Bebe Rexha is about to drop her debut album, Expectations, which her fans have been anxiously anticipating following the massive success of her collab with country duo Florida Georgia Line, "Meant to Be" (which will receive its own post in a few days).
Currently leading the charge in promoting this album is the single "I'm a Mess". If you are reading this, you are probably already familiar with it, but just in case you can check it out here:
The general rule in pop is that in order for a song to achieve mass appeal it has to do two seemingly contradicting things:
Rexha and her songwriting team deliver on both ends.
"I'm a Mess" speaks the language of 2018 pop in terms of structure, sonic makeup, harmony, and, for the most part, melody as well.
But if you got to the chorus and thought to yourself "this is different/weird/edgy/harsh" you're probably on to something, and if you can't put your finger on it, I'm here to help you out.
Related: Ariana Grande's "No Tears Left to Cry" - An Experiment by Max Martin and Co.
The Tritone and Dissonant Madness
There is quite a bit to explore in "I'm a Mess", but in this post I want to focus on the first thing that struck me when listening to it for the first time.
Specifically, the first time Rexha sings the word "hater" in the chorus really caught my attention because that moment is so unusual for a pop song it was hard to ignore.
But in order to explain what's so unusual about it I have to back up for a bit.
Like most pop songs, Rexha's vocals in the verse and prechorus are purely pentatonic. A pentatonic scale is a major or minor scale that excludes the two notes that are most prone to dissonant clashes--in major keys it's ^4 and ^7; in minor ^2 and ^6 (^ is the symbol for scale degree, or the position of a note in a scale). The pentatonic scale is widely used in pop and other genres because it makes the melody and the harmony less dependent on one another. It allows mixing and matching melodies and chord progressions, repeating the same melody over changing chords, and creating sonorities that don't rely on stacking thirds.
But when Rexha hits the chorus, not only does she add ^2 and ^6 back in (C# and G in the key of B minor) but she places a huge spotlight on them and even moves directly from one to the other, singing a melodic tritone, which is an extremely rare melodic interval in pop.
What makes this even more unusual is that it happens in the chorus--the chorus is traditionally supposed to be the easiest section to sing along to, and the tritone is considered not only one of the most tense dissonant intervals, but also one of the hardest melodic intervals to sing.
And to top off the craziness, Bebe sings the second note of the tritone (G) over an F#m chord, a super dissonant interval of a minor 9th, and really hammers it before resolving it down to F# (on the second syllable of the word "user").
As far as intense dissonant moments in pop music go, I really can't think of one that surpasses the "hater" moment of the chorus in "I'm a Mess". It's a harmonic minor 9th that's approached melodically by a tritone. There are myths about composers being punished in medieval times for using these intervals on their own, let alone in combination.
And I don't think these intervals were chosen by accident. At least I would be shocked if they were.
Everything is set up perfectly:
The stark shift from a purely pentatonic melodies that exclude ^2 and ^6 to a melody that heavily focuses on them.
The stacking of the harshest melodic and harmonic dissonanct intervals.
There's even a hint of what's to come in the guitar intro, when the bass line of the chord F#m momentarily moves up to G as an upper neighbor tone:
And all of this culminates on the word "hater".
Just in case you didn't know, here is how Rexha feels about haters:
Text painting, anyone?
Related: Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa's "One Kiss" is Ambiguous AF
Popping it Up
But again, this is pop, not Elliott Carter. We can't just throw around harsh dissonant sonorities willy nilly.
So how do Rexha and her team make this moment more palatable and singable enough to suit a pop chorus? There are a number of things:
First, the melodic tritone is embedded within a sequence--two identical melodic fragments that occur on different scale degrees. In this case, the melodic fragments are D-C# and G-F#, so while the move from C# to G is a tritone, the sequential pattern helps to soften it.
Second, the hard part in a melodic leap is hitting the 'target note', in this case G, or ^6. Since ^6 in a minor key is a note with a strong tendency to resolve down to ^5, this gravity helps to place it in a tonal context and remember it.
And, of course, we sort of already heard the G-F# fragment in the guitar intro, which makes that moment in the chorus already seem somewhat familiar even on the first listen.
Like I said, there is quite a bit to explore in this song, and I may revisit it in the future, but I think this particular moment was compelling enough to merit its own post.
Overall, I think "I'm a Mess" is a strong single and, along with "Meant to Be", can give Rexha's fans a lot to expect from Expectations.
Update (JUN-21-2018): In the original version of this post I made a reference to all of the songwriters credited on this song--Rexha, Shelly Peiken, Meredith Brooks, Jussi Karvinen, and Justin Tranter, as well as producer Devon Corey. It was pointed out to me that Peiken and Brooks are credited because the chorus in "I'm a Mess" is heavily based on Brooks' 1997 song, "Bitch", which they co-wrote.
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Tonal ambiguity is pretty common in pop music. I know quite a few songs that can easily be heard in their relative major or minor. What I’ve never encountered, though, is ambiguity between different key signatures in a song that is on paper entirely diatonic to one key.
In comes the new Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa collab:
“One Kiss” is in the key of F major, at least according to the official sheet music published by EMI, which places a Bb in the key signature. Yet I hear it as being in the key of A minor, and to be honest I can’t imagine anyone hearing it differently.
Maybe it’s a Laurel/Yanny thing, which would be fitting given the ambiguity of Lipa’s 'reserved passion' in this song.
On paper, there is no reason to question the official key: The seven-note collection used in this song spells F major; the chords exclusively use these seven notes as well; and the vocal melody falls in line, or at least does not contradict F major. On its face, there is nothing in the sheet music that would lead one to believe that this song is in any key other than F major.
But every time the chords loop back to Am I hear it as the tonic chord. And when Lipa sings “One kiss is all it takes” in the chorus I hear these scale degrees:
NOT these scale degrees:
But someone decided that this song is in F major. It could be the songwriters (Lipa, Adam Wiles, Jessie Reyez), Harris, the person who produced the sheet music for EMI, or all of them unanimously.
Even the Wikipedia article lists this song as in F major:
It’s possible that some of the people responsible for creating this song and disseminating the public information about it did so without really thinking about it too much and just went with what seemed to be obvious on paper, but I assume that at least one or two people in that chain listened carefully and thought it through before deciding on F major.
And to be clear, I’m not saying they are necessarily wrong. Harris, Lipa, and the EMI people may read this one day and think that I’m a moron for even suggesting that “One Kiss” could be in anything other than F major. You may even think so too, and that’s fine. But from my perspective this is something worth exploring, so here is my defense of hearing this song in A minor.
Asaf Peres is a music theory Ph.D. who researches and writes about pop music.
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