Scream: On Kelis, Human Capital, & Music
Let’s look at Kelis first.
What “Screaming” Means
This tarrying with an upper asymptote, transgressing it, and then turning that transgression into profitable signal organizes the song’s main musical gestures: its climax and its conclusion.
Musical Screams: Soars
“Scream” uses the EDM-pop technique of the “soar” to build up to climaxes, and to indicate the song’s end. In general, soars evoke and/or actualize musical “screams”: they generate implied or explicit noise, and use that noise to amplify the song’s big musical climax or payoff. That’s the musical economy of the scream-soar: it generates noise and processes it into musical profit. In this particular track, however, the song screams while Kelis does not. Why doesn’t Kelis scream? And why does the intensity of her vocal delivery appear to be inversely proportional to the intensity of the instruments’ screams? A close reading of the song’s structure–i.e., its soars and plumets–will help me explain the musical economy of the scream-soar and consider the significance of Kelis’s non-screaming.
Assuming 4/4 meter, the song is composed of 4-bar modules arranged in A-A-B-C-C-C1-C1-A-A-B1-C-C-A-A-B1.1. The musical screams happen in B1 and B1.1. In this table, each row represents 1 4-bar module.
|B||It’s not enough to live, so just dream
It’s not enough to live, so just dream
|It’s not enought to live, so just dream
It’s not enough to say, so just…scream
|C||You’ll never know
if you don’t let it out
[treble synth default pitch, descending in pitch at end]
|You’ve had enough
they’ll call your bluff
|[treble synth octave jump, rising in pitch at end of consequent phrase, further intensifying]|
|C||You can’t back down, lost in a crowd/You’ve won the right to let it out
They’ll talk about you’ve lost your cool/There is no point who makes the rules
|[pace of vocal delivery doubles]|
|So let’s get to it, now you’ll prove it/Break out, scream and shout
Scream and shout, scream and shout/scream and shout……
|[wooshing sound begins, rises, peaks, starts falling on last “scream and shout”]
[scream and shout always on last 2 beats of measure]
|C1||continued pitch-descent in stuttery synth & dying-out of wooshing sound|
|minimal soar: the eighth-note ostinato in the bass gets increasingly louder as we approach the downbeat of A.|
|B1||last 2 bars, stuttery synth increasingly prominent & distorted||successful scream|
|soar/scream builds as treble synth passes past threshold of rhythmic perception (hear solid block, not distinct rhythmic patterns)|
|C||failed soar, but experienced as plateau…|
|no C1 this time; directly into A|
|A||final verse, feels like continuation of CC plateau|
|B1.1||just like B1, but last measure deflates–a nose-dive rather than a soar|
In the second verse, we’re back where we started, running in place. This time, however, we gain enough momentum to give B the oomph it needs to be a genuine, successful scream–B1 is thus an intensification of B. The scream is most clearly demonstrated by the stuttery synth: as it increases in pitch (as in B), it also increases in rhythmic intensity; its signature rhythmic pattern gets exponentially faster and faster. This part breaks through to the musical foreground in the last half of the first four-bar phrase of B1. It is increasingly distorted throughout the rest of this measure up to the third beat of the following measure. This distortion builds the soar: the rhythmic pattern gets exponentially faster, the pitch gets higher, and the timbre is pushed “into the red.” The soar crests in a scream in the third and fourth beats of the second measure of the second four-bar phrase in B1. Here, the rhythm outpaces our faculty of auditory discrimination–we hear it as a solid block of sound, not as a pattern of individual events. The song screams by crossing the threshold of our auditory perception; it overdrives our ears, and we hear this as a scream. I’ll consider the significance of this scream in more detail below. For now I want to continue on explaining the song’s form.
In B1 we have soared up to a new, higher plateau. The omission of a deflating/decelerating C1 section from the next CC-AA repetition indicates that we’re no longer running place–we actually went somewhere. We may not be at the peak yet, but we’ve progressed past our starting point. And we stay here all the way through to the last two measures of the song, which is an riff on B1. B1.1 starts to soar up to a scream just as B1 does, but, in the last measure it does not push past the peak in a scream, but nosedives, rapidly free-falling away from the peak. The soar marks the song’s climax, and this plunge marks the song’s end. Screaming does musical work; it’s not extraneous to the real music, it is the most functionally important part of the song’s composition.
Kelis doesn’t scream…or does she?
Kelis never actually screams in this song. She only ever under-drives her voice, going from singing down to speech/recitative. The most musically climactic moments are accompanied by Chicks-on-Speed-style white-girl rapping. For example, at the climax of the actual scream in B1, Kelis says “sound…the alarm” in a very measured, deadpan, almost affect-less and robotic way. The blank affect and hyperquantized rhythm of her vocal delivery do the opposite of “scream”–she’s not overdriving beyond our capacity to measure and/or control, she’s almost overdriving measure and control itself. Instead of using moderation or balance as instruments to achieve the most intensely saturated experiences–i.e., to push the song as far into the red as possible without blowing the speakers or our ears–Kelis appears to intensify the practice of moderation itself. This under-driving can be interpreted in a number of ways:
So, I’ll get to Usher in a later post. Be on the lookout!
Also, this is going to be part of what I currently imagine as the preface to one of my manuscripts-in-progress, so feedback would be much appreciated!