Regina Fojas      [  A–     JMS]

Music & Formal Analysis

Professor Saslow

On Thursday, September 24, 2009 I attended an “iTunes Live from SoHo” jam session featuring the indie pop band named Phoenix. The Apple Store in SoHo, between Prince and Greene Street, sponsors free live concerts from a variety of artists such as British soul singer Adele to Reggae singer Ziggy Marley. Caution: Do not be fooled by the Phoenix’s American name because the members that make up Phoenix are French. The five-member band hails from the suburbs of Versailles, France. The entire band sings in English as well and most of the night’s set list came from the newly debuted fourth album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.” Considering that this concert was free I waited on a line that snaked around the geometrically designed and very white and bright Apple store for an hour and half. However, the wait did not stop the flow of excited energy that ran throughout Phoenix’s fans. The constant chatter was definitely a sign that they were not going anywhere. The audience did not vary much in age and was composed of primarily trendy dressed local college students who were probably from New York University (NYU). Surprisingly there were also many foreigners in their twenties and thirties. Bits of Spanish, French and German floated in the air as my friends and I waited to be ushered onto the second floor of the store where a small and relatively low black stage had been set up for this intimate performance. All in all the audience was either European or Caucasian American.

Phoenix is categorized under the genre of indie pop, which is characterized by danceable beats, strong percussion in the form of drums, tambourines, synthesizers, keyboards, bass and guitar. Indie pop is abbreviated for Independent Popular music. Most musicians who are categorized under this genre are usually signed to a small label company and fall below the radar of well known bands that work under major record labels such as Sony Music Entertainment. Indie pop is also similar to the pop music of the 1980s when the combination of rock and electric beats, courtesy of synthesizers, dominated the music airwaves. In fact, before Phoenix became popular throughout Europe and the United States, the band started off by playing Prince covers in bars. As I watched the French men of Phoenix walk on stage, I realized that in all of the alternative, pop and rock bands I have watched, these guys were the best dressed. They were clad in skinny jeans, pressed button-downs and scarves, which were not needed in the post-summer warmth of September. Unfortunately, I was placed standing up in the back row and had to tiptoe to catch glimpses of the band.  I presumed that my poor location would spoil my concert experience, but the sheer volume of the band made me think otherwise. Once the sticks hit the skins of the drums, I could feel the strong joyful beat against my chest and was delighted to hear the upbeat, giddy chords that were played on the keyboard.

In contrast to their semi-formal and chic clothes, these lean bodied musicians created a vibe so danceable that everybody around me was moving their heads and bodies. Considering the fact that audience member were all about six inches apart from each other, dancing widely was not an option. Nevertheless, two female college students in the center of the crowd decided to spin around in circles obnoxiously while everybody swayed consciously beside them. If an aerial video were ever taken of this concert, everybody would all look like bobble heads that were moving to the strong disco-like beats of Phoenix.

Phoenix’s music has a whimsical feel to its songs that start off with firm percussion contributed by drums. This cheery reaction is created by the use of major key tonality. Since Phoenix maintains basic rock and pop song structures, its volume is louder compared to classical music and it is also fast-paced, which can account for the audience dancing in place. The pieces are short, but repetitive, which is also the reason this band’s songs are subject to humming and replay. In the song, “Lasso,” the lead singer, Thomas Mars sings, in a very distinct, but subtle voice, tampered with synthesizers, “Where would you go? Where would go with a lasso? Could you run into? Could you run into? Could you go run into me?” The repetition of lyrics and the constant rhythm makes this and most of the band’s songs very catchy. It shows that the singer’s voice is not the spotlight of the show. In fact, Mars’ voice blends in smoothly with the use of mild rhythmic syncopation. This is reflective of homo-rhythm, which means that voice and lines of music move in the same rhythm.  There was little use of dynamics and the overall volume of the set list was kept constant. In reference to “Lasso,” the syncopation is heard through the twang of the electric guitar combined with staccato keyboard chords. The drums and the bass guitar support the electric guitar and keyboards.

Furthermore, the drummer makes more use of the bass drum, floor tom and snare drum than the crash cymbal and hi-hat in “Lasso.” This creates a very low, deep and constant back beat. There is also some extensive vamping by the synthesizers. Vamping is a short, simple introductory passage in a song that is usually repeated until otherwise instructed. The synthesizers give the music an electric touch that hypnotizes the audience to endless head bobbing throughout the performance. This later highlighted in the song “Girlfriend,” whose beginning starts off with a several single major notes in a repetitive pattern or rhythm produced by the electric keyboards. This made me want to move my head from side to side and smile because the song’s start was a simple and happy beat. Thomas Mars’ voice is then exaggerated subtly as he drones out the word “Girlfriend…” Again, like most of the band’s songs, lyrics are repeated for effect in accordance to the melody.

In regards to lyrics, which are a major part of any pop or rock song Phoenix follows the basic structure. The use of lyrics in the band’s song also signifies this as program music. In a basic rock or pop song there is usually an introduction, two verse changes with a chorus in between, a bridge and then a repeat of the chorus until the music fades. As stated previously, Phoenix uses repetition to elaborate rhythm and melody. Even though I was not familiar with all of the band’s songs, the constant emphasis and repetition of the chorus made it impossible to not sing along  with Thomas Mars. However, I did not know whether I was actually singing the right words, or just repeating the phrases I heard. So, after the concert I decided to look up the lyrics of the band’s playlist. This post-concert response was evidence of the instant love I had for Phoenix that was effected by its sugary music. After some research, I was not surprised that I was incorrect in my humming. Because the band is from France, the members obviously have accents that made some lyrics such as “Do let/ do let/do let jugulate/do let/do let do” in the single “Lisztomania” sound like “Too late/too late/too late/too late chocolate.”

While reading the lyrics, I made an attempt to understand the meaning behind the phrases. However, the lyrics of Lisztomania made me more confused and as I much I as would have liked to understand the poetic message conveyed in them I would have rather dance along. The chorus of the song, for example, goes “Lisztomania/ Think less but see it grow/ Like a riot/ Like a riot oh!/ I’m not easily offended/ It’s not hard to let it go/ From the mess to the masses.” I am not sure whether Thomas Mars is referring to the composer Franz Liszt, the movie about the musician entitled “Lisztomania” or something entirely of his own. Moreover, most of the songs’ lyrics from the set list were more like contemplative poems that contrasted with the upbeat feel of the music.  Nevertheless, most of the crowd seemed to be more interested and involved with the rhythm of Phoenix’s music than the band’s poetic lyrics. With eyes closed and bodies swaying Phoenix created more of a physical response than intellectually stimulating one.

If there is a response or an emotion that is evoked in me which signifies that I have enjoyed a concert, it is that the band’s music enabled me to escape from reality during its hour-long set. Phoenix’s performance definitely did that for me. Once the keyboardist’s fingers hit chords and the drummer proceeded with a backbeat, the rhythm infected me. I could literally feel the beat bumping through my toes and then travel up to my chest. I remember looking at my friend when the first notes of the happy-go-lucky song “Lisztomania” were first played. We both smiled surprised that this band’s songs were so sunny. As the songs melded from one to another, I could not get enough of the cheerful sounds of this band. If Phoenix’s goal was to create music that would summon its audience to forget its inhibitions and just move, sway or bobble to the rhythm of songs, than the band was more than successful. Everybody who left the Apple store that night, including me, were raving about the electric energy created by Phoenix.