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Sorry for the snarky title, but I am genuinely curious if there is some fundamental musical properties to these songs that make them the "go-to" songs for their typical amateur performers. (Also, please don't take offense if you love either. My issue is with their tenacity, not with their quality):

First Song:

Title: What's Up?

Artist: 4 Non-Blondes

Typical Performer: High School or College stage actresses; other artsy younger females

In the above case, it's been awhile, but I lived in a college town area for several years, and it seems that whenever (and wherever) young women of a certain thespian prototype are asked to sing (or perhaps goaded into singing after they "accidentally" mentioned they sing a little), they belt out the wailing chorus of this tune. Everyone is more or less impressed (or at least grateful that it turned out better than expected) and the singer in question curtsies or blushes or whatever.

I always thought it had something to do with the notes being easy to hit (within a narrow range) yet staggered in such a way that made them sound further apart (again, music is my love, but not my strong suit). But then a friend of mine (totally not prompted by the above mystery) was telling me about how he got the chance to play a jug in a TradCore band and that he noticed that there was almost no way to play it out of key, because the notes are so low they basically "find" the nearest key (or I guess our ear does?) and matches up.

So now my amateur theory is that the 90's classic is actually popular among girls who want to sing like Cyndi Lauper but can't because the original (which they parrot almost perfectly) is in such an odd low pitch that even though the range is wide, it's pretty simple for anyone who can hit near the notes to sound like the song, and thus sound like they can sing.

If I haven't already made this clear, I'm here because I genuinely find this and the next trend a true musical phenomenon, not simply annoying or silly or a coincidence.

Second Song:

Title: Baby Got Back

Artist: Sir Mix-a-Lot

Typical Performer: Any white guy prompted to "bust some rhymes", but higher intoxication and fraternal affiliation increases likelihood dramatically

There is, of course, an irony that this is, if I had to bet, the one rap song every white guy (or at least white American) knows by heart. Or rather, if they only know one, this one is it. The song is not really about big butts, it's an anthem to black pride and black female beauty. Sure, it's not quite as safe to sing at a protest rally as James Brown's "I'm Black and I'm Proud", but fundamentally, Sir Mix-a-Lot was challenging the status quo of his time set by skinny super models and praising the sensuality of women of color, long shunned by Cosmo and the like.

And this irony, though I think missed by most of the non-black amateur performers, is a crucial part of its popularity and staying power. Not to mention the growing trend of white women with hips getting their day in the sun.

All of this makes sense, and, yes, it is annoying and almost insulting, especially at 4 am on a Tuesday night. Not just that they miss the point, but that they are impressed with themselves for knowing the words when everyone knows the words (even Apple had the bad taste to make an iPod ad with a dweeb doing the whole thing).

All of this annoys me, but here is where I'm confused:

Why are the lyrics so easy to recite? I know most of the words to a lot of rap songs (and country, and 50's rock), but I still always catch myself getting lines traversed, coming in too soon for that one part or another, general lyrical clumsiness (again, I love music, but am very much a white stereotype when it comes to rhythm and keeping the beat). But I, like so many others, can get this song almost perfect every time. Maybe half a line off here and there, but otherwise, right on tempo, all the words just right.

And what is more: I think this song may qualify as a "patter song", intentionally choppy and whatnot to make it more fun and tricky and tongue-twistery. But even if it's not quite at that level of a challenge, it stil doesn't change the fact that there are plenty of other songs (The Humpty Dance, Jump Around, Wild Thing) white people tend to prefer, yet mumble through most of, if they even really make the effort.

So is there a quality to this tune that makes it almost as easy to set your watch to as the Jeopardy! theme song?

Final Note:

Again, this really isn't meant to be insulting or a throw-away question. Amusing, perhaps, but I have genuinely heard girls from 17-30, from Portland, OR to Richmond, VA belt this tune out and end with a "yeah, didn't know I had those pipes, huh?" expression, while I have heard (and...yes...been one of the) guys of almost every age, not just white, but geeky South Asians, indie Latinos, any dude that is essentially not "street" or "thug" practically pee their pants reciting Baby Got Back like they were making it up on the spot.

