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Katy Perrys Teenage Dream: Explaining

the hit using music theory.

Slate Articles by Owen Pallett March 25, 2014

Katy Perry.

Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

In the days since Ted Gioia published his essay in the Daily Beast, alleging that
music criticism has devolved into lifestyle reporting, with little or no attention
paid to how the music itself works, Ive been challenged by friends on Facebook
to write a not boring piece that explains a successful pop song using music
theory. My bet is that itll be boring, but Im going to do my best not to bore you!
I have picked Katy Perrys Teenage Dream. Because: this songs success seems
to mystify all the Katy Perry haters in the world. Why did it go to No. 1? Lets
start by talking about the ingenuity of the harmonic content. This song is all
about suspensionnot in the voice-leading 43 sense, but in the emotional
sense, which listeners often associate with exhilaration, being on the road,
being on a roller coaster, travel. This sense of suspension is created simply, by
denying the listener any I chords. There is not a single I chord in the song.
Laymen, the I chord (one chord) is the chord that the key is in. For example, a
song is in G but there are no G-chords. Other examples of this, in hit singles:
Fleetwood Macs Dreams and Stardusts Music Sounds Better With You;
almost-examples include Earth Wind and Fires In September which has an I
chord but only passing and in inversion; same with Coldplays Viva La Vida.
Perrys voice is the sun and the song is in orbit around it.
Teenage Dream begins with a guitar sounding the I chord but an instant later,
when the bass comes in, the I is transformed into an IV (an IV7 chord, to be
exact). The I chord will never appear again. Notice, too, how Katys melody
begins on the tonictonic: the root note of the missing I chord, the same note
that the key is in. She stays around the tonic, reinforces the tonic, and the vocal

melody establishes the key so clearly that there is no doubt: Katys voice is
home; the rest of the song is oscillating around her. Even when the tonic note
would clash with the chord (as it does over the V chord, on feel like Im living
a) she hammers it home. Her voice is the sun and the song is in orbit around it.
The feeling of suspension I mentioned is an effect of this. The insistence of the
tonic in the melody keeps your ears eyes fixed on the destination, but the song
never arrives there. Weightlessness is achieved. Great work, songwriters!
The second key to this songs Enormous Chart Success has to do with the
weighting of the melody lines. Perfect balance of tension and release. Each line
of the verses begin straight, on the beat, but end with a syncopation: [straight:]
you think Im pretty without any [syncopated:] makeup on.
A brief aside: Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) is sometimes criticized as not R&B
enough by some music writersthese writers often cite Devs previous work in
rock band Test Icicles as indicative of some illegitimacy of intention. But Devs
songwriting trademarkhis supposed weaknessis rooted in this exact thing,
the weighting of syllables. Unlike most R&B, Dev writes songs where the melody
has no syncopation; they sound like hymns. Boring, perhaps, to you, but other
people (myself included) hear a glorious religious calm, a stateliness.
Similarly, think about Black Sabbaths Paranoid, where almost every note is off
the beat. FI-nished with my woman cause sheeee WOULDnt help meeeee
WITH myyyy LIFE. Its kind of a bad melody, no? Doesnt suit the lyrics at all,
has an vaguely ESL vibe, weighted all wrong. But the song is called Paranoid
and he is singing about how you should enjoy life and how he wishes he could do
the same but its too late. It suits the material, works great.
Back to Katy. Her lyrics stretch into each subsequent bar: You think Im pretty
without any makeup/ on, you think Im etc. The on is more part of the next
line than the proceeding one. Her lines dovetail elegantly into each other. This
contributes to the feeling of suspension that I mentioned above. As listeners,
were waiting for her to get to the point. And here it comes!

As Katy moves out of introspective mode and starts using imperatives Lets go
all the way tonight! No regrets! Just love! she gets straight, more serious, no
syncopation. Thengeniusthe chorus inverts the weighting that we heard in
the verse. [Syncopated:] You make me [straight:] feel like Im living a
[syncopated:] teenage dream! And the gooey heart of the song, the skin tight
jeans bit, is rhythmically entirely straight, voice tumbling out of the tonicfocused cage of the verse and chorus, like long-hair from a scrunchie released.
A particular point of pleasure: The title of the song (Teenage Dream) is sung
syncopated on the chorus, but straight on the bridge. Compare the two in your
head. Do you hear that? How brilliant. The title of the song is rhythmically
weighted two waysits like a flank attack. Two sides of the same face. You WILL
remember the name of this song.
Howd I do? This analysis was an easy one, because the song is straight fours and
its ingenuities are easy to describe. If I were going to talk about Get Lucky Id
probably have to start posting score. That is a complicated song.
Update, March 25, 2014: This article has been updated to clarify that
Teenage Dream is not the key of G.