to annoy you forever. You'll hear it through the wall. Try tapping your foot 170 times a minute. The only dance move is "jump up & down & flail around". It'll clear the ballroom. Sucks for them. They could have a lot more fun if they put in some effort.

Every song has the same structure. You can mix a track a minute and miss nothing. Perfect for easily bored kids learning to DJ. I'd mix buildup to breakdown. Gets to the "meat" faster: pop hooks and arcs of tension. Always mixes smooth. It seems so easy when half the genre's straight from Vengeance Essential Clubsounds Vol. 3.

If culture's an ocean, Happy Hardcore's a kiddie pool filled with boiling water. Listeners can handle anywhere from ten to thirty minutes, depending on constitution. HIIT, practice your sprints. The water's boiling as a disinfectant; all music eventually finds itself face down (ass up) in a cheesy Hardco-I mean, Nightcore remix. Extra funny because of how chaste it is. Let's just say, love ain't the same as sex. Do a bump of Molly and you'll get it.

So, why bother with Happy Hardcore? Is it just for burning up some energy? Sure, but this music has perfected the art of Euphoria. Visceral, body feelings. Stuff your face. Drink the Kool-Aid. Get that sugar rush. Makes life worth living. And when you least expect it, those sappy lyrics will make you cry. The amateurish singer somehow makes it work. This ain't music for critique, it's music for living. Or for the background while you play World of Warcraft. Same difference.

Review: Pendulum - Hold Your Colour

Try the whole album, but here's a starting point:

It's hard to overstate. Take a kid with anger issues and get him some medicine. Who knew music could sound like this? I only found out when I copied the folder off the kid's brick of a hard drive. ParagonX9 on steroids.

Trance makes you reach for the heavens. Drum N Bass takes you on a private 747. The kick and snare drums pummel you forward and the Earth wobbles beneath. Impossibly fast but it becomes normal. Eventually there's nothing left to hold but the bar, kick snare, kicksnare. Inertia. Still unsubtle but you learn some taste eventually: reggae, jazz, atmospherics, play. Sample your lawnmower.

It's masochistic stuff. Runs parallel with metal. Jazz instead of folk. But more quantized, mechanical. Less screaming, more noise. There was a person, now there's nothing. Straight energy rush. Action and intensity. Sexuality replaced with aggression and romanticism. Smash the walls of your room into a beautiful image. Paint it whatever color you like. Add some weights for good measure.

Pendulum did something unprecedented: they mixed Drum N Bass with mid 2000s pop sensibilities. Obviously "The Underground" hated them: this is precision music, no place for a boy band! But they begrudgingly acknowledged Pendulum's technical prowess: shit rips. Go to a DNB event now. Odds are, any guy under 30 found their way through Hold Your Colour. Gateway drug. It opened the door wide enough to peer inside. Then you fell into DNB Narnia and never climbed back out. This isolates you a bit. Maybe forever. Or maybe you were isolated anyway and that's why you came.

I dove right in. Forums and all. I trolled Dogs On Acid. All that teenage synth play? I just wanted the Noisia reese (slang for that growling bassline). All that ambient music? I just wanted those textures. But ambient music is destined to fail. The air's most still after a thunderstorm, and only Drum N Bass can do what Drum N Bass does.

Review: Armin Van Buuren - Shivers / Simple Things

Track 1:

Track 2:

I don't know where I got this stuff. Limewire? I'd probably found it on Ishkur's guide. I had a pile of MP3s on my iPod. Let's do a two for one. I showed my grandmother this stuff. Don't recall her reaction. "That's nice, dear"

Gotta listen loudly. The kick does half the work. The rest is a wall of sound. Dense, but only because of reverb, delay, that sort of thing. Who puts delay on a bassline?! Mirrors make a room look big. But the colors are faint. Simple Things. We haven't progressed far beyond that white room. The only new feature is UP-lifting.

There's that crispy supersaw. Trance has to hit those high frequencies. You have to want to jump up and touch it with your fingertips, especially when the bottom drops out, as it tends to for minutes at a time. This one substitutes a pad and a breathy singer. Same deal. If you're paying attention, it's pure endorphin rush, tingling peaks and valleys that track the synth line. Tension and release. Musical erotica.

The piano means sentimentality. They ripped that one from Children. You're young, there's nothing there, "cruel desires blind me to the simple things / lost in fires of passion I imagine wings." Banal, there's little for a teenager to write about. Sex and sublimated sexuality. Uncertainty. Reaching for oneness. That sentimental feeling is for the womb, for the undifferentiated oneness of infancy. The music swallows you up.

"I'm torn between... what I know and what I dream." The breakbeat and acid line breakdown hint at something more. Fleeting vision, but maybe if you dream a little harder... you'll get there. And somehow it feels better to wake up.

This stuff was pop music in Europe, or so I hear. Little adolescent expressions. Nothing more, nothing less. Listening as an adult gives me reflux. Something about those kickdrums. You turn off the stereo and wonder why it took 7 minutes.

Review: Alice Deejay - Better Off Alone

Click Play:

Funny that. Never realized this early memory came from an album called "Who Needs Guitars Anyway?" I refused to consider "guitar music" until age 18. Same as always.

I remember hearing this on my handheld FM radio, perched on the corner of my couch. FLY, 92.3. It was 9 at night, a weird, adult hour for a middle school kid. I'm embarrassed to this day. Alice Deejay! Girlish shlock! Yet, it stuck. God knows why.

Formally, it has it all before I knew anything about anything:
four to the floor beat
sweeping textured pads
crispy lead synths
repetitive bleep bloop melody
nonsense female vocals
little fake acid line
little dopey builds and breaks, fake 909
even a touch of hihat shuffle!

This'll all make sense later. For now, it's genre defying, genreless. A touch of nostalgia even the first time through. Muzak for klub kids. Melody echoes in your brain for years.

It's a plain white room of dance music. Perfect mid century modern furniture arranged "just so." Not for any particular reason, that's just how rooms look. Still, gotta start somewhere. Better Off here than nowhere. Nothing more to say.