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Archive for February 26th, 2010


Song Analysis: I Want It That Way – Backstreet Boys

I Want It That Way – Backstreet Boys

When people think of boy bands they tend to associate that kind of “teenybopper” music with teenage girl culture. The Backstreet Boys was originally a five member boy band that rise to fame becoming the highlights during the 90s and into the millennium. They have released a number of studio albums and was considered one of the biggest selling groups of all time. According to the US Billboard 200, they have sold over 130 million records worldwide and had each of their albums reach top 10 on the charts. Mostly what is important about this song in particular was that it was one of their many signature hits. It was also one of the ultimate songs that defined the pop genre in the 1990s that was broadcasted widely across radio stations. Besides the industry numbers there is also a reason why this song fits the category of popular music and it is remembered because of its distinctive tune.

Musical Analysis

The song starts off with a four bar guitar instrumental introduction that outlines three significant chords, arpeggiated, that the verse will be based upon: F# minor (The minor VI chord), D Major (IV chord) and A Major (I chord). The instruments used are simple: drums, bass, a guitar that mostly arpeggiates the intro.

What is interesting about this piece is that the tonic (the main key of the song) is not immediately established in the beginning of the song, which is not common with pop songs. When we think of pop songs we usually think of major tonality, equal phrasing and strophic in nature. The original key signature of this piece is in A major, however the very first chord is the minor VI chord which gives an odd progression followed by a plagal cadence from the IV chord to the I chord. The first words of the song is not on a down beat of the bar but acts more like a pickup on the 4th beat in the preceding bar. The verse section of this song utilizes primarily three chords: VI, IV, I with the substitution of the V chord instead of the IV chord towards the end of the phrase. The first phrase, with the lyrics “You are my fire The one desire Believe when I say I want it that way” is broken up into four bar phrases each of which contains four beats, making the pulse of this piece in common time. This outlines the typical symmetric meter of pop music, even the tempo of the piece is moderately paced – not too fast nor is it too slow.

It is also interesting to note that the cadences of the verses are not fulfilled until the name of the song, in the lyrics, is sung: “I want it that way” (progression: vi – V – I) This stresses the importance on the name