Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Songs #477 & 478 - It's TWOsday!

Song #477 of 9999                                    Song #478 of 9999

Title: Genie in a Bottle                              Title: ...Baby One More Time 
Christina Aguilera                          Artist: Britney Spears
Year: 1999                                                 Year: 1999
Christina Aguilera                        Album: ...Baby One More Time


While we all waited for the world to end (admit it, you bought and stored canned goods in anticipation of the Y2K bug), two former Mickey Mouse Club members emerged as harbingers of the forthcoming apocalypse. I'm kidding—they weren't as bad as they seemed at the time—but it is interesting that these barely legal nymphs showed up almost simultaneously to inject a little bit of teen raunch into popular music while simultaneously siphoning BPM from the dance circuit.

Setting aside the sex factor (NBC's worst fall offering!), let's examine the similarities between the debut singles of our two most popular turn-of-the-millennial singers. Both are in minor keys (F and C respectively) and clock in well under what we might consider to be dance tempos. Christina's tune slinks a little slower at approximately 88 BPM while Britney's struts in the 94 BPM range. Both fall into the range we would call Andante, which is Italian for "sexy walking tempo."

Harmonically, each song features a single chord progression that repeats for the duration of the song, through verse, chorus and even bridge (where applicable). Aguilera's synth-rich setting employs a descending ground bass technique (i VII VI V), which works well to showcase her considerable vocal talent, which was well-honed even at such a young age. But just in case it wasn't enough, the arranger worked overtime to fill every empty space with enough faux trumpet, piano and synth licks to create a polyphonic environment busy enough to satisfy even the shortest attention span.

Spears's single has a little more going on harmonically, some of it quite clever. The basic progression is i-V6-III-iv-V (Cm-G/B-Eb-Fm-G) with the last chord constantly being challenged by the dissonant (and "bluesy," I guess) Bb that appears in the piano riff that opens the piece. I think the motion from G/B to Eb is really cool (that's the technical term), and it points to a fundamental difference between these two tunes: where Xtina's bass consistently moves away from the tonic by descending step, Britney's approaches the tonic by ascending step. (you probably already knew this from the VH1 pop-up video) With fewer bells and whistles and a much weaker singer, Spears's song relies on better construction to get the job done. The best example of this comes during the chorus when the repetitive progression is interrupted at the best possible moment ("give me a siiiiiign") by a couple of quick chords on beats three and four (Ab Bb) before proceeding to the (Eb):

There's some additional harmonic trickery during the bridge that's really effective—again making use of the Ab Major chord (VI)—but the writers don't stray far from the original progression.

I'd be lying if I didn't say I think "Genie in a Bottle" holds up better than "...Baby One More Time" and it's primarily due to Aguilera's singing skill, although I do think both songs have merit. It's kind of interesting to compare the presentations of these two stars-to-be and hard not to believe the producers knew exactly what they had in each. I may be reading too much into this but I'll even put forth the supposition that Aguilera's LP debut is self-titled (i.e. "check out this new singer!") while Spears's is named for the title track (i.e. "check out this new song!") as proof.

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