Saturday, 12 November 2016

Avril Lavigne "Girlfriend" - the musical content

Girlfriend - Avril Lavigne

This video/music has an incredible 352 million hits on you tube; there are a lot of people who think this song has something.

The subject seems to be about man-stealing, and upsetting one woman in order to make another happy. As such, it was never going to be a beguiling song. In an era when videos are a powerful tool to capture an audience’s attention, it seems wise to keep in mind that looking at the aural material separated from the visual, is to ignore part of the song’s appeal. However the purpose of these short articles is to try to see what is going on musically, so the discussion will avoid the humiliation of the jilted woman and the self-satisfied attitude of the main protagonist, who is successful in her quest.

The instrumentation is simple: a distorted guitar, a bass (which, unlike the straying man in the song, faithfully follows the root of the guitar’s harmony around through chorus, middle 8s and verses), and drums. Vocally there is one main line with various over-lays of harmony, effects and echoes. There is syllabic vocal writing, 4 regular beats in every bar, 4 principle well known chords of C, G, A minor and F, a symmetrical bar layout and the song is set with a tonal centre of D - although to be consistent with other blogs and for simplicity, we shall move it to C.

The structure employed is somewhat formulaic, and can be summarised thus:

16 bars chorus
16 bars verse…a single repeated note on a guitar proving the accompaniment.
8 bars of a bridge to

16 bars chorus
16 bars verse
8 bars of a bridge to

16 bars with just drummer accompaniment in a minor mode, the material derived from the chorus

16 bars of chorus
16 bars of chorus.

The 16 bar chorus, heard clearly at 1’11" is a repeated eight bar idea and is notable for two reasons: the exclamatory single note nature of the melodic writing, and the absence of any vocal at all in the bars 7,8 and 15,16. 

Indeed absence is a deliberate and positive feature of this song. Removing elements and then putting them back in, is harnessed for dramatic effect. Here are two examples:

36’ the removal of drums and bass and indeed chords, so thatch singer is accompanied by a rhythmic single note on a guitar.
2’34” the removal of all guitars so that vocal has just drums as an accompaniment. Indeed at this point, the melodic element is also pretty well removed. The vocal is now more chanted than sung; what melody we can here has entered into a minor tonality. That needs a brief explanation.

There are two main and very common types of chord. One is called a major chord and the other is called a minor chord. If you read the ‘rudiments’ blog you may recall a discussion of intervals where it was noted:

The gap from A to C is a 3rd,  3 letters.
The gap from A to C sharp is a 3rd, 3 letters, but a different kind of 3rd.

Thinking in C, we could say:

The gap from C to E is a 3rd,  3 letters.
The gap from C to E flat is a 3rd, 3 letters, but a different kind of 3rd.

The difference between a major and minor chord  can be measured by the exact intervallic spacing.

Major C E G

Minor C E flat G

In the above example you will observe the gap from the 1st to the 5th is the same in both chords. It is the siting of the central 3rd note which alters the chord’s character.

In bars 3 and 4 of the chorus up to this point the major 3rd note (E ) has been sung by Avril. Now her chant is based on the note of E flat. It is half intoned and half sung - but the minor nature is audible. 

This is an apposite moment to discuss the type of guitar chord used. A very common approach in electric guitar playing is to remove the 3rd altogether. If a guitarist plays the note of C and above it a note of G, he is playing what is known as a power chord. Power chords do not have a major or minor identity, because the element which would impart that character ( a major or minor 3rd ) is absent from the sound. It provides a raw and almost confrontational sound much liked by rock guitarists, and was an obvious choice of chord in such a confrontational song. The guitarist strips this further away at 36” and just plays a single note: 2 Bars of the note C representing Chord I, 2 bars of the note G (chord V), 2 bars of A minor ( chord VI), and 2 bars of  F (chord IV.) This also happens to be to be the choice of chord for the chorus although in the chorus the harmony moves through those four chords in the space of 2 bars rather than the eight bars of the verse. Accelerating the rate of harmonic change is a useful way of raising excitement, as Avril understands.

A middle 8 or a bridge of a song is a transitional section between a verse and a chorus. It is first heard at 1’00” as an accompaniment to the lyric “she’s like so whatever” and the harmony of the guitar is thickened, whilst the frequency of drum is diminished. There are interesting elements of contrary motion between bass and guitar here. You may remember we noted that the musical is cyclical A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C etc, with the pitch of the note rising as we progress through. If a musician wishes to move from A to E he can dos by moving right (upwards) or left (downwards.) Or, if two instruments are playing, both can happen at the same time, and at 1’03” you can clearly hear a bass descending to chord III (Eminor) whilst the guitarist rises to an inversion of the same chord. 

The song therefore is pretty simple, even predictable and arguably unmemorable. Perhaps though, when discussing music of this genre, we also have to note the production quality of the recording. Production is a dark behind-the-scenes art where buttons are pushed and music can be adjusted in position, prominence and sound quality to an almost infinite degree. One of the tools a producer has available to him is a visual display of exactly where a note is placed in a time line. Often what the ear may think are two different musicians playing together can be exposed on a computer screen as being slightly out of synchronisation. The magnifying effect of many layers not quite synchronised is a smudging and blurring of the sounds we hear. Avril’s producers have gone to a great deal of trouble to make sure that does NOT happen and the rhythmic precision is as much a product of computer manipulation as it is of good playing. Very few musicians can hold a beat absolutely perfectly and whilst a little bit of ebb and flow might be welcomed in other genres, here it is an anathema. At 1’11” Avril’s voice put through a delay plug-in which means that the word “hey” sounds like it is echoing and there is an extreme example of this at 45” too. A plethora of other effects such as instruments played backwards, instruments doubling up what they are playing, moving instruments around so that they sound like at one moment they are coming through one speaker, and then the next moment a different speaker….the list is endless and in the end a decision is taken when enough is enough. Adding new effects may change a song without always improving it. Part of the art of the producer is knowing when to stop.

If you are not already there, visit and listen to some new additions to the genre.

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