Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Vanessa Carlton, "Hands On Me"

Song: "Hands On Me"
Artist: Vanessa Carlton
Album: Heroes & Thieves
Written by: Vanessa Carlton/Stephan Jenkins
Year: 2007
Key: E♭m
Classification: SF2 (with a brief lapse into SF1)
Lyrical content: true love is eternal; the Dalai Lama would want us to have sex
Where used: Verse, chorus

I honestly would have thought that we, as a nation and a culture, would be over "A Thousand Miles" by now. But by gum, there it is, in approximately a third of all the commercials and previews for romantic comedies (the other two-thirds being taken up by "Unwritten" and "Suddenly I See") still, to this day. Haven't those tinkly piano cascades been played out and squeezed dry? It would seem the world believes that they haven't. Heroes & Thieves doesn't offer anything quite so egregious, though Carlton does manage to find room for the line "I'm a sycophantic courtier with an elegant repost." (That's the way "riposte" is spelled in the liner notes, so: [sic].)

To the extent that there ever was anything Sensitive and Female about the SFCP, it was probably inevitable that Carlton would eventually grab hold of it. She leans pretty heavily on it throughout but gets points for making the verse and chorus entirely different from one another despite having the exact same progression underneath both. It's still afflicted by Carlton's tendency to write lyrics like a pretentiously artsy high schooler, but it's bright and catchy. That's practically a triumph right there.

Full song: Vanessa Carlton, "Hands On Me"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song

Monday, February 16, 2009

CBC Radio 2 Morning interview, featuring "Alone" by Heart (Friday, February 13, 2009)

The SFCP was featured on Friday's Radio 2 Morning radio program on the CBC, which is Canada's public radio. Tom Allen interviewed me for eight minutes or so, and we talked about which SFCP songs might be the best for Valentine's Day and whether the SFCP might be the Fresh Prince of all chord progressions. (Quick answer: it's not.)

Thanks go out to Allen and CBC producer Alison Howard for their parts in this interview, as well as to the anonymous CBC staffer who first heard about the SFCP when it was being discussed on Seattle radio. That explains how it crossed the border, though it raises other questions as to how a Boston newspaper article was picked up on the other side of the country. In any event, it's an international story now. In case you missed it, here's the interview and the top-of-the-hour teaser that preceded it.

Listen to the full interview: CBC Radio 2 Morning for February 13, 2009
Listen to the teaser: CBC Radio 2 Morning 9:00 a.m. teaser

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sarah McLachlan, "Building A Mystery"

Song: "Building A Mystery"
Artist: Sarah McLachlan
Album: Surfacing
Written by: Sarah McLachlan/Pierre Marchand
Year: 1997
Key: Bm
Classification: SF1
Lyrical content: Goth come-on; hipster-idol glorification
Where used: Verse, chorus

At first blush, McLachlan's song seems like a "One Of Us" clone. There's the Lilith Fair-branded singer (in fact, the first tour took place during the summer that Surfacing was released) and the use of the SFCP in both the verse and chorus. And then there's the production, about which songwriter Eric Bazilian told me, "They obviously really studied the sonics of the 'One Of Us' drums. They nailed it on that."

But the structure of the song itself isn't so simple, with McLachlan making a few subtle choices to generate a slight sense of disorientation. For starters, she teases the chorus at the end of the first verse but holds off on actually delivering it until she's finished with not just the second verse but also a prechorus that offers one of the only three moments that shake up the otherwise uninterrupted SFCP. We're pretty much ready for some sort of break -- a solo, a bridge, something -- by the end of that chorus, but the song's gathered too much momentum by then, so that when McLachlan hits the third verse with the line "You woke up screaming aloud," it's both jarring and inevitable at the same time. That's a testament to the hypnotic heft provided by the constant cycling of the chords and echoed in the lyrics.

Full song: Sarah McLachlan, "Building A Mystery"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Joan Osborne, "One Of Us"

Song: "One Of Us"
Artist: Joan Osborne
Album: Relish
Written by: Eric Bazilian
Year: 1995
Key: F#m
Classification: SF1
Lyrical content: Hypothetical religiosity in the form of rhetorical questioning; Kevin Smith's Dogma five years early
Where used: Verse, chorus

I'm starting with this one because its relationship to the SFCP is a little complex. It certainly wasn't the first song to use the SFCP, not by a long shot. It's not even the song that made me realize that this chord progression was a common one; that honor goes to Sarah McLachlan's "Building A Mystery." (And even that's trumped by the dim realization when I was a teenager that Roxette, Starship and Heart -- twice! -- were all singing the same song.) But it's always seemed to me to be the nexus around which all SFCPs rotate, in kind of the same way that Greil Marcus viewed the Sex Pistols as the intersection of 20th Century postmodernism and dada/Situationalist philosophy. Everything that came before seems to have been leading up to it, and everything that came after has to contend with it.

