The Head and the Heart of Song Choruses

“My songs are filled with hope,” Bruce Springsteen once told Terry Gross in an NPR interview. (Actually, I’m quoting Sarah Vowell’s transcription here, just to make the attribution a shade more complicated. But anyway).

“My songs are filled with hope,” [Springsteen] answered. And in ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ he explained, “The pride was in the chorus… In my songs… The hope part is in the choruses. The blues… your daily realities… are in the verses.”

That’s a pretty common configuration, in Springsteen’s songs and elsewhere. The verses do the thematic heavy lifting and go to the darkest places, and and then the choruses provide some relief. The verses inhale, the choruses exhale.

Macklemore’s “Same Love” employs a similar verse/chorus relationship, but does so for the sake of structuring an argument. The verses contain all manner of rational advocacy for gay rights—relevant personal anecdotes, pleas to social justice, clear examples of how prejudiced language can blunt our emptahy—and the choruses punctuate these intellectual points with a purely emotional appeal in the form of Mary Lambert’s sung lines: “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to,” and “My love, my love, my love, she keeps me warm.”

In this case it’s less breathing in and breathing out, and more a one-two punch.

“Same Love” is a song that wants to convince you of something, but the verse/chorus relationship I’m describing is equally effective in the mouth of a character trying to convince himself of something. Think about most of Guiteau’s parts in Assassins, or more recently, “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon.

Or consider one of my favorite recent examples, Captain Ahab’s song “Pornography.” (As the title implies, we’re now officially in NSFW territory). This is a song about a guy trying to convince himself that a terrible idea is, in fact, the best idea he’s ever had. The choruses convey the questionable notion in question: that making porn with his barely-described significant other, and/or with unknowing participants via a “secret camera,” will solve all of his financial problems—and rather than repeating or embellishing a single melody, the verses shift and change along with the protagonist’s rationalizations.

He eventually loops back to where he started in the first verse, both lyrically and melodically, but not before working out the increasingly grandiose particulars of the plan and, with more pathos than the jokey premise initially seems to deserve, explaining the aspirations/desperation behind his present line of thinking. (Again, NSFW).

That reveal right before the repeat of the first verse—”I just want to treat you the way that you deserve”—has so much going for it. There is the aforementioned note of pathos, yes, but the protagonist of the song is also doubling down on his creepy, possessive, just-this-side-of-misogynistic attitude. Then a muted chorus, with steeled resolve (yes, this is a good idea!) and a final one with renewed abandon (yes, yes, yes, this is a great idea!) Then that wandering, noisy ending that seems to say eh, whatever. It was a dumb idea anyway.

In each of these examples, the chorus conveys a single idea, a single point, and each verse is a divergent path (direct or indirect) to that same point. These verses depict minds going miles per minute, while the choruses state a unifying theme that, whatever is in motion around them and regardless of the ideas themselves, somehow stay utterly fixed, reassuringly solid, endlessly convincing.

When that central, repeated idea is a beautiful one, you get an ode to progress and a plea for action. When the idea is shaky or absurd, you get comedy. When it’s a little of both, you get gallows humor (literally, in the case of Assassins). But what you get regardless is a viscerally, subliminally affecting mode of persuasion.

The whole verse, chorus, verse thing doesn’t just stick around because it’s convenient and familiar. It also sticks around because, in all sorts of ways we might not consciously realize, it works.

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