Let's return to a recurring theme here -- that you should ignore the musical takes and tastes of people who can't dance. Music & dance are as inseparable as smell & taste. We ignore food critics who are nose-blind to all smells, and we ignore art critics who are color-blind. So too do we ignore music critics who have two left feet.
A previous post looked into the use of 5-beat measures in Balkan pop music (really, a 2-beat unit followed by a 3-beat unit), tying this unusual time signature to its use in the dances that accompany it.
Several comments beginning here on "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen looked at the use of empty beats, an out-of-phase shift between lyrical and musical rhythm, and a call-and-response use of empty beats in the chorus, all of which evoke her stubborn plodding hesitancy to approach her crush, and needing an external shove to push her right into his space, if she couldn't muster the will all on her own.
I will never discuss unusual rhythms or time signatures in the context of prog rock, out-there forms of jazz, or anything cerebral like that, where it's mainly being done for its own sake, just to sound novel and cool -- rather than to support a dance that requires such a rhythm, or to evoke the bodily motions of the characters in the lyrics. That disembodies music from dance, and music that is unmotivated corporeally is a no-go.
The next song in the series will be "Ordinary Day" by Vanessa Carlton (2002).
This analysis will be pretty in-depth formally, and you might wonder why? It's just a pop song. Well, this one is a contender for being a pop masterpiece, not just radio filler. And almost no aesthetic criticism does formal analysis these days, to clearly uncover what is going on with a work of art. You can cry about it being like ruining a magic act by explaining, in mechanistic detail, how it was done. But we need to understand how the components of a work, and their interactions, make it what it is at the holistic gestalt "like it or hate it" level.
Otherwise, we can just stick with writing one-line reviews with a thumbs up or down, to recommend it or not to potential audiences. But that's a whole different function of a reviewer / critic, and not one that leads to any deeper understanding or appreciation of the work.
* * *
Although at first you assume a slow-tempo piano ballad by an introspective singer-songwriter is not going to have much going on rhythmically, this song will stick in your mind until you figure out why. And it's mainly the rhythm that's catching your attention, whether you're aware or not. I just happened to hear Fauna from Hololive sing this in karaoke, and it wouldn't get out of the back of my mind. So I gave the official release a few listens, and the unusual rhythms stood out. We will investigate the rhythm at increasingly higher levels of structure, or groupings of rhythmic units.
The time signature is 12/8, rare in pop music (or high music, for that matter). In this compound meter, there are 4 main units, each of which consists of 3 smaller units -- a heavy one followed by two weak ones. The initial heavy unit carries extra weight. The duration of each of these 12 tiny units is an 8th-note long. To help saying it aloud:
1-and-a 2-and-a 3-and-a 4-and-a ...
Those two weak notes trailing after the heavy note give this rhythm a feeling of weightlessness, gliding around, and floating. Heavy beats coincide with the delivery motion for the body, such as a foot landing on the ground, the leg reaching max extension during a kick, an arm reaching max extension when punching the air, and so on. Weak beats are for the winding-up motions that set up the delivery motion -- taking a foot off the ground, winding up a kick, winding up a punch, and so on.
With two weak notes, instead of only one, until the body becomes grounded again on the next heavy note, the legs stay in the air longer until landing. So the body feels more suspended in air, and there's more tension that builds up due to the feeling of floating further away until becoming grounded again. This reflects the mood of the singer, who feels somewhat carried off of her feet just from pining for her crush from afar, perhaps beginning to daydream about him, her attention drifting away from reality as much as her body is from the ground.
At the next level up in the rhythmic structure is the grouping of those 4 heavy notes -- but in fact, for most of the song, the 4th and final heavy note is silent (written as [X] below). Listen to the piano and the bass, which emphasize heavy notes 1, 2, 3, -- and then nothing on 4. They do come back in for the two weak notes after the silent 4th heavy note, though:
1 2 3 [X] and-a ...
The silent 4th beat corresponds to leaving the foot on the ground that was supposed to have been raised and landed on that beat. Since it has missed its intended beat and remains planted (written as [X] below), it lands on the next one in sequence, namely the 1st and heaviest beat of the following measure. Supposing you were doing a simple walk or march, and began with the L foot, then the steps would be:
L R L [X], R L R [X], L R L [X], R L R [X]
This empty beat at the end of each measure is therefore a bodily hesitation, leaving your foot grounded, as though unsure whether to continue pacing forward toward your destination or not. This mirrors the singer's emotional hesitation, about whether she should fully commit to approaching her crush, or keep her pining and daydreaming distance.
That foot is only frozen temporarily, though: it does land, albeit after a full beat of hesitation, but continuing her trajectory forward nonetheless. This shows that her emotional state is only wavering, hesitant, and anxious -- not that she's going to wimp out and close herself off altogether.
Each of these empty beats is like a little cliffhanger at the end of the measure -- oh no, what happened to her pacing? Will she carry herself forward, or is she going to just stay put, maybe even retreat? Great way of building tension at this level of the structure.
This also shows that the time signature is 12/8 rather than 6/8, which would be 2 main units of 3 notes, rather than 4 main units of 3 notes. There can be no cliffhangers with two units -- there has to at least be a beginning, then a middle, then a possible end. Cliffhangers and building tension assume there has been some change or direction before the empty spot -- and there can be no change, direction, or dynamics located within a single point. The cliffhanger empty beat after 3 present beats implies that those 4 are a cohesive whole and cannot be subdivided at that level.
