Finding a profound melancholy in Katy Perry

For several weeks, I’ve been haunted by a distinct sense of overwhelming melancholy. In a song by California’s hottest current export, Katy Perry. I realise this may be unusual, but it’s true. That’s the trouble with pop, and also perhaps its greatest strength: sometimes, even the most unassuming track can reach its fingers into your soul.

Listening to Firework repeatedly, I think this sense is created by the fact that, in the chorus, the melodic line never sits on the tonic at the same time as the bass-line; it’s as though the two parts are striving to coincide, but are never able to meet.

The contours of the melody in the chorus means that the line dwells on the supertonic – a Bb – a lot. It hovers between the tonic and the major third of the chord, unable really to settle on either and thereby establish the home key of Ab major. The supporting harmony moves to the relative minor, F minor and never allows the melody to assert Ab major in its constant motion to other keys whenever the melodic line tries to establish the home-key.

The overall effect is to create (if you’ll excuse the unintentional pun) dischord between the top and bottom parts; always trying to work together, never able to.

Additionally, there’s the detached crotchet ostinato in the violins that begins in the bridge section (‘ignite the light and let it shine’, beginning at 46”) and carrying on into the verse – the repeated falling figures C-Bb / Db – C / Bb – Ab – which revolve unendingly in between a melodic line that’s struggling to ascend but can’t escape and ends up falling backwards, and a throbbing bass-line cycling through the same harmonies over and over again.

Finally, there’s the moment at the end of the bridge section where the melody lands on an F – the last syllable of ‘fourth of Ju-ly,’ creating a descending shape C – Ab – F; the harmony moves from F minor to Db major, the notes of the melody can exist in both keys, and the C has changed from being the fifth note of F minor to being the major seventh of Db major. There’s always a bittersweet feeling about major-seventh chords, to my ears at least, and the move from minor to major (sorry, Ella Fitzgerald), and major seventh chord at that, has a real emotional pull.

Of course, this is a very analytical way of looking at what the music is doing, and doesn’t quite fully explain how, or why, all these elements work together to create that melancholic sense. And that’s another of music’s strengths, too: the more you try to analyse what’s happening and how a particular emotional response is created, the more it slips through your fingers (sorry, Princess Leia).

(Alas the bubble bursts at 2’50” when the lyrics suddenly let the song down and rhyme ‘Boom, boom, boom!’ with ‘moon, moon, moon!’ I mean, come on, that’s just sheer laziness; and don’t blather on about half-rhymes, either: boom and moon just do NOT rhyme).

Public spats with Lily Allen aside, there’s something to be found in Perry’s song. Listen for yourself.

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