Take it UP!

Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter.

Okay nothing hard hitting from me this week, just a little bit of corny fun to finish out the year.

I don’t really have any desire to engage with Dirty Projectors beyond the album they made with Björk but the song Up In Hudson from their last album is really an achievement. The song is about frontman David Longstreth’s break-up with his girlfriend/bandmate Amber Coffman but what really struck me about the song was its chorus. The very Joy Division lyrics “and love will burn out/and love will just dissipate/and love’s gonna rot/and love will just fade away,” contrast with a joyful ascending melody that, upon first listen, I could swear was a reference or allusion to a different song.

Turns out what I was hearing was actually three different songs that all use the same joyful adrenaline boosting musical trope as Up in Hudson: taking it up the octave. 

Some music theory background: in western music, there are seven notes in any normal scale and the bottom note in the scale is called the “tonic” or just “1.” The tonic is the note all the other notes in the scale are based on and gravitate towards. After you go up all seven notes in a scale, the whole thing repeats, the 8th note just being a higher version of the tonic. The 8 note distance between a lower note and its higher repetition is called an “octave.” The scientific reason an octave sounds both the same but also higher is that the sound wave of the higher note vibrates exactly twice as fast as its lower octave. If you want a deeper dive into this kind of stuff I can’t recommend mathemusician ViHart’s video essay Twelve Tones highly enough.

But if it doesn’t make sense don’t worry. Octaves are a real physical thing AND all western music is based around them, so even if you can’t wrap your head around it theoretically, you can definitely still hear them. Take the very festive example of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You. At the end of the song when the Queen of All Lambs goes “All I want for Christmaaaaaaas iiiiiiiiis….. YOUUUUUUUU!” That climatic YOUU is the tonic taken up the octave.

So here’s the thing: when your brain has been raised on western music, hearing someone “take it up the octave” like Mariah does is super duper gratifying. A lot of songs end by leaping up the octave to give the listener a little adrenaline boost that says “woohoo what a song!” But Up in Hudson and the following examples don’t wait until the end of the song or even to the end of the chorus to hit you with an octave leap. They jump right out and smack you in the face with it.

Exhibit One: Justin Bieber’s Somebody to Love. Not only does the octave leap at the top of the chorus make you want to punch your fist in the air, it’s really fun to listen to Usher run vocal circles around baby Bieber. I also like imagining a younger Hailey Baldwin listening to this song and being like, “Someday, that’s going to be me.” The early-chorus-octave-leap-idiom (ECOLI for short) speaks to The Bieb’s urgency. Yes it’s a little cheesy but it’s 2010 and Baby Bieber doesn’t have time to wait until the end of the song to take it up! He Needs Somebody To Love right now and he’s not holding back at all.

Exhibit Two: Swedish singer September’s Cry For You. This song is So Eurodance and So Very 2008. The video is Phenomenal, very gay, and yes the octave leap at the top of the chorus is very fist pump worthy. This is what I love about the ECOLI. Its emotional power and repetition makes it come off as cheesy and overdone, but doesn’t negate the essential truth, honesty, and vulnerability of the moment. When I listen to this song I know deep down that September is right. This person WILL never see her again. And who IS going to cry for them? Definitely not me!

Exhibit Three: So what if a song embraced the ECOLI with an octave at the beginning of its chorus, but also the octave leap was the entire song. Yes I’m talking about Eric Prydz’s iconic Call On Me. This is the ECOLI apotheosis. Mx. Prydz (yes another Swede) sampled the already cheesy ECOLI chorus of Steve Winwood’s Valerie and made A Whole Song out of it. At first glance the video is some kind of straight man 80’s aerobics fantasy, but I’m making the Jack Halberstam approved choice to purposefully misread it as the story of an AMAB egg breaking out of their shell through a femme-led erotic aerobics lesson. 

I mean seriously, is this the belly button of a hetero cis man? I’m just saying, they’re taking an all femme aerobics class and clearly rolled their shorts up to make them even shorter.

So, after these four examples, what can the ECOLI teach us? If anything, I think it shows there’s value in being goofy and cliche, that discovery can come from wild abandon. The ECOLI rejects the convention of holding back, of saving the best for last, The ECOLI is indulgent, honest, and vulnerable. Also, if you put these four songs together, they make a story which is fun: Desperation (Bieber), Infatuation (Prydz), Dissolution (Dirty Projectors), and Liberation (September). That’s all I’ve got for you! Wishing you a lovely end of the year!

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