You say I need a job,
I’ve got my own business.
You want to know what I do?
none of your fucking business.
But now I’m lying here
knowing that business had a name,
But now I’m a number
1 2 3 repeater “Repeater”, Fugazi
One of the cornerstones of popular music is repetition. From the basic strong structure (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus) to the chords themselves, pop music is built upon the re-deployment of basic musical themes, motifs and lyrics. This isn’t just about rock n ’roll—the riffs and standards of jazz or the basic progressions of blues are hewn from the same material.
(We can debate the origins if you’d like. Work songs? Spirituals? Any single genealogy will fail to be as wide-ranging as I anticipate below.)
Repetition, however, has a dodgy reputation among modern philosophers—especially when it comes to forms of popular culture. Theodor Adorno, for example, sees repetition as a feature of industrialization, as an indication of lost individualism, as a preface to the lock-step march of fascist armies. Other theorists, following the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, see repetition as “idiotic enjoyment”.
So, from a philosophical perspective, the prominence of repetition in popular music is either a low-brow reflex of the industrial age (even in our art forms we are on the assembly line or marching to war!) or an unconscious extension of basic pleasure seeking principles (which is, admittedly, an over-simplification).
Ugh. Does it have to be this way?
As I have tried to write about before, repetition is far more complicated than we like to admit. First of all, repetition, from a reception standpoint, is problematic (even if you hear the same words twice with the same melody, your experience of the first iteration alters your reception of the second.)
But, more importantly, the prejudice against repetition (or at least the dim view I’ve selectively presented) is artistically and, for lack of a better word, historically, misplaced. Repetition isn’t slavish: from our earliest poetic forms cross-culturally we learn that repetition (of words, themes, even entire narratives) helps to build more complex and resonant works. Indeed, it is only through repetition that symbols, sounds and words aggregate meaning.
But, and here is the squishy part of my response, repetition is so thoroughly the standard condition of human life between the poles of birth and death that it is foolish to dismiss its appearance in popular art forms as the mechanization of popular culture or a widespread embrace of idiotic joy. Every minute is filled with repetitions: breath, blinking, moving. Each human day is a series of mundane repetitions broken up only rarely by new routines and the unexpected. Perhaps repetition in music is merely a reflection of this essential feature of human life. Shouldn’t art be in some way an extension of regular life either as an expression or organic outgrowth of that which occurs or a reaction to what isn’t there (an expression of absence)?
Pop music, then, built so thoroughly from repetitions of different kinds, showcases this human tendency. There are, if we want to go back to a darker reading, of course, market-based advantages to this. A song that introduces you to a chorus and has you singing along by the end of the first or at least by the third iteration is more likely to keep your attention, to drive advertising dollars, to translate into record purchases. Repetition is thus also the bedrock of commercialization.
But, to turn away from the negative, again, repetition is also a fine way to develop the most essential of artistic measures, the contrast. Why have a bridge in a song at all? What does it do? Would a guitar lick or solo mean anything without a repetitive chord progression behind it? What about drum flairs or variations? Variation cannot exist without regularity, without repetition.
Of course, if repetition is the status quo of pop, then it doesn’t necessarily work all the time. And, if it is the expectation, then by defying expectation certain songs or artists can achieve surprising effects. To explore this, let’s consider one band’s songs as evidence of the success of non-repetition and the horror of repetition misused.
On the album Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie includes several songs that break basic expectations. One that uses repetition and non-repetition to great effect is “Passenger Seat”. The song is built around a basic piano lick with the vocals narrating a ride home (there is ambient sound behind the single-key and chord progression, but the body of the song is piano and voice). The narration builds to what seems like a chorus as additional vocal tracks join Gibbard: “ ‘do they collide?’ /I ask and you smile.” Pop music has the audience primed to expect this to be the chorus, to be repeated again (the melody is repeated for the next line). We are, happily, disappointed.
It is what happens next in the position of the bridge where we find repetition and non-repetition combine. Gibbard sings “when you feel embarrassed then I’ll be your pride” and then repeats the same melody with “when you need directions then I’ll be the guide” except on the second “be” he varies the melody and rises up into his falsetto—a variation that takes a simply, but poignantly put, sentiment and renders it unforgettable. I still get chills every time I hear it.
This moment is made possible by the repetition of the music, many of the same notes, and by the close variation of these lines (the anaphora of “when you…then I’ll be” combines well with the similar sounds in “feel” and the rhyme “pride/guide”). A lesser artist, moreover, might make the mistake of milking that final moment, of repeating the lines and the melody that are so effective at the end. Gibbard does not. He lets the lines hang. He leaves the audience expecting and wanting more.
So here, I suggest, we find a song that uses various types of repetitions against the additional backdrop of millions of repetitions of pop formulae to set up and then defy audience expectations. By defying the expectation of repetition, Death Cab for Cutie makes the song more likely to be repeated entire; it creates a new desire in its listeners that can only be fulfilled by additional iterations.
Or something like that.
Gibbard is a lesser artist on a later album. I will write very little about this case, because I still find the whole album to be a capital crime against good taste.
On Narrow Stairs, the early track “I will Possess Your Heart” starts out with ambient noise and piano, only to devolve over a repetitive bass line into a long non-repetitive, slowly building, musical feint. By the time we get to the lyrics, we expect big things. But, this song disappoints. The repeated lyrics are interspersed with a vocative “love” and the most repeated line in the song, “I will possess your heart”, turns over again and again until you (or at least I) hate it.
Again, there are plenty of times where a repeated phrase that seems annoying at first listen wins you over. (Earlier I mentioned Rihanna’s repeated “ella”; think also of the inane “Poker face” which wins through a combination of melody and rhythm despite the awkwardness of the lyrics.) In this line, Gibbard falls far short of his own standards. What does it mean to possess one’s heart? Is the singer some sort of a mass murderer who collects the organs of unwilling paramours? In seriousness, I know this is a metaphor, but it is a bad one. Something about possessive love of this sort is unsettling, almost menacing. Without a catchy melody or an attractive beat, the sentiment is a strange one to choose to repeat. Sometimes, one writes bad lyrics. Cover it up by not repeating them!
I am sure that the song merits more consideration than that, but the repeated title is just too grating, it makes me want to reject the entire album (and I only listened to it twice after hearing this song).
And, as usual, I have probably gone on too long. Have I made any sense about repetition or do I need to return to this again? Are there songs that you wish repeated something or you think repeat too much, brother?