My Life Would Suck Without You/Where Have You Been All My Life: Tension-and-Release Structures In Tonal Rock and Non-Tonal EDM-Pop

In this post, I contrast the formal elements in the song and video for Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” with the formal elements in the song and video for Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been All My Life.” I will argue that the visual effects in the video mirror the different compositional strategies used in each song: Clarkson’s is a traditional tonal rock song, which uses harmony to build and resolve dissonance, whereas Rihanna’s is an EDM-influenced song, which uses rhythmic and timbral intensification to build and exacerbate tension or anticipation (without necessarily resolvingit). So, there are two different models of building tension in a song—one where the tension is built and then resolved, and one where tension is built, and built, and built, and perhaps dissipated or released, but not resolved. Why care about building tension in a song? Well, the tension is what we like, what we find aesthetically pleasurable. It’s what gives a song a sense of drive, forward motion, etc. It’s what brings the “spine tingly” moments in a song. These are common strategies found in lots of songs on the US Top 40 charts right now. I chose these two songs because the visual strategies used in the videos mirror the compositional structures used in the songs. So, even if you don’t know anything about music, you can see what’s going on in the music by watching the videos.
Why is this distinction between these two models of tension-and-release significant? Certainly it tells us something about different ways of organizing a song. But what’s behind these different compositional strategies? Is there significance beyond music theory, and if so, what is it?
Well, of course there’s significance beyond music theory—because music theory is itself always embedded in broader epistemic, cultural, and political epistemic conditions. I’m working on a book project in which I argue that what Foucault calls the classically liberal “subject of exchange” (the contracting individual who gives up some rights in exchange for security) and the neoliberal “subject of competition” (the entrepreneur of hirself) are manifest in tonal and post-tonal systems of musical organization/composition, respectively. Exchange, as a structure of subjectivity, informs both classically liberal models of the self, and tonal compositional models. Entrepresureship/competition, as a structure of subjectivity, informs both neoliberal models of the self, and contemporary EDM-Pop compositional models. So, I’m interested in the contrast between the Clarkson and Rihanna tracks because they are clear, but small-scale models of different types of social organization. Foucault’s framework helps us understand something musicological and theorietical about contemporary pop, and these songs in turn help us fill out our understanding of liberalisms.
Clarkson’s Traditional Rock Climax
Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” is a pretty standard rock-pop song. Formally, it is organized by a verse-chorus-verse structure, and it uses tonal harmony to build and release tension. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the music, because I want this to be accessible to non-musicians.
 I’m also going to keep the analysis of Clarkson’s song pretty basic because it uses a standard, widely-known and analyzed form (so, I wouldn’t really be saying anything new in a more detailed analysis).
When watching the video, pay attention to two visual cues about the musicalstructure: first, the use of the floodlights in the “chorus” set (where KC is singing in front of her band); and second, the sexual tension between KC and her male partner in the narrative parts of the video, especially the kiss at the end.
Here’s a play-by-play of the main events in the song that are relevant for my analysis here:
Intro 0:00-0:14
First Verse: 0:14-0:41
Chorus: 0:41-1:09; notice the pitch on which KC sings the final “you”—it’s the “sol” or fifth of the song’s primary key.
Notice the use of the floodlights
Second Verse: 1:10-1:36
Notice again the use of the floodlights; she’s singing on the sol “cause we belong…”
Chorus: 1:36-2:04
Chorus 1.1 (aka the Break): 2:04-2:32
Starts sans floodlight flare
2:16 – becomes obvious “break” and not another repetition of the chorus. The sole function of the break is to build even MORE tension by interrupting VCV structure.
Chorus: 2:33-3:00
Chorus:3:00-3:38 A reiteration of the chorus decelerates the song and further resolves tension.
3:36-:38—final chord—even sealed with a kiss at the very end; both the harmonic and the relationship tension is resolved. She sings the final “you” on the tonic in the original key, emphasizing this by repeating the last “-ou” in “you.”
