“I Kissed A Girl (And I Liked It)” — tragic version

Phil Ford

Composer, blogger, Dial M commenter, and patriot Galen Brown (of Sequenza 21 fame) contributed one of the best musical parodies ever last summer — his great Dvorak "My Humps" remix. (Sadly, it appears to have been taken down.) He has another one up, inspired by Alanis Morrissette's moody cover of the same maddening song (which I wrote about here). It's a tragic, This Mortal Coil-style version of "I Kissed A Girl (And I Liked It)". The sex ed site Sex, etc. writes "Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard Katy Perry’s hit single “I Kissed a Girl,” a song about girls kissing girls and sexual experimentation." As a matter of fact, I have been living under a rock! So this song was a new one on me, which means I heard Galen's version first. And I thought, hey, that's a haunting and heartfelt song! Poor Galen, he looks so sad!

Original song here. What we learn here is

adolescent exuberance – 20 bpm = adolescent depression

Which is an interesting discovery. It gets me thinking about tempo. One of my teachers, Michel Block, made an essential observation about practicing. He said that most people practice slow, but almost everyone does it wrong. They assume that it's the same piece, only slower. But it sounds different, right? Only people tune out the difference, though, which means they're tuning out what they play, not really listening, which means they're not playing musically. Slow practice becomes a purely technical exercise, moving the fingers slowly to master the movements necessary to perform difficult passages at full tempo. But the problem with that is it assumes that technique and expression are different things — that one could practice "just technique" and insert musical expression later. Block was one of the first teachers I had who had a radically non-dualistic way of looking at things. He was maybe the first person who got me seriously questioning the dualisms I had always assumed — technique/musicianship, form/content, style/substance, surface/depth. Through example more than precept (which is to say, in his ravishing lyrical style of playing) he demonstrated the "substance of style" that I have prated about on several occasions.

The upshot of this is that when you play something slower than you usually play it (when you turn a merry rondo into a stately adagio, for example) you need to find the proper expression for it at its new tempo. It's a new piece at its new tempo, so do justice to it — play it as if it was written at that tempo. Inhabit the imaginative space of the piece as it has become; find out what happens to the music when you slow it down. You sometimes make surprising discoveries. And, mysteriously, you play better when you play it back up to speed. There's some kind of Zen-and-the-art-of-archery thing going on, though, because to hit that target — to play better up to speed — you have to forget about the goal and focus on the musical challenge of playing slow, which is to say, you have to stop thinking that you're "playing slow." Whatever tempo you're playing is the right tempo.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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16 Responses to “I Kissed A Girl (And I Liked It)” — tragic version

  1. Sara Heimbecker says:

    I teach history of rock and roll on-line during the summer and was forced out from under the proverbial rock by my students. I couldn’t believe the song was a hit because it is, frankly, god awful.
    Before I heard the song I thought it was a cover of Jill Sobule’s 1995 hit “I Kissed a Girl.”

  2. Sara Heimbecker says:

    You can see Sobule’s video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gryUQvkrSso

  3. Sara Heimbecker says:

    You can see Sobule’s video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gryUQvkrSso

  4. Sadly, YouTube got a cease and desist letter from Fergie’s publisher and they took my “My Humps” remix down.
    The stuff you’re saying about tempo makes a lot of sense, but I disagree slightly with your last sentance. In my experience, some tempos work a lot better than others, it’s just that there are good tempos in multiple different regions for a given piece. With this song, for instance, once I had slowed it down to the neighborhood I wanted it in I had to fine tune the tempo to get it just right. 5bmp slower was too slow, 5bmp faster was too fast. But I bet jumping down to a much slower tempo still would have worked.
    Of course in this case the arrangement is different, so it’s not a perfect example–changing the arrangement changes the ideal tempo as well. But even in cases where there’s no change to the arrangement, I find that in many cases the good tempo is in a pretty narrow margin, and yet there are other good tempi if you get far enough away. Also, some pieces seem to have more workable tempos than others. Do you know the Bernstein recording of the Mozart Requiem? He takes the whole thing slowly, and in some movements it works well–the Introis works at many different tempi–and in some it doesn’t–he tries to make the Confutatis into a sort of dirge, but it just plain drags.

  5. glen says:

    I was expecting Jill Sobule too, can’t say it’s a let down but it did throw me for a loop.
    I agree totally with Galen’s take on tempo – but…there’s always a catch. Tempo is one of the most important things to get right, but what is the “right” tempo? I suspect you’d agree that even with a given arrangement, my perception of the right tempo may differ from yours. I’d even take it further and say my right tempo today, for this specific take even, may be different from my right tempo tomorrow or even on the next take of the same arrangement.
    It’s sort of like whack-a-mole but only with both the whacker and the moles disappearing and reappearing randomly. To really knock one out I think you’ve got to have truly auspicious timing.
    It’s not popular these days for musicians to admit (or accept) that such a significant portion of the creative process is not entirely under our control, but for me it’s definitely the case.