See also someone else's old post showing that it is 12/8 rather than 6/8, looking at the chord progressions in the bass line. There are transitions after 4 beats, not after 2. Like me, that guy is not mainly into singer-songwriter piano ballads, but after he heard his daughter playing her CD, this song stuck in his mind and he had to figure it out -- turns out it was the rhythm that was so puzzlingly fascinating to his ear. His was the only post I found when googling to see if anyone else had noticed this song's unusual rhythm (and some database sites incorrectly categorize it as 3/4).
Now, what about those two weak notes that come back in after the empty 4th beat? That corresponds to the body movements needed to pick your frozen foot off the ground in order to make the next available heavy beat. Usually these weak notes don't need to be sounded, if they can assume you're walking at a normal uninterrupted pace. That's why they only play the heavy notes 1, 2, 3, not the "and-a" weak notes after them. Your mind and body can fill in the gaps between the heavy notes with those trailing weak notes.
But when your foot is frozen in hesitancy on the ground, you need to give it a little prodding and cajoling, just to pick it up off the ground. That's why those two weak notes get an overt sound -- what had gone assumed before, cannot be assumed now that your foot is frozen, and you need to say the quiet part loud to wake up that sluggish foot.
This bodily sensation mirrors the singer's emotional state, where she has to consciously will herself into going forward with her plan to talk to him, after a temporary hesitancy. And yet, this on-again / off-again pattern repeats every measure, showing that her emotional resolve is not strong enough to just slap herself once and go gung-ho -- she repeatedly feels too anxious, and repeatedly needs to will herself to commit to the plan. A one-time shot of courage would be reflected in a single burst of sound, or maybe a solo or bridge (a passage that only happens once).
At the next level up in the structure, these measures are arranged into passages, like a verse or chorus. Each verse is split into two halves, with 4 measures each, for 8 total. During the first 4 measures of a verse, the usual cliffhanger measure is used. But for the second 4 measures, this is only used for measures 6 and 8, while 5 and 7 now have their final beat filled in. This requires several listens to pick up on, but you must be noticing it unconsciously at first, you just can't pinpoint it precisely.
This progression over the course of a verse shows that she is gradually hesitating less and less as she approaches her crush. Maybe she simply finds more resolve from within, but given how crucial distance and proximity are in this song, it feels more like she's gaining confidence from him -- he's the strong guide she looks up to, and the closer she steps toward him, the more that his confidence rubs off on her.
During the chorus, there are 4 measures, and the cliffhanger rhythm is used for 1, 2, and 4, while the 3rd one has the final beat filled in. Similar effect as in the second half of the verse -- as he begins addressing her, and making her an offer to accompany him, her hesitancy is still there but is waning. She hasn't yet flown off with him, she's only being made an offer -- but that is enough to reduce her anxiety.
Then there is the brisk instrumental passage after the 2nd chorus, in which every measure has all beats filled in -- no more hesitancy, at all. And yet, no lyrics either -- this corresponds to her feeling whisked right off the ground by her crush, gliding around with no inhibitions, physical or emotional. Because they're soaring through the air now, the heavy notes are not matched with feet landing on the ground, but some other delivery motion -- imagine they're doing a darting movement, like a breaststroke swim through the air, and the heavy notes indicate each major sweeping-back motion of the arms and full extension of the legs kicking back. But still, no heavy note being missed, no hesitation, whether physical or emotional.
The bridge is another passage where every measure has all 4 beats filled in. This is just picking up on the instrumental passage's theme, only now there are lyrics because he's making a different degree of an offer -- not to leave the ground, they've already done that, but to soar off to some specific star or other, to fly through the clouds, or some other decision that she could not have pondered while still back down on the ground. Something she can only commit to now that she's already chosen to leave the ground. She still feels no hesitation, physical or emotional, during this stage.
Then the 3rd verse seems to bring her crashing back down to the mundane realm -- that same ol' cliffhanger hesitation rhythm from the earlier two verses. And the next chorus is pretty similar to the others, only there's a repeat of the final line, so there are 5 measures. Only the 3rd and 4th measures have the final beat filled in. Now we're seemingly back to where we began, mirroring her doubts about whether the soaring climax of the instrumental and bridge sections was only just her imagination. And yet, he's back at her door, so it must have been real.
There is another brief instrumental passage, where once again all measures have the final beat filled in -- no hesitation. This is a concrete musical token of the reality of the previous climax. Without saying it in lyrics, this shows that it was real after all. She's not having another daydream, she's being taken through the air again, to reassure her that it was real. It's not as long and intense as the climax, because it's not a second climax -- just a brief reassurance. A less intense token that proves that the more intense climax was real.
Finally, just as she had to come down from the climax into the 3rd verse, she comes down from the reprise of the instrumental, now that she has been convinced that the climax was real. She doesn't need to experience this reassurance forever -- a brief demonstration will do. And now that she's back down on the ground again, the cliffhanger measures return -- and therefore, so has her tendency to hesitate, notwithstanding the rollercoaster of confidence she has been taken on.
That's more evidence that she got her major boost of confidence from him taking her on a ride. Now that she's on the ground by herself again, the most she can do is plod forward (better than staying frozen), rather than go full-steam-ahead as she could only have done with him guiding her along, radiating his nonchalant confidence onto little ol' (partially) anxious her.
* * *
I'll bet you never thought there was such a dazzling rhythmic rabbit-hole to go down in the realm of pop music -- just a song, just an ordinary song. But complex enough to inspire two unconnected writers to go in-depth about its rhythmic structure, after only a happenstance playing by a younger girl fan (usually written off as having pedestrian tastes). And yet you don't have to be able to explain analytically what its je ne sais quoi is, to appreciate it -- its YouTube video is one of those where all the comments are glowing, "most underrated song ever," and so on. One of the most memorable and enjoyable, for sure.