I decided to briefly critique and compare two pop love songs: one very contemporary – Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” (2013), and one from the 1970’s – Barry Manilow’s “Looks Like We Made It” (1976). I deliberately chose them because I thought that they were rather representative of their eras and because I didn’t think that they were particularly great. In other words, I felt that they were competent, but not classics – certainly not approaching “art song” status as I felt with “The Peacocks” mentioned in my previous post.
Both of them involve a certain amount of repetition and predictability. Now, don’t get me wrong, repetition and sequence are legitimate aspects of crafting a melody. It is kind of hard to describe in a short post, but “Unconditionally” begins with a verse that has a two-measure sub-phrase unit, which is then repeated down a step (sequence), then that entire four-measure pattern is repeated again (total of eight measures). Then she goes to the chorus – about which more later. This is rather mechanical and predictable and can be heard between 0:07-0:35.
On the other hand, “Looks Like We Made It” begins with a verse which has repetition, but it is of two three(!)-measure phrases. The verse is then concluded with a four-measure unit, which seems to consist of three irregular sub-phrase units: 1 1/2mm + 1m + 1 1/2mm (total 4 measures). This gives a feeling of flexibility and nuance and can be heard between 0:14-0:46.
So, to summarize, the Katy Perry song has a verse which is quite symmetrical (4 + 4), while the Barry Manilow song has a verse that is more asymmetrical [3 + 3 + 4 (1.5+1+1.5)]
I won’t go into detail, but the chorus of each song repeats what is called a “hook” (a catchy short motive) – typical in popular songs since at least the “Brill Building” composers of the early 1960’s. A major difference between the two would be that the Katy Perry song seems to be made almost exclusively of electronic (indeed, synthesized) back-up instruments (even the drums sound altered). Basically, “Unconditionally” seems to be channeling early 1980’s Blondie/Cyndi Lauper/Madonna with that rhythmically rigid, synthesized background. On the other hand, “Looks Like We Made It” has more warmth with its largely, but not exclusively, acoustic backing.
Oh, and then there is the classic “Manilow Modulation” around 2:40, which someone wrote a poem about when I was in music school:
“You can always anticipate,
When Barry is about to modulate,
In this I am no liar.
The drums go boom, the cymbals go crash,
And all of a sudden,
You’re a half-step higher.”
And get a load of how, right after that, he gets up from the piano and the girls start screaming! Again, not “great” but, in my opinion, better than the Katy Perry song. Listen below and see what you think.