Thursday, September 24, 2009

#98. 'I may appear to be free, but I'm just a prisoner'

Macy Gray "I Try"

If you were to ask me what my least favorite songwriting tropes were one of the first ones to come to mind would be what I call the major shift. You hear it in every American Idol coronation song, every Celine Dion ballad and every Dianne Warren love theme. You hear it in most ballads regardless of genre actually, and if you're anything like me you anticipate it whenever you hear a song with a slower tempo for the first time. It happens right before the final chorus; the song's been in a minor key for the first 2/3rds of its runtime but then as that last chorus hits the song modulates into the major key. It's a cheap trick, giving the song an emotional payoff that's usually unearned and doing it in a way that's unorginal to boot. It rarely strikes me as anything more than pandering, giving what is fundamentally a sad song a happy ending without bothering to do anything akin to progressing the song to that point in a logical way. The major shift is the 'It was all a dream!' of songwriting, and any time it happens it makes me die a bit inside.

Except for when it doesn't, of course.

Look, I may hate the major shift enough to base an entire intro paragraph around my distaste for it, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate when it's done well. The fact is that when it's done well it impresses me more than any other sort of good songwriting practice because it's been so horribly abused in every other case that the good ones stand out more. It's a rare phenomenon to see happen, and any time it does the credit goes to the vocalist above everyone else. When you're confronted with such a cheap gimmick the only way to make it work is to sell it like you've never sold any other part of your discography. You need to make the shift work by sheer force of will because just doing it is not enough to make it believable. It borders on cruelty to force that sort of pressure on a vocalist, but when they pull it off I tip my imaginary hat their way.

Macy Gray's "I Try" is one of the few times that this particular gambit pays off well, but it's also a bit of an atypical example of it. Unlike, say, Toni Braxton's "Unbreak My Heart" (I think of this as ground zero for my high level of major shift hatred) the shift is actually logical in context of the lyrics and not just a vocal exercise that makes your pleading sound more desperate than anything else. Throughout the song Gray's been singing in a minor key about the depth of her love, borderline obsession you might say, for a guy who she isn't able to be with for whatever reason; the reason isn't important though, because Gray's voice is expressive enough to convey the emotions attendant to this type of yearning. As the song progresses though her tone gets less and less despondent, slowly striping back the sadness of the opening and getting brighter and brighter with each passing line.

That sort of progression is the only reason that the shift that occurs in the last chorus works. It's not the abrupt sad-HAPPY shift that marks this trope most times but a gradual build up towards the absolutely giddy final part of the song. I like to think of it as the evolution of Gray emotions as she gets closer and closer to her object of desire, beginning with resigned sadness over the fact that they'll never be together and slowly approaching the point where she just says 'fuck it, I might as well give this a shot.' The bridge itself reads like a sort of twisted yet romantic confession of love,the sort of tipping point where her emotions go from internal torment over her separation from her beloved to unbridled happiness at their eventual coming together. Gray sells this evolution of emotion in a way that few singers before or since have managed to, and it's not just the fact that it's an actual evolution that sets it apart but that Gray's vocals in the major shift section are so undeniably pure. It's not a sterile sort of vocal but one full of passion in a very real way as opposed to the more studio sterile likes of...well, every other artist that tried a major shift in the last little while.

Coming up tomorrow: Why you need to stop bitching about 'indie' publications loving pop music.

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