This madman rambling blog post is a companion to my madman video here.
When Vox’s piece on “Videotape” featuring me went live, I had no idea what was coming.
First, some background if you’re just tuning in.
I was featured in a video from Vox recently, explaining how the main riff in Radiohead’s “Videotape” is syncopated, and that it’s so subtle, it’s basically hidden. When you realize how they wrote it, it presents a kind of audio illusion for your ears. It’s crazy.
The video in question:
A cover I made with a metronome track superimposed over it to help train your ears to hear the Hidden Syncopation as described in the video:
A week ago, I never could have imagined what would happen when 461K people on YouTube, 1.8M people on Facebook, and 1K+ upvotes on Reddit would descend on a video based on some of my original research about Radiohead’s masterpiece “Videotape,” and how there’s something hidden going on that, if you perceive it, changes the way you hear it forever. Or if you don’t want to make it sound all formal, it’s just an awesome fan theory, which argues that it’s the authors’ theory as well.
I should have known. It’s the internet after all.
But the response was wild. Estelle told me that with these kinds of things, there is one thousand times the feedback you are used to. And oh my, how TRUE that is.
People have been arguing with me left and right, dismissing the video, the concept, missing the whole point of it, etc. Lots of amazing, positive feedback, too! But as the person featured in the video, it was a whole new ballgame having my face attached to something so controversial and easily rejected or flatly denied out of hand.
But enough about my feelings. Let’s have something written to rebut the more common arguments I’ve seen.
Argument One: “It can’t be syncopated.”
This is the ironic bit. The idea that the song can’t be syncopated is actually what I thought in 2006 to 2010 or 2011. I managed to go a few years without ever detecting a hint of it this illusion.
Let’s dive in and hear an example of Jonny using Hidden Syncopation on “Idioteque” for the BBC. Listen for the downbeat. Try to clap along as soon as Jonny’s analog synth beat starts with these two beeps, one higher, one lower.
Did you notice how the downbeat shifted away from where you initially thought it was? That’s because Jonny messed with your head. Intentionally. He gave you something (I like to call it a “deceptive” or “false” downbeat), knowing your brain would hear it as the beat of the song. But he is thinking differently about the true downbeat; it occurs in between those initial beeps. And he reveals the context of that new downbeat rather quickly.
“Have you listened to their live BBC version of Idioteque? Listen to the downbeat in that one!” -Dude on YouTube
This link and the quote here were actually shared by a dissenting commenter on the Vox video. It’s absurd humor to me, because what he said actually supports my view as described above… But I’m glad he shared it anyway, because not only did it validate what I was saying in a new way, it also helped me process what the experience of hearing an example of Hidden Syncopation is like for the first time listener to a song that utilizes it. That process is something like this:
1. You hear something which suggests a downbeat to you. Maybe you start bobbing your head or clapping.
2A. Then you hear something new which sounds fine, it just adds context.
AND LATER, OR:
2B or 3. At a certain point, your hearing experiences some disorientation when context is added. A “new” downbeat has presented itself, and your ears struggle for a moment in confusion as they re-orient to the (same) timing relationships, but relationships that now sound totally different.
3B or 4. Your ears settle into the new downbeat, and you either realize Jonny did something amazing or you just felt disoriented momentarily, but are still rocking to the beat.
The reason the Hidden Syncopation (I keep capitalizing this concept because in my view it isn’t talked about enough in music analysis) in “Videotape” is SO HARD to hear is because of the following:
Points 2B/3 and 3B/4 above never happen for some people. Without points 3 and 4 you never even hear it that way. Phil’s simple backbeat pattern (same as “Bodysnatchers” beat) in 2006 was been transcribed by a PhD student for me. His transcription indicated he heard the backbeat as… well… not a backbeat. What the band (I argue) hears as eighths, he heard as sixteenths, with snare hits emphasizing the “a” of 1 and so on, and so forth. It blew my mind that a PhD student of music also didn’t perceive it. And also sparked my Twitter fingers… And I would think to myself: “Am I crazy? Is this guy right? Did my original research and subsequent argument amount to mental gymnastics and absurdity — WAIT HOLD ON FOR A SECOND.”
Then I remembered.
And yes I can argue that the keyboard is playing off the beat throughout every version of the song based on a very syncopated drumbeat that last for 45 seconds in one version of the song. That’s exactly what I’m doing.
(People mostly approached with the “Death of the Author”-style philosophy/musicological arguments to say we shouldn’t use context like performance cues or interviews or quotes from the band at all in our music analysis.)
Another problem raised was the transcription Vox provided, which seemed to change tempo/subdivision. I’ll explain:
Twitter debates are a mess — https://twitter.com/squeakysleep/status/893925742605512704
Great debate we had there, by the way. We almost did a live debate but she conceded eventually that my view was consistent with itself, though Vox’s choice (with my blessing, too) set her and other musicians up for a bit of a bumpy ride. She had a bone to pick with Vox (and therefore, me) because Vox wrote the piano as four quarter notes on the beat, and then proceeded to explain how the piano was actually not that. But Vox did not explain until the addendum they had me add at the end (at my request) that the band actually hears the tempo twice as fast because of the 909 hi-hats and rim knocks on the backbeat, or 2, 3, 4. This led to some confusion with sincere and smart musicians who tore into it right away. But the problem is that Vox HAD to present it as four quarter notes (at half the tempo) because it was an introduction for the listener who didn’t know the song to be introduced to the song’s false downbeat. They had to. And if they showed the “correct” transcription in the beginning (they did later, unfortunately to more confusion) the video wouldn’t have made sense because the piano literally has nothing surrounding it to give it that double-time context! The Vox video (with such great animations and high level story structuring, I have to say) was also 10 minutes long, and somehow people there still whinged that it was TOO LONG to explain syncopation.
Argument Two: “Syncopation? It’s obvious and easy. This video is a waste of time.”
Syncopation wasn’t the point, guys! I see you xisumablackhole or whoever you are. The point was two-fold:
- that “Hidden Syncopation” is a real thing, a composition technique/clever songwriting trick, and that
- it changes the way you hear “Videotape.” It’s a big change!
It’s possible that it was too much to expect from Vox’s audience (which is full of musicians and non-musicians alike, Radiohead fans and non-Radiohead fans, and especially western-classically-educated musicians who are trained to disconnect songs from their context and authorial intent for the sake of analysis), they they would not only know the song but understand both arguments and hear the song in its new context all because of a 10 minute video.
But if you are one of those who did get it… you know now that the song goes from a slow mournful dirge to a trance club freakout. And that’s an incredible feat of songwriting that I ascribe to their intentions 100%.
(I cannot think of how Radiohead could have made it any more obvious if they wanted to maintain the subtlety of it, without simply re-recording the 2006 version in the studio — in which the piano is NOT syncopated to some ears — but I digress.)
To me, “Videotape” is a masterpiece that is beautiful, no matter how your ears hear it. And every way of hearing it is correct. I just think more people need to know how the band hears it and the fact that musicians and non-musicians alike have discovered it too, either independently (possibly because they already listen to songs where this technique is employed? who knows, I asked them if they heard the 2006 version and they said no, they just heard the syncopation very quickly and they don’t know why), or with the help of an internet forum or video essay like this one.
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