So, in the video, the floodlights point us to moments of relative harmonic resolution. The tension built in the verses is somewhat resolved in the chorus. The moments where the floodlights flare indicate points where listeners anticipate and ought to experience musical pleasure (the payoff for putting up with all the tension in the verses is the pleasure of this resolution).  Notice that the break, which is really a modified version of the chorus, does not begin with flaring floodlights. The absence of flaring lights here confirms that this visual device is meant to indicate musical resolution, because the break is not a point of resolution, but of tension-building. The verses are another musicalmeans of building tension. This musical tension is mirrored in the video’s narrative: the verses show us scenes where a couple fights, disagrees, and experiences a lot of dischord. Will the couple stay together, or split up? That question frames the video’s narrative arc. This arc is resolved at the very end of the video, in a kiss. The couple fights, but then they kiss and make up: tension is built, but ultimately resolved.  You can see in the video the song’s teleological tension-resolution musical organization.
This model of musical organization is very, very common. Traditional tonal rock songs build tension by introducing large-scale and small-scale dissonances; they build towards a climax. The climax is the point where we most want resolution. So, these sorts of compositions are teleological: they aim at a climax, which itself points to resolution. Resolution, in a tonal rock song, is the return to a consonant, generally root-position chord in the main key of the song. So, there are two main types of pleasure here: the pleasure in the building of tension, a sort of anticipatory tension, and the pleasure in the resolution, a sort of security.
Rihanna’s EDM Intensity
Resolution vs Release
Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been All My Life” is another song that is a great musicalexample of a particular type of composition, and has a video that visualizes the musical organization of the song. The video uses visual distortion—effects which play with the phasing of the frames, apparently distorting what is called “phi phenomenon”—to highlight and augment the song’s buildup of sonic intensity.
Rihanna’s song is organized differently than Clarkson’s. Rihanna’s is not a teleological tension-and-release composition. Though it still relies on some trad pop structures (a modified verse-chorus-verse structure, some use of tonal harmony (though at the middleground, not the background)), it uses a different model of tension-building and musical pleasure. It gets this model from contemporary EDM. Rihanna’s song does not build tension for the purpose of resolving it; rather, it modulates tension, augmenting and diminishing it as necessary so that it never falls above or below a certain range of intensity. Rihanna’s track does not resolve tension so much as dissipate it. As I will show, resolution isn’t particularly meaningful in this style of musical composition, because dissonance is not the source of tension—saturation and intensity are.
There is no resolution, just release. You can only resolve something that was at some point dissolute. In EDM, tension isn’t built through the introduction of dissonances (which destabilize, or threaten to destabilize, the tonal center); rather, tension is built through intensification. This tension is not experienced as the threat of dissolution, but the threat of hypersaturation; thus, pleasure doesn’t take the form of resolution so much as release. This tension needs to be dissipated, not domesticated.
Let’s watch and listen:
The song is built mainly from 15-second modlues. I’ve schematized this in the following chart, giving labels to each distinct section.
0:00-0:15 A
0:15-0:30 B
0:30-0:45 C
0:45-1:00 D
1:00-1:15 E—Main build; first visual distortion, usually every 5 seconds; brief pause at 1:13
1:15-1:30 F—First main “hit,” followed by dance break
1:30 A prime
1:45 B prime
2:00 C prime—some visual hesitation, but not the shaking distortion
2:15 D prime
2:30 E—Not E prime, but exact repetition of E from earlier. Same visual distortion, this time through rapid shifts from close-in to far-out shots
2:45 F—again, not F prime, just a repetition of F from earlier
3:00 F prime—dance break, this time with some visual distortion; this move to F prime also reverses the course of the song: the next three sections are a “fake out”—build through B and C, but return to tranquility of A, which dissipates tension, rather than further building to climax
3:15 B double prime
3:30 C double prime
3:45 A
So, what’s going on in this song? 
The song begins and ends at the lowest level of intensity; section A sounds relatively “chill” and relaxed compared to the rest of the composition. So, there is a large-scale valleyà peakàvalley structure. But there are also smaller-scale “waves” in the song. We build up to F (1:15), and then return to a slightly intensified version of A, A prime (1:30). The song then builds again to F, going through a full cycle of modules. However, at the end of F—which is not, as the other modules in this cycle, modified versions of their original articulation—we do not return again to A, but move to the first iteration of F prime. F original, the sub-climax of the first cycle, becomes, by its doubling, the climax of the large-scale structure, the “peak peak” so to speak. After reaching this primary peak, the song concludes with a fake-out: it moves to B double prime, as it should, if F prime occupies the slot which would usually go to a version of A. B double prime builds into C double prime, but instead of moving on to D double prime, we go backwards to A original. The song seems like it’s starting an other cycle of build-up, but then moves to dissipate tension instead.
