Skin Tight Jeans and Syncopation

Explaining the genius of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”—using music theory.

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, I’ve 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 it’ll be boring, but I’m going to do my best not to bore you!

I have picked Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” Because: this song’s success seems to mystify all the Katy Perry haters in the world. Why did it go to No. 1? Let’s start by talking about the ingenuity of the harmonic content. This song is all about suspension—not in the voice-leading 4–3 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 Mac’s “Dreams” and Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You”; almost-examples include Earth Wind and Fire’s “In September” which has an I chord but only passing and in inversion; same with Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.”

“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 Katy’s melody begins on the tonic—tonic: 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: Katy’s 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 I’m 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 song’s 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 I’m pretty without any” [syncopated:] “makeup on.

A brief aside: Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) is sometimes criticized as not “R&B” enough by some music writers—these writers often cite Dev’s previous work in rock band Test Icicles as indicative of some illegitimacy of intention. But Dev’s songwriting trademark—his supposed weakness—is 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 Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” where almost every note is off the beat. “FI-nished with my woman cause sheeee WOULDn’t help meeeee WITH myyyy LIFE.” It’s kind of a bad melody, no? Doesn’t 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 it’s too late. It suits the material, works great.

Back to Katy. Her lyrics stretch into each subsequent bar: “You think I’m pretty without any makeup/ on, you think I’m …” 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, we’re waiting for her to get to the point. And here it comes!

As Katy moves out of introspective mode and starts using imperatives “Let’s go all the way tonight! No regrets! Just love!” she gets straight, more serious, no syncopation. Then—genius—the chorus inverts the weighting that we heard in the verse. [Syncopated:] “You make me [straight:] “feel like I’m 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 tonic-focused 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 ways—it’s like a flank attack. Two sides of the same face. You WILL remember the name of this song.

How’d 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” I’d 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.