I think they have this quality for different reasons, but I really do think it's built into the actually songs.

If I'm wrong, I'd really appreciate an informed explanation on either a) how this is not unique to these two songs or b) how these songs are not special (by which I mean, some basic breakdown of their musical attributes that reveal no secret).

I very much appreciate it. I've waited years for a site like this to ask this question.

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1 Answer 1

Addressing the Easy to Sing aspect:

For Four Non-Blondes' What's Up?, I think the fact that the melody in the refrain is a simple arpeggio of a major chord is what maks it easy to sing. If you can find (or, a cappella, choose) the A at the top, the F# and D follow naturally to anyone with sufficient familiary with the Western tradition of music.

What's Up? has a simple 3-chord progression (IIRC) A-Bm-D-A, which can be transposed to still easier progression G-Am-C-G. So the repetition makes it easy to "get under your fingers" quickly and focus on the emotions (no disrespect, but the lyrics contain little "intellectual" content).

Consider REM's Losing My Religion as a contrasting piece from the same period. It has a similar "lonely wondering" thematical quality, but to sound like the record you need a guitar and a mandolin. And the progression is not a simple loop, but twists and changes to suit the melody. So it requires much more split-attention to play and sing (even without a second string player).

For Sir Mix-a-Lot's Baby Got Back, I think the secret is in the drum-loop. It has a dense, booming part and then a "stop-time-feel" part. These alternating "feels" working like mile-markers; making it easy to judge where you are in the beat at any given point without much conscious effort. I haven't looked into this that closely, but I think Baby Got Back has a particularly long loop. As drum-machines and then digital sequencing came on to the scenes, finer controls allowed for finer details.

There's also a sparseness in the lyrical rhythms more akin to older rap like Sugar Hill Gang and Gil Scott-Heron. The rhymes are more "correct" than with experimentalists like Eminem.

Addressing the Enduring Appeal aspect:

I think the easy-to-play aspect plys a large supportive role in these pieces' enduring appeal. It makes them easy to remember.

But both pieces also stand out in their respective fields for their "inoffensive" content. They both lack "anger" and "violence", which is a GOOD THING. The repetition in the groove somehow doesn't feel repetitive, it just supports the lyrics with a firm ground.

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+1 for a sincere answer. I'll have to do a bit of homework to see if I can accept that my great mysteries have such straightforward answers. Specifically, for 4-Non-Blondes, is there not something that fits that profile, progression-wise that would compete for theater-girl acclaim? And for baby got back, I really like the foundation of your theory, but my extensive knowledge of hip hop (combined with my complete ignorance of percussion) makes me think that most pop-rap has a similar quality. Is that not the case? –  Anthony Apr 18 '12 at 3:32
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...Also, the "easy to follow the beat" aspect of the latter reminds me of a theory that Galileo actually figured out that objects travel at a constant velocity (regardless of mass) by rolling various sized objects down sloped planes while humming "Onward Christian Soldier". Apparently humans can keep time uncannily well through song far better than counting or any other non-mechanical/non-external means. Which is to add some credence to your "stop-time" idea, but also leaves open competition from other bawdy rap hits of its day (unless you can tell me for sure that this one takes the cake). –  Anthony Apr 18 '12 at 3:38
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It's Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello, and it's called Hudson Hawk. Nice one. –  Anthony Apr 18 '12 at 5:03
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They say a good answer saves a bad question :P +1. –  Matthew Read Apr 18 '12 at 21:07
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I think the What's Up chorus is easy to belt because of the shape of hey, which is pretty much the entire chorus. It's hard to sing it incorrectly because the pronunciation of the word lends good vocal set up in the same way that the photographer asking you to say 'cheese' makes you smile (somewhat). –  cornbread ninja Apr 20 '12 at 19:03

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