Explaining the Genius of Lady Gaga—Using Music Theory

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 31 2014 11:25 PM

“Bad Romance,” Great Tritone

Explaining the genius of Lady Gaga—using music theory.

(Continued from Page 1)

I have to mention three non-music-theory-related points about “Bad Romance” in passing. First: The vocals on the chorus are cunningly mixed far louder than the verses, just to make sure we hear how great a chorus it is. Second: The signature spoken-word breakdown is no longer reminiscent of crass Peaches, but sexy Janet. Third: “Bad Romance” is, to the best of my knowledge, the only Gaga single to have its final chorus overdubbed with pop-diva-style vocal improvs.

The distinguishing compositional features of “Bad Romance” are mutations, odd alterations to her business as usual. Chiefly, the chorus (and song) begin on a VI chord instead of her favorite i chord. Structurally, the song is an epic, packing many parts into itself, reordering the structure and modifying the breakdown, a mutation on a mutation.

The chorus itself shifts and changes. It appears right off the top as the wordless “oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhh”—a melisma, a normal enough occurrence in pop, but Gaga hasn’t done melisma before or since. This melisma is just foreshadowing for the chorus proper, where it is replaced with the hook “I want your love and I want your revenge / you and me could write a bad romance.”

Advertisement

About that hook: Gaga has till now never used a “raised seventh,” which is unusual for someone who writes exclusively in minor keys. Now she does. In this chorus there is a changing accidental—the seventh note of the a-minor scale appears both as a G-natural and as a G-sharp.

Now, this raised seventh does something that would make Tchaikovsky proud. The melody appears twice per chorus, but over two distinctly different chord progressions (VI-VII-i-III the first time, VI-VII-V-i the second). The first time, “bad” appears as G-natural, leaping down a fourth to “romance.” The second time, “bad” appears as a G-sharp, leaping down a tritone.

,

That G-sharp wants to go upward. It wants to rise to the A, resolving the cadence as a music school freshman would have done. But Gaga goes down, leaving that “bad” leading note hanging. Why? Because she herself is bad. Further accentuating the badness of that “bad”: That interval, the tritone, is historically linked to sexual desire and the devil. Whether or not Lady Gaga is familiar with the specifics of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is irrelevant; she has scored a textbook-worthy usage of Western music theory’s favorite signifier for EVILDOING.

Aside from these important deviations, all the key features of Gagaism are here, those rules listed above. And this is why “Bad Romance” will endure forever, because all six of these other singles will only be heard as inferior sketches and imitations of the masterwork—in “Judas’ ” case, a poor photocopy, melismatic “ohhh” included. “Bad Romance” stands on the shoulders of these other, identically dressed, homelier singles, the star cheerleader, No. 1.

Before I get off this boat, I have to patch a couple of holes. I’ve been limiting my focus to the RedOne collaborations, plus “Paparazzi”.* A few words about the Gaga’s other singles:

“Born This Way” (U.S. No. 1) is Gaga’s biggest smash, her first in a major key. Now, I personally believe that originality in songwriting can extend outside the boundaries of melodic and harmonic creativity, but as far as Western music theory is concerned, that song was written by Madonna.

“Telephone” (featuring Beyoncé) (U.S. No. 3) and “Do What U Want” (featuring R. Kelly) (U.S. No. 13) are stylistically divergent duets, so they don’t count.

“Applause” (U.S. No. 4), the first single from Artpopconforms to most of the “traditional” tenets of Gaga’s writing—straight eighths, minor-key, repetitious simplicity—and it was a respectable success. In contrast, Born This Way’s strange and nonconforming misstep “Yoü and I” (U.S. No. 6 but lower elsewhere) was a minor hit by Gaga standards.

My most glaring omission, however, is “The Edge Of Glory” (U.S. No. 3), a big, exciting, major-key hit, which, honest to God, I’d heard and enjoyed a hundred times before typing this article but would’ve never guessed was Gaga. I am on a bus, I hum the chorus to the people sitting on both sides of me, and they know the song, but they also guess wrong. They thought it was Kelly Clarkson. I cite this as further proof of the efficacy of Gaga’s branding. Thanks for reading.

*RedOne is only featured on one track on Artpop, “Gypsy”; the scaling-down of his involvement was what inspired this piece.