Adam Lambert’s best song so far
Now that I’ve had five months to bathe in the sonic pleasures and glories of Adam Lambert’s album The Original High, I can state unequivocally that one song towers above the rest. It draws me back again and again. If I have time to hear only a single track, this is The One. I crave it with all my being, and that song is “There I Said It.”
To check that my infatuation with this song isn’t just a quirk of my unorthodox tastes, I sought scientific proof. I test marketed it on unsuspecting listeners. On an Uber ride, I innocently asked the driver to pop the CD into his player. We listen to “Ghost Town” and “The Original High,” and then I ask him to fast forward to track 5. As Adam’s stripped down voice filled the cab, and the driver went silent. “Wow, I like this a lot. What’s his name?” Ka-ching!
I then tried it out on my older daughter, the one who is determined to not like anything I like, as a matter of principle. Again, TISI garnered an unsolicited exclamation of approval. “I like this!” It killed her to admit it but she couldn’t help herself. Double ka-ching!
An informal survey of fans’ favorites further bolsters my data. When it comes to other songs on the album, there’s quite a spread in terms of which ones are cited as favorites, but nearly everyone mentions TISI. (“The Light” is also widely popular.)
It seems obvious why “There I Said It” is so compelling. As the song begins, plangent piano chords quietly command your attention. Then Adam’s voice enters softly, speaking to you: “You say you want the truth but you can’t take it, so I give you lies….” Having made his confession, he bravely forges ahead with a new melody—“I tell you something, it’s a double-edged sword you’re giving”—the sweet lines unfurl in an unbroken legato that rises and falls, carried by Adam’s achingly delicate and pure falsetto. With “let’s make the smoke and mirrors disappear,” Adam sets his voice free on the chorus, effortlessly soaring: “So there I said it, I won’t apologize to you, ‘cuz I’m a grown ass man, and I won’t live again, and I’m sick and tired of living in your shadow.”
Lyrically, this may be the most satisfyingly multifaceted song Adam has recorded. It’s Adam speaking to a dominant lover who has stifled him, who wants intimacy but can’t take the truth. It might be Adam standing up to a music industry that demands authenticity, “but not too much.” It could be a closeted gay man who’s unable to come out. Or it could be any one of us who craves to bare our souls to an unforgiving world. The words are both surgical in their precision yet ambiguous enough to be interpreted in any way that resonates. They feel personal to Adam yet universal.
Drilling deeper into the musical structure of the song, I wondered how the song would measure up to scrutiny by cognitive neuroscientists. A few years ago a science editor at the Wall Street Journal published a marvelous dissection of Adele’s global mega-hit song, “Someone like you.” I felt intuitively that “There I Said It” has a similar appeal, so I decided to revisit that article and see whether it would confirm my Spidey sense.
According to the WSJ, “…researchers have found that certain features of music are consistently associated with producing strong emotions in listeners. Combined with heartfelt lyrics and a powerhouse voice, these structures can send reward signals to our brains that rival any other pleasure.” This perfectly describes my subjective experience of “There I Said It”!!
Objectively, what might be going on? The article noted that chill-inducing music is characterized by a feature called an appoggiatura, “a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound.” The dissonance “generates tension in the listener,” said Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject. “When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good.”
The middle, or what I’ll refer to as the “climbing falsetto” section of the song, fits this model beautifully. The melody is filled with these dissonant ornaments that resolve to a major key. “Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution,” the WSJ article explained. “When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.” Indeed.
The article reports that, according to research, “chill-provoking passages…shared at least four features.” Does “There I Said It” exhibit them? Let me count:
- “They began softly and then suddenly became loud.” Check.
- “They included an abrupt entrance of a new “voice,” either a new instrument or harmony.” Check.
- “They often involved an expansion of the frequencies played.” Check.
- “Finally, all the passages contained unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony. Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern.” Check.
To call a song like this “dope” is more than metaphorical. “Robert Zatorre and his team of neuroscientists at McGill University reported that emotionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs. This makes us feel good and motivates us to repeat the behavior.”
The WSJ could not have described my response to “There I Said It” more perfectly!
So what confounds me is why this masterpiece is not among the candidates for release as a single. Warner Brothers, much as I love them for their support for Adam, might want to hire some cognitive neuroscientists. Then again, don’t be blinded by science. Take off those market research blinders, listen with your heart, and you will arrive at the same answer.