  6. Okay, Sara, I have to defend this song. Yes, it’s mindblowingly stupid, but in a deliberate, kitchy sort of way. And musically I think it’s actually very well made.
    Take the melodic structure of the verse and chorus, in a Schenkerian sort of way. You get a broken up descending scale 5 4 3 7 6 5 movement in the first phrase, but the return to ^5 is recontextualized by the chord progression. Note also that those are scale intervals 1 through 5 in the relative major, so there’s some mode mixture going on. Repeat. Third time through we start on 5 but this time emphasize the upward movement to 6 and then jump up to 3 whereas before we’d had a scalar downward movement to 3. From 3 we step down to 2 for the first time, but we don’t get 1 yet, instead it’s a reset back down to 5. Repeat, and this time you really think you’re going to resolve to 1, but instead we launch into the chorus. The harmony starts at i but where the 1 in the melody line is expected we get a rest, and then a 3 2 7 5 figure, outlining the V chord while the harmony plays i, III. Or is it outlining III7, also known as V7/vi? “I liked it” is 3 2 7, and predictably this time it goes to 6, but that 6 is postponed and instead used in the 6 5 figure. That 6 5 on “the taste of her cherry chapstick” mirrors the 5 6 movement toward the end of the verse. The second time through this material it’s the same except that “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it” is 6 7 6 5 instead of just 6 5, which gives both upward movement to the leading tone and even stronger downward movement to the dominant. And only now do we finally get 1, in a melody that outlines the tonic 1 3 4 5 1 3 4 5 1 3 4 5 3 4 3 1. but then we’re back to the 3 2 7 5, and this time the second time through it ends on 5 again, repositioning us for the return of the verse. Look how well structured that is, how well the material is deployed. Every note works. It’s a hit song for a good reason–it’s very well made and very catchy.
    Anyway, pop music gets a pretty bad rap from a lot of people, and I think every now and then a well crafted pop song should be properly analyzed.

  7. Nice. The slower tempo really does make it darker, though I suspect the gender issues at play here factor into that as well. I would disagree slightly on the interpretation of “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it” – as I hear it, since 7 is a lowered 7 it reinforces the pull down to 5 and subverts the leading tone. But your analysis is equally compelling.
    And I agree that pop music gets a bum rap; I spent some time in the summer of ’06 contemplating chord progressions in Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Maybe I should write that up in greater detail someday.
    WF

  8. And I guess I should update my TypeKey profile to reflect the new gig down here in Georgia.
    Done.
    WF

  9. ben wolfson says:

    “Crazy” is another song that can benefit from a bit of a slowing down: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Enu3iXkBv0s&feature=related

  10. Sara says:

    Galen,
    I loved the analysis. The song may be a well-crafted pop hook, but the girl cannot sing and the autotune “glaze” over her vocals does not help. That digital timbre drives me crazy.
    Your version was interesting because it turned the gender relations around. The lyrics in the girl version simply play on the “myspace” teenage fascination with girls kissing.
    I read several concert review papers this summer of the Vans Warped Tour and several girls focused their review on Katy’s performance. They loved the fact that they got to take home a tube of cherry chapstick which was thrown from the stage.
    I’m not dismissing pop. I love a good pop tune–even some kitchy, mindblowingly stupid ones. For example, I loved Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muP9eH2p2PI

  11. I once did a cover of “Crazy” (the Willie Nelson/Patsy Cline tune, not the Gnarls Barkley one) as an up-tempo samba. It works.
    And this slow version of GB’s “Crazy” is intriguing on so many levels. I must explore this further.
    Thanks for this discussion. I’m eternally fascinated by the idea of covering tunes, and this is just providing more fodder for my brain.
    WF

  12. Sara,
    I think at this point we’re dealing purely with personal taste. I actually really like the production values on the original version of this song, and for that matter the production values in a lot of pop recently. But I’m coming to it from the perspective of synth pop and industrial–as far as I’m concerned the more analog synths and distorted drums the better, and I like her vocal style and the slick partially auto-tuned sound. What I don’t like is the pseudo-soul pop vocal sound. And that Weezer song really gets on my nerves too–most the post-grunge alternative scene doesn’t do it for me–but it’s certainly another well crafted tune.
    It occurs to me that there’s probably a lot of interesting stuff that could be said about the semiotics of production values and techniques. Most people wouldn’t know that Katy Perry got autotuned, but it does change the sound in a way that people identify as “pop.” And in this case I’m guessing she was autotuned not to correct problems or mistakes but in fact to give the vocal that glossy auto-tune sheen.

  13. Sara Heimbecker says:

    Ah, the semiotics of pop production. Now that’s something to blog about! I wanted to write a paper several years ago on how autotune was the big aural signifier for “pop country” (this would have been during the late 90s when Shania Twain was huge). Unfortunately, the technology was so quickly adopted by everyone that it no longer functions that way. I’m certainly not ready to tackle the subject, but it would be a great study.

  14. Ross Hagen says:

    Sara tuned me into this one.
    Great cover. The original is one of those songs I like in spite of myself. Sometimes the most bone-headed songs are the ones that stick. Your cover reminds me a little of the difference between The Shirelles’ version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and Carole King’s version on Tapestry. It really brings out the pathos.
    My lesbian and heteroflexible female friends kind of hate this song, but they also love the Cobra Starship parody that turned it around into “I Kissed a Boy,” an aggressively chest-thumping anthem to the man-kiss as a display of power and dominance. That’s Gabe Saporta for you!
    Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SA7HHIWKAw
    Semiotics of pop music production is a pretty fascinating topic for sure. I’ve gotten into it before, but from the opposite perspective (underground metal bands who worked VERY hard to make their drums sound like someone hitting a mattress, etc.).
    I might be in the minority, but there’s something about Roman numeral-based analyses in *defense* of pop music that kind of rubs me the wrong way. It’s not the analytic language itself, since that’s sort of unavoidable. It’s just that the more of these I see the more I feel like they’re attempting to prove artistic worth by mis-applying an analytical system associated with music of cultural prestige. Luckily, if parts of the piece are ambiguous within the system or openly defy it, these thorny moments can always be recontextualized into marks of sophistication like mode mixture.
    -rh

  15. Kariann says:

    An even slower version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was a huge hit in its own right in Rio de Janeiro about 18 months ago during carnival season. The original version never made a blip there. I notice that the YouTube info is in Spanish. I’d be interested in knowing what the label’s marketing strategy was for Latin America and if they understood it as a relationship between tempo and location.

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