This music has bite

Mainstream pop is generally dismissed as formulaic. So often, though, it’s anything but
September 6, 2023

The grand return of a pop prodigy is always a well-considered matter: release date, music video, haircut, all must be weighed and measured. But no element, of course, is more important than the comeback song itself. 

In the case of American singer Olivia Rodrigo—famed for her record-breaking 2021 hit “drivers license”—the chosen track is “vampire”, a song about a naive young woman falling prey to a manipulative older lover, complete with spirited chorus and some well-placed cussing.

A co-write between Rodrigo and producer Dan Nigro, it’s a delicious pop number, driven by a kind of fury, and setting out the same heartbreak whodunnit as Carly Simon and Taylor Swift did before her; fans now poring, forensically, over Rodrigo’s dating history to identify the culprit.

Still, once the dust of speculation settles, the most compelling element of “vampire” is, in fact, the intricacy of its construction. At its foundations, it is a three-minute-and-39-second song in the key of F major, with a tempo of 67 beats per minute, and a familiar verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format.

It’s a classic length and tone for a pop number—“Free Fallin’” and “You Can Call Me Al” both fall in F major, as do the Divinyls’s “I Touch Myself” and Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”. You’ll recognise the structure, too, perhaps from “Fix You” by Coldplay, or “Happy” by Pharrell.

Tempo-wise, it starts a little slower than most—in the steady gait of Adele’s “Someone Like You” or Sade’s “Your Love Is King”. But over the course of the track it gathers pace, bringing an emotional shift from lovelorn piano ballad to frenzied synths and then to an abrupt halt.

Rodrigo has described the song as her version of a rock opera. “At first, I thought it was meant to be a piano ballad,” she said. “But when Dan and I started working on it, we juxtaposed the lyrics with these big drums and crazy tempo changes. Now it’s like a heartbreak song you can dance to.”

The more you listen to “vampire”, the more strange and masterful it appears. An unlikely melding of ELO and Taylor Swift, before Rodrigo seems to step into the Tardis and suddenly disappear in a great woosh. What she and Nigro have captured is the physical sensation of exasperated love; the peak and trough of the string-along.

“You reel it in and you spit it back out,” is how the singer described those heightened feelings. “We wanted to do a song that just crescendoed the whole time, and it reflects the pent-up anger that you have for a situation.”

Pop is often far more adventurous than other musical genres

We often dismiss pop music as formulaic; the musical equivalent of Hallmark movies or Mills & Boon novels. We regard it with the semi-sneer we keep for anything mass-produced; as if we might flip it over and find “Made in China” stamped beneath. Sure, they might sell well and widely, but was there anything real about the songs of the Stock Aitken Waterman production team in the pink of their 1980s success—filling the charts with bubblegum songs, sung by repurposed TV soap stars? And when Xenomania took up their mantle, was there genuine emotional heft to the hits they wrote for Cher, Girls Aloud and the Sugababes?

In truth, pop is often far more adventurous than other musical genres; quick to reinvention, one ear to the street, magpie-ish, ingenious, with a slang-like wit and momentum. We need only listen to recent releases by Beyoncé and Caroline Polachek, Self Esteem and Rosalía to appreciate that these are not just entertainers, but modernists of a sort.

Not for nothing was the pop songwriting of Berry Gordy’s Motown likened to the assembly lines of Henry Ford’s motor plants. And those who congregated around Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building—Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector, Paul Simon and Lou Reed among them—were scientists as much as songwriters.

That pop is a genre dominated by and aimed at young women is part of the dismissal, and arguably part of a broader issue—the casual, entrenched disregard for the needs and wants of women and girls.

In Rodrigo’s “vampire”, as with “drivers license”, her youth and gender become part of the story—there explicitly in its lyrics, of course, but also in the calculation of its sound: a sense of impotence followed by a rising force, a melodic rebellion, the kind of revenge you can dance to.

Listen to Laura’s selection of envelope-pushing pop songs.