What helps bolster the centrality of "One Of Us" is that the entire song is based around the SFCP. There's a prechorus (which is revisited at the start of the solo) that splits off from it, but otherwise, the song is the SFCP and nothing but. The vocal melody in the verse shows off part of the strength of the SCFP: Osborne only needs three notes -- a central tone, a whole step up and a half step down -- to cover the four chords as they shift underneath her. It's dead simple, and that up-and-down melody provides a bit of a glimpse as to the way the chords move smoothly from one to the other. Other songs might use it in more elaborate ways, but it's hard to spot a better example of why the SFCP is so versatile than this song right here.

Full song: Joan Osborne, "One Of Us"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

FAQ: What does "classification" mean?

Q: What does "classification" mean?

A: Allow me to hand this one over to "One Of Us" songwriter Eric Bazilian:

A bit of nomenclature, by the way, for clarity's sake...

SF1 would be the two beats per chord change variant, e.g. One Of Us, Peace Of Mind, Scott McKenzie, Two Story Town

SF2 is what I'm calling the one bar per chord., e.g. Zombie, It's My Life

FAQ: Why do you care about this, exactly?

Q: Why do you care about this, exactly?

A: I wish I could tell you. All I know is that at some point, I heard the SFCP enough times that I just started picking up on it without even trying. It's kind of like the Wilhelm Scream in the movies: you might never notice it, but once you become attuned to it, you'll spot it everywhere.

FAQ: Are you saying that anybody who uses the SFCP is a hack?

Q: Are you saying that anybody who uses the SFCP is a hack?

A: Not at all. It's a tool like any other. Chord progressions get reused all the time. There's the 12-bar blues, the I-vi-IV-V favored by 1950s rock and roll (and -- seriously -- half of the score of the stage version of Grease) and the I-V-vi-IV covered by Rob Paravonian in his famous Pachelbel Rant, among others. I could fill volumes with I-V-VII-IV, seriously.

FAQ: What's so sensitive and female about this chord progression? Don't angry men use it too?

Q: What's so sensitive and female about this chord progression? Don't angry men use it too?

A: Sure do. Here's the thing: "Sensitive Female Chord Progression" was the name I came up with when I first noticed this phenomenon. The first songs that I tied to a common set of chord changes were Joan Osborne's "One Of Us," Sara McLachlan's "Building A Mystery," Melissa Etheridge's "Angels Would Fall" and Jewel's "Hands," which are all songs by Lilith Fair artists. Hence the name. Since the next song I identified was Nina Gordon's "Tonight And The Rest Of My Life," which was a super-goopy pop plea from someone who was rather fierce when she led Veruca Salt, the name seemed to fit all the more.

Since then, though, I've discovered that the SFCP is a heck of a lot more versatile than that. I'd say that half the songs I've found are by men (go figure), and it can be used quite aggressively. But for better or worse, it's stuck in my head as the Sensitive Female Chord Progression, which is how I first presented it to the world in the Boston Globe.

In sum: it's a dumb name. I wish I'd named it something else. But this is what I'm stuck with.

FAQ: Shouldn't it be i-VI-III-♭VII?

Q: You say the progression is vi-IV-I-V. Shouldn't it be i-VI-III-♭VII?

A: Technically, yes. If you're claiming that the progression is in a minor key, then it would indeed be correct to start it on the 1. However. It's also not exactly wrong to say that it starts on the 6, either, although that implies a major key for the progression overall.

What's really important about designating it vi-IV-I-V is that not only is that simpler and cleaner, it hammers home the crucial point that the progression is built from the four most basic chords in modern pop music. You take the I, the IV, the V and the vi, and you could generate a huge chunk of pop and rock from the last 50 years. They're versatile enough that you could just switch them around in whatever order; the SFCP is simply one combination. That becomes far less clear if you "correctly" designate it as i-VI-III-♭VII.

FAQ: What is the Sensitive Female Chord Progression?

Q: What is the Sensitive Female Chord Progression?

A: It's any chord progression that starts with the minor six (vi) and then moves to the major four (IV), the major one (I) and the major five (V). Ideally, it would then repeat. As an example, a SFCP in A minor would be Am-F-C-G.

FAQ: What's this blog all about?

Q: I don't get it. What's this blog all about?

A: The short version is that I figured that as long as I was keeping a list of songs with the same chord progression, I might as well do something with it. (The long version can be found in my Boston Globe article that prompted this blog.) So every week I'm going to post another song that uses the Sensitive Female Chord Progression to demonstrate the ubiquity of it.