How do the visual effects show this? Well, the visual effects indicate both the typeof tension that is being built, and where/when the tension is being built. I’ve briefly indicated the type of tension above: this is not the threat of dishesience, but the intensification of saturation. So the concern is not that the song, or the relationship, will fall apart; rather, the tension comes from the threat of oversaturation—that things will happen to rapidly, or in too great a number, for us to perceive. Our sense perception is pushed to its limit, threatened not with destruction but overabundance. Rihanna’s image is multiplied, layered, stuttered, vibrated, etc. These visual effects alter the rate at which frames and images pass on screen. Can our eyes keep up? Can they keep track of all the movement, can they stay focused, etc. Tension is created by pushing our sense perceptions to their limit.[i] The intensified rate of visual events mirrors the way the music builds tension by intensifying the rate, number, and perceptual qualities of musical eventsin the song. I’ve discussed this compositional technique here, with reference to LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” and “Sexy & I Know It.” Rihanna’s song exemplifies a generalized compositional strategy that is commonly used in EDM and EDM-pop. I call this strategy “frequency” because it is a system of alternating peaks and valleys—like a sine wave, a sound or light frequency, etc.
Contemporary EDM (e.g., those influenced by dubstep, or the “party rock” electro quite common in mainstream clubs in 2012) abandons narrative teleology for a neoliberal, biopolitical organizational strategy.[ii]This strategy maintains tension within defined maximum and minimum parameters. Instead of one main background climax and resolution (scaffolded with middle-ground and foreground-level climax/resolution events), contemporary EDM is a non-teleological series of peaks and valleys. 
Tension is built, over, say, 12 measures, and then it is released in a “hit” or climax. The climax is generally preceded by four beats of silence (which further builds anticipation), and lands on the downbeat of the first measure of the next 12-bar phrase. And the cycle begins again, with another 12-bar build towards a climax. This model is not teleological, but cyclical (though most EDM-pop songs use a combination of cyclical and teleological strategies). Cyclical, that is, like a sine wave or frequency. Tension is built and released, but it always stays within a defined minimum (valley) and maximum (peak); the song cycles through peaks and valleys, just like a sine wave does. Intensity can be intensified and dissipated, but it must remain within the specified range. 
In EDM-pop, this frequency strategy is used in combination with more traditional tactics, like large-scale teleological development, some harmony (which may or not be really functional), a loose verse-chorus-verse structure, etc. However, in clubs, some DJs will stick pretty strictly to the ateleological cyclical peak-valley structure. There’s no large-scale development across time, just up and down and up again, building and dropping off, only to build again. It’s as if the crowd expects to be maintained within a specified range of intensity, and the DJ can only drop things down so low, or build them up only so high. The mood, the aesthetic experience of music and dancing, the affective state of emotional and physical exhuberance—all of these must be kept within expected parameters. So, DJs cycle through relatively short builds, moving from valley to peak to valley to peak in 12 or 16 bar chunks.[iii]For someone like me, who’s used to more old school house and techno, the relatively short cycle from valley to peak can be very jarring and odd: DJs don’t develop grooves, they build peaks and valleys. So, there’s no real groove to get into: once you start getting into a groove, it builds and dissipates and we’re on to the next cycle.
The two models of musical organization used in Clarkson’s and Rihanna’s songs are grounded in different aspects of the physics of sound. Tonal harmony is a hierarchical system based on the order of harmonics in the overtone series. Songs are structured according to the inner logic of sound waves. EDM uses an organizational strategy modeled on the shape of sound waves themselves. A song is structured like a sound wave; a song is a macrocosm of the frequencies that compose it. 
So, frequency is a distinct model of musical composition. It is cyclical rather than teleological, and it cycles through peaks and valleys of intensity rather than introducing and resolving conflict. The primary purpose of this post is to detail the different musical strategies, but I do want to briefly indicate some reasons why I find this difference philosophically interesting.
Frequency, Foucault, Neoliberalism
Clarkson’s song and Rihanna’s song, in their differing compositional strategies, portray different models of subjectivity. Clarkson’s, like tonal songs generally, play into classically liberal/enlightenment structures of subjectivity. This is what Foucault calls the “subject of exchange”—the individual who gives up something (usually rights or liberties) in order to guarantee some security in return. This is the subject of the social contract (consent), of psychoanalysis (repression), narrative, etc.[iv] Adorno and Horkheimer describe this structure of subjectivity in their analysis of Odysseus in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Odysseus develops subjectivity by overcoming a series of challenges; he conquers these challenges so that he can return home. Persevering through risk, he finds security and resolution. Tonality creates tension by stoking harmonic “danger” in the form of dissonance. As musicologist Susan McClary explains, in tonality, “the danger posed by that ‘Other’ is raised to an excruciating level and then resolved, granting at least momentarily the experience of utopia” (16). Thus, as in tonality, “this kind of stimulus of danger will be one of the major implications of liberalism…everyday dangers appear, emerge, and spread everywhere” (Foucault BOB 67). So, tonality and classical liberalism are informed by the same structure of subjectivity.
Biopolitical neoliberalism and “frequency” are likewise informed by a shared structure of subjectivity, but a structure which differs from the classically liberal/tonal one. Just as frequency eschews resolution in favor of intensification, Foucault’s neoliberal subject “is never called upon to relinquish his interest” (BOB 275); instead, he ought to “directly multiply” it “without any transcendence” (ibid) or telos. This subject is not regulated by prohibitions (which require renunciation and domestication of desire), but by “the principle of maximum/minimum” (Foucault BOB 17). This subject tries to keep his experiences “at the boder between the too much and the to little, between the maximum and the minimum fixed for me by the nature of things” (Foucault BOB 19). The minimum is a valley, the maximum, a peak; once I hit either of these, I change course, cycling back to the alternate limit.
I’ll talk more extensively about Foucault’s distinction btw the subject of exchange and the neoliberal subject (of competition) in a later post. I’ll also talk about their connection to compositional practices in greater detail. But I’m already too far into tl;dr territory to do that analysis here.
Tonality and frequency perform two different structures of subjectivity. The tension-release dynamic in tonal songs will be experienced as pleasurable by listeners whose subjectivities follow classically liberal models. The tension-release dynamic in contemporary EDM/frequency songs will be experienced as pleasurable by listeners whose subjectivities follow neoliberal models. So, there’s much more at stake here than just musical taste or music theory. These different musical models speak to broader epistemic and political questions.
Coda: Where have you been all my li-i-i-i-i-ife?
You can also see this contrast in different approaches to vocal embellishment. Melisma is, and always has been, pitch-centric: melismas have to follow the laws of polyphonic voice leading (as in chant) or trace out specific intervals in a mode, scale, chord, or chromatic progression. But in contemporary EDM-oriented pop, melisma has been replaced with stuttering. Vowels aren’t sustained across many different pitches; rather, the vocal line is cut into, broken up, and stuttered according to a specific rhythmic pattern, all while staying on the same pitch. I’ll try to do a more extensive post on this shift from melisma to stuttering some other time.

[i]Interestingly and informatively, Taio Cruz’s “Believe In Me Now” performs this literally: the lyrics say “push it to the limit” as the musical intensity is being pushed to the limit. Watch 2:20-2:40 in this video:
[ii] I realize I’m being very vague in my categorization here. By “contemporary EDM” I mean more of a strategy than a specific genre. This strategy is used across genres and sub-genres of contemporary electronic dance music. I keep the lable “EDM” to distinguish these sorts of genres from older electronic dance music styles, such as drum n bass, house, techno, etc.
[iii] I was at a club in Charlotte this past week, and DJ Irene’s set was like this. DJ Irene live in 2011: and
[iv]The subject of right is, by definition, a subject…who agrees to a self-renunciation and splits himself, as it were, to be, at one level, the possessor of a number of natural and immediate rights, and, at another level, someone who agrees to the principle of relinquishing them and who is thereby constituted as a different subject of right superimposed on the first. (Foucault BoB 274)