|>>|| No. 13831
I can't really explain without a fairly hefty lump of musical theory, so I'll offer a (grossly oversimplified) tour of the relevant bits for the benefit of a lay audience. I'm a tad tipsy, so apologies in advance if I balls this up.
In western harmony, a scale has eight notes or "degrees" (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do). Each degree of the scale has a particular character, creating a sense of tension or resolution. The chords of a song are built on each degree of the scale, most basically by taking that degree and the third and fifth subsequent degree. The interplay of chords and melody is what gives a song its shape and emotional impact, with the chords creating the overall structure. Each degree (and so the chords built on each degree) has a specific character which we all hear intuitively but musicians describe more formally.
The first and eighth degrees (the root and octave, both "do") are the "home" notes of a scale, to which the ear naturally settles. All other degrees convey a sense of tension, with the ear naturally seeking resolution to the root or octave. In a hymn, the "a-men" at the end inevitably moves down to the root.
The fifth degree ("so") is the most settled of all the other intervals, with roughly equal tension between the root and octave. Other intervals are more or less tense, depending on their proximity to the root, fifth and octave. The fourth ("fa") is drawn most strongly to the fifth and only weakly to the root, the second and seventh ("re" and "ti") are drawn strongly towards the root and octave respectively and so on.
Most pop songs are built on chord progressions that revolve around the first, fourth and fifth chords, with occasional wanderings to create a sense of tension or sadness. The natural climax of most upbeat pop songs is the resolution back to the first, usually mirrored in both chords and melody, which creates a pleasing sense of closure like the "amen" at the end of a hymn.
Super Bass does something devilishly clever in the chorus. You can see the structure of the chorus laid out interactively at the link below, which should make this explanation a lot clearer.
During the first part of the chorus, the melody wanders around the root over a background of the fourth and fifth chords, building towards the (seemingly inevitable) resolution to the root, but then it pulls the rug from underneath us.
At "boom-ba-doom-doom bass", the melody resolves back to the root, but the chord progression moves to a sixth chord, a chord with a naturally sad sound that resolves downwards to the fifth. The following phrase "he's got that super bass" is on the sixth and fifth respectively. That whole melodic phrase is then repeated, but over the fourth chord.
The real genius is the way that words and music combine to create emotion. I'm honestly welling up a little writing this, because I think it's such a stunning example of my life's passion. The lyric asks "Boy you've got my heartbeat running away, beating like a drum and it's coming your way, can't you hear that boom-ba-doom-doom?" and resolves down to the root, but the chords reply "no" or at least "maybe" by moving in the opposite direction to the sad-sounding sixth. The last note of the vocal line ("ba-ass") falls down to the sixth like a sigh, giving a partial sense of resolution in the first repetition of the phrase but a sense of tension to the second. Where we expect to find resolution, we instead find tension. The song leads us up to a soaring climax, but instead leaves us with something altogether more ambivalent and incomplete.
Viewed naively, "Super Bass" is just some trashy song about a hunky guy in a club. Through the ears of this musician at least, it is a sublimely pure expression of yearning, of that moment when your heart leaps out of your chest with desire. It's the sound of a hand reaching out for another but finding only air, it's the sound of every unrequited crush, every teenage infatuation. It's a simple song, but every note works perfectly towards that emotional aim. It's what good songwriters work all their lives to achieve and what great songwriters do instinctively.
The song is littered with examples of simple but perfectly chosen songwriting and production tricks. The sense of yearning is presaged in the verse with the subtle electric piano chords and the falling synth line in the intro. Follow the kick drum and you'll hear that rather than just thudding away keeping time, it follows the emotional contours of the song, building the sense of excitement and tension into the chorus. I could wank on endlessly about the synth programming or the use of vocal harmonies or the gorgeous little bridge (the bit that leads into the final chorus).
Like all great pop songs, Super Bass is infinitely more than the sum of its parts, because all of those parts are perfectly honed, every note does a job of work. It's very easy to make something clever and complicated, but very difficult to make something simple and beautiful. Give me a manuscript book and a pencil and I could jot off a symphony as easily as a shopping list, but I could never write a chart hit, not in a million years. I don't hear clearly enough, I don't feel acutely enough, I don't have that instinctive connection with what makes us all human. I can analyse it all day, but I can no more do it than an ornithologist can flap his arms and fly.