(Originally posted: December 2, 2018)
"SAW ruined the charts in the late 80s. This was the reason I got into alternative music." -- "Bathsheba", anonymous forum poster, July 16th, 2008.
SAW? Not a band, but a production trio: Stock, Aitken, and Waterman. You haven't heard of them, but you've heard them. Let me explain: assume for a moment that you're a regular millennial internet user. Perhaps you've hit upon "You Spin Me Round". Seems like there's a whole cluster of songs that sound awfully familiar, danceable with a cheesy 80s vibe. Turns out they're all produced by this same trio. But, let's pretend it's all new, okay? We'll need fresh ears to understand what SAW did to the charts, and what alienated poor Bathsheba.
Click the button when you feel ready:
What's going on here? Almost without introduction, you're inside some overwhelmingly dense pop music. Completely synthesized, yet warm, vibrant and friendly? Banal, simple, yet curiously engaging? These are the paradoxes inherent in SAW's pop tenure. To straighten things out, to understand these higher-order effects, we'll have to understand the foundations. They produced hundreds of tunes using the same general formula. Get one and you'll get them all. Let's start digging.
What are the elements? The drums are a standard late-80s Linn-style kit. Thumping 4-to-the-floor kicks at 115 BPM, punch-you-in-the-face snares, little panned tom fills. Crash. The bassline is idiosyncratic: "woody" in that Yamaha FM-synth way, funky moving 16th notes. These elements don't change.
That's the easy stuff, and there's a lot left. Starting at the beginning, after the stabs and snare roll: (0:02) a thin synth-brass patch, introducing the chorus' vocal melody, topped with another classic Yamaha FM patch: the twinkly bells. A SAW standard. Left channel has proto-rave chord stabs in the background (cf. Gypsy Woman, same patch). A brief transitional phrase (0:18), and these elements cut out for the verse (0:22). The singer comes in, alongside a strum-like electric piano placed way in the background, and a plucky little countermelody in the right channel.
Steel drum fill (0:37), and we hit the pre-chorus, SAW's key strength. The vocals gain an upper harmony, and an airy, Fantasia-like pad appears. Music theory-wise: the song is in C major, but the pre-chorus has an out-of-key C minor chord. This minor-major pattern creates a "mysterious" mood and adds slight harmonic depth to an otherwise bland pop chord structure. The singer and synthesizers ascend and open up voice-wise as we move into the chorus (0:55), returning to that brass patch, the twinkly bells, etc.
That's an insane amount of stuff packed into 75 seconds of music. But the rest of the song doesn't add much: another verse-prechorus-chorus, then a chopped-up bridge where the brass and twinkly bells do a cute counterpoint. Repeat chorus and fade the hell out.
Phew, okay. How do these moving parts all relate to each other? As effective pop music, it coheres seamlessly into a whole. The kick and bass add motion and keep the song moving. Each aspect of verse-prechorus-chorus is brief, which keeps the song varied. Little, almost unnoticed details tie the pieces together: drum fills, crashes, stabs, slight variations on melodies. The melodic density (how many moving parts are there?) follows the typical pop formula: leave space for expression in the verse, use a dense arrangement in the chorus. This is where their mastery shows: each element "just fits".
What makes SAW unique is both the quantity at which they churned this stuff out, and the use of what was, at the time, relatively new digital equipment. They'd repeat this successful style again and again and again. My guess is that one of the trio would write some chords and melody, then they'd take turns adding elements, leading the songs to grow dense and complex in an organic way. Contrast this with the single-minded expressiveness of acclaimed indie or folk music and certain objections begin to make sense.
We need to take one more step upwards: all the elements seem to aesthetically fit, but into what? Ironically, this entire production is supporting... a teenage love song. The singer is dating a crush, her friend says "don't do it", the crush was cheating on the singer with her friend. But the song's aesthetics aren't depressive or sad. No, this is pop music.
The verse is wistful, regretful, yet matter-of-factly accepted. The pre-chorus communicates a more profound, anxious, liminal state: her friend about to reveal "the secret". The chorus is resigned, yet upbeat. The brass, bells, and vocals play in unison, a literal chorus, almost silly in its 1-2-3-4 melodic simplicity. "Cross my heart and hope to die" is playful in spite of its depressiveness, aided by the kitschy, major key accompaniment.
The above paragraph hints at an essential function of pop music. The pop song is happy in the face of despair. Some find optimism temperamentally unacceptable; authenticity often means reaching deep into the depths and dragging to light whatever you find. But "Cross My Broken Heart" is not emotionally syntonic, it's not authentic to the singer's feelings. No, this sort of pop music is emotionally aspirational. Goodbye, (I am sad, but) I will feel better. This lack of alignment might drive certain listeners into alternative music, but the pairing of sad content with happy tone resonates with many. Everyone faces struggles, sometimes you gotta keep going anyway, music and dance and play can help us repair. Sorry, Bathsheba.
One bit stands out as anomalous: the pre-chorus. For its brief span, you can feel a touch of anxiety, of a dizzying falling sensation, a hint at the "truth". This feeling, a sinking inevitability, is eroticized into "the drop" in modern dance music, although it's doubtful SAW were thinking in such terms. They took their pop and aesthetic sensibilities and built music. Sometimes the charts responded. Sometimes it spawned a massive hyperlinked meme. Given that we've now covered the mechanisms of their style in some detail, I can, in good faith, offer one of few honest links to this song, written by Stock, Aitken, and Waterman: