This week, the Lonely Island released a music video for a song that was cut from their new movie, Popstar. The deleted scene for the song, “Fuck Off,” shows Conner4Real (Andy Samberg’s Bieber-esque teen idol character) joyfully belting out the most over-the-top expression of teenage angst possible.
The song is an incredible parody, not least because Samberg and company have caught onto a melodic phenomenon that has plagued the airwaves for the past several years, which they use to great effect at the song’s 40-second mark.
I like to call this melodic snippet the “Millennial Whoop.” It’s a sequence of notes that alternates between the fifth and third notes of a major scale, typically starting on the fifth. The rhythm is usually straight eighth-notes, but it may start on the downbeat or on the upbeat in different songs. A singer usually belts these notes with an “Oh” phoneme, often in a “Wa-oh-wa-oh” pattern. And it is in so many pop songs it’s criminal.
The musical figure is probably best exemplified by Katy Perry’s 2010 song “California Gurls” (featuring Snoop Dogg):
This song comes right at the beginning of “Peak Millennial Whoop,” when suddenly every artist (consciously or subconsciously) jumped on board to replicate this earworm. In “California Gurls,” we first hear it at 0:51 as a kind of foreshadowing to its more memorable usage within the chorus at 1:05 (and multiple times in every chorus thereafter).
The beauty of such a short melodic sequence (simply the repetition of two notes over and over) is that no one can own it. Last year, after Robin Thicke was taken to court by Marvin Gaye’s family for violating the copyright of “Got to Give It Up” with his song “Blurred Lines,” Reggie Ugwu at BuzzFeed wrote a great summary of how the legal system determines whether something really is “a rip-off.” While it would be easy to claim “substantial similarity” between songs that use the Millennial Whoop, in order to convince a jury that someone was ripped off, an artist would have to prove that this “Wa-oh-wa-oh” motif was his or her original idea. That would put him or her on thin ice indeed due to the scènes à faire defense, which basically says certain musical elements are just too common to be owned by any one entity.
Ally Burnett found herself in this very situation when she sued Carly Rae Jepsen and Adam Young (aka Owl City), saying their 2012 song “Good Time” (used in the movie Wreck It Ralph) had infringed on the copyright of her 2010 song “Ah, It’s a Love Song” (which starts with a Millennial Whoop). Burnett got an out-of-court settlement from Jepsen, but Young fought the case and was awarded royalties after “Good Time” was deemed an original work.
For comparison, here’s “Good Time” (Millennial Whoop at 0:04):
If it wasn’t written by Ally Burnett or Carly Rae Jepson or anyone else, where does the Millennial Whoop come from? I would argue it has antecedents in teasing songs like “Nanny nanny boo boo” and “I know something you don’t know” that, as Leonard Bernstein pointed out in his lecture series the Unanswered Question, seem to transcend cultures across the globe. It’s the kind of musical phrase that we seem to know instinctively and that has a relationship to the overtone series embedded in every single note we hear.
Also, although the melodic intervals are different, the “Wa-oh-wa-oh” syllables surely have more recent roots in the Buggles song “Video Killed the Radio Star”:
It is, perhaps, no wonder that in the same year that “California Gurls” came out, Nicki Minaj was sampling “Video Killed the Radio Star” in her song “Check It Out”:
Humans crave patterns. The reason pop music is successful to begin with is because almost every song is immediately familiar before you get more than 10 seconds into a first listen. Between the formula of European classical scales and chord progressions that have gelled over hundreds of years and the driving heartbeat rhythms that stimulate our internal organs at the right decibels, listeners are immediately hooked in by familiar structure and themes that have likely been ringing in their ears since they were in the womb. And with the pervasive nature of pop music, where everything is a remix, a feedback loop has been created in which songs are successful because they are familiar, so in order to be successful, songs are created that play on our sense of familiarity.
So it is that the Millennial Whoop evokes a kind of primordial sense that everything will be alright. You know these notes. You’ve heard this before. There’s nothing out of the ordinary or scary here. You don’t need to learn the words or know a particular language or think deeply about meaning. You’re safe. In the age of climate change and economic injustice and racial violence, you can take a few moments to forget everything and shout with exuberance at the top of your lungs. Just dance and feel how awesome it is to be alive right now. Wa-oh-wa-oh.
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Here are some more examples of the Millennial Whoop. Let me know in the comments if you find any others!
Fall Out Boy – “She’s My Winona” (2008, modified Millennial Whoop at 0:14)
BOY – “Little Numbers” (2011, Millennial Whoop at 1:04)
Stonefox – “All I Want” (2013, Millennial Whoop at 2:02)
Demi Lovato – “I Really Don’t Care” (2013, Millennial Whoop at 1:00)
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[UPDATE: One reader pointed out that infant-directed speech (i.e. “Baby Talk”) often uses this same interval. And a band member from Cymbals Eat Guitars (one of their songs is listed below) noted on Twitter that Jesse Lacey from Brand New calls this the “mom calling you inside from the porch interval”.]
[UPDATE: The following songs have been identified by readers since I published this post.]
Frank Ocean – “Ivy” (2016, Millennial Whoop at 2:53)
Dagny – “Backbeat” (2016, Millennial Whoop at 0:00 as part of longer melodic phrase)
AURORA – “Running With the Wolves” (2016, Millennial Whoop at 1:11)
Berlin After Midnight – “All Night Long” (2016, Millennial Whoop at 0:52)
twenty one pilots – Ride (2015, Millennial Whoop at 0:48)
Tove Lo – “Habits (Stay High)” (2014, Millennial Whoop at 0:48)
Of Monsters and Men – “Mountain Sound” (2014, Millennial Whoop at 2:15)
Andy Grammer – “Forever” (2014, Millennial Whoop at 3:15 at the beginning of a longer melodic phrase)
Fifth Harmony – “Anything Is Possible” (2014, Millennial Whoop at 0:20)
Chvrches – “The Mother We Share” (2013, fragmented Millennial Whoop at 0:00, standard Millennial Whoop at 0:33)
Filter – “Burn It” (2013, Millennial Whoop at 1:10)
One Direction – “Heart Attack” (2012, Millennial Whoop at 0:37)
One Direction – “Live While We’re Young” (2012, Millennial Whoop at 0:53)
The Lumineers – “Ho Hey” (2012, Millennial Whoop on the word “heart” at 0:58)
Rebecca Black – “Sing It” (2012, Millennial Whoop at 0:03)
Chris Brown – “Turn Up the Music” (2012, Millennial Whoop at 1:30)
Big Tree – “Storm King” (2011, Millennial Whoop at 2:24)
Outasight – “Tonight Is the Night” (2011, Millennial Whoop at 0:52)
The Head and the Heart – “Down in the Valley” (2011, Millennial Whoop at 1:48)
Justin Bieber – “Baby (featuring Ludacris)” (2010, Millennial Whoop at 0:46)
Michou – “Growing Younger” (2010, Millennial Whoop at 0:37)
Alejandro Sanz – “Looking for Paradise (featuring Alicia Keys)” (2010, Millennial Whoop at 0:14
Kings of Leon – “Use Somebody” (2009, Millennial Whoop faintly at 0:02, louder 1:28)
Cymbals Eat Guitars – “And The Hazy Sea” (2009, elongated Millennial Whoop at 0:00)
Mates of State – “Goods” (2007, Millennial Whoop at 0:20)
Green Day – “Are We the Waiting” (2004, Millennial Whoop at 0:34)
Death Cab for Cutie – “Lightness” (2003, Millennial Whoop at 0:32)
The Rasmus – “In the Shadows” (2003, Millennial Whoop at 0:12)
The KLF – “Last Train to Trancentral” (1991, Millennial Whoop at 1:00)
Baltimora – “Tarzan Boy” (1985, Millennial Whoop at 1:11)
Morris Day and the Time – “Jungle Love” (1984, Millennial Whoop at 0:38)