The Perfect Pop Song

If I had to choose one word to describe my personal brand, it would be "timeliness." For example, you thrilled when I wrote about Skyfall's controversial bisexual Bond two years after the film came out. You delighted when I shared a crazy fan theory about The World's End a full year after its release. And you reacted positively when I speculated on the nature of Dan Harmon and Mitch Hurwitz's collaborative project ten months after it was first reported.

So what compels me to write a new post for Remarkage after abandoning the blog for so long? Simple. Today, I return to blogging with perhaps my most timely post ever. Today, I'm going to explain why Elton John's 1972 single "Tiny Dancer" is a perfect pop song.

"Tiny Dancer" was released exactly 43 years, 9 months, and 3 days ago today!

Let's get to it. For me, two questions determine whether a pop song is satisfying. First: does it offer enough musical repetition to create a comforting predictability? As Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis notes in a fascinating article (the first result when you Google "why do we like repetition in music"):
"Repetitiveness actually gives rise to the kind of listening that we think of as musical. It carves out a familiar, rewarding path in our minds, allowing us at once to anticipate and participate in each phrase as we listen."
So repetition is pleasurable. It makes you feel clever for knowing what's next and then tapping & humming along when it comes (I have a distinct memory of being thrilled I could predict music when I was a young child). But pure repetition is boring. Which leads me to my second question: does said pop song also introduce enough variation to "hook" your attention right till the end?

Elton John, sitting at a piano and staring down an empty music sheet, responds to these two questions with "Tiny Dancer" — a virtuoso pop production that perfectly balances ear-pleasing repetition and ear-pricking variation.

First up, repetition. Of course, there's a constant return to the same basic musical ideas, like any pop song. But there's more. The best pop songs are so rewarding they beg to be repeated right when they finish. With "Tiny Dancer," Elton rather cheekily assumes you'll want to hear the entirety of the song's ideas (verse, pre-chorus, and chorus) again, then gives you no choice in the matter. A complete, whole, 3-minute song is essentially played twice, so the entire recording clocks over 6 minutes. No need to reset the record, or put the MP3 on repeat. It's the ultimate in comforting repetition.

Elton lays down the song's two-for-one structure, playing solo on piano. It's then up to producer Gus Dudgeon (who oversaw Elton's prolific 1970-'76 output of an album or two every year, as well as almost twenty top 40 singles) to transform a great song into a great pop recording. Dudgeon describes his contribution to Elton's music:
"Once Elton had done what he had to do, which was play piano and sing, he left. [...] Whatever you hear on the records that's over and above the essential construction of the song is down to myself and whoever else was working in the studio."
So what exactly did Dudgeon add to the recordings? You guessed it: variation. Recording engineer David Hentschel describes the producer's approach:
"Gus wanted a mix to be so that when someone is listening to it for the first time there is always something new to catch the ear. Probably you’d leave the first verse alone, because people are getting used to it — and getting in the mood. And then the chorus. Then when you get to the second verse, you don’t want the same thing again as the first verse, so you start introducing other sounds in between lines. [...] And by the end you have everything going together and everything’s grown in intensity and volume (and in some cases complexity of playing as well) and that’s what gives you the dynamic build of the song. Keeping the listener’s interest, basically, is what it’s all about."
"Tiny Dancer" typifies this approach:
  1. The first verse features vocals and piano, then steel guitar is added.
  2. Drums and bass walk in after the verse.
  3. Verse two sees guitar licks between the vocal lines, then a backing choir joins.
  4. A dramatic, breathless pre-chorus melts into a sugary chorus, where a transcendent string arrangement is finally introduced.
When Elton plays the song's core a second time, all these elements sing together. Drama builds as the strings play call-and-response with the vocal line, until the final pre-chorus becomes an accelerating heartbeat of dark string pulses and drum fills. (I've edited the first and second pre-choruses together so they can be compared here.) The track ends with the first verse and chorus repeated again, sounding both familiar and new. (The first verse's appearances are compared here.)

I was spoiled by hearing Elton's 1970s pop recordings when I was young. Since then, nothing but the Beach Boys have been so pleasing and interesting to my ear.

Elton and his producer have ruined pop music for me

So congrats to Elton John and Gus Dudgeon on showing us how it's done. I'm not sure how to conclude this post. If you've ever wondered if my proclivity for overanalysis extended to music, well, you've got your answer. Till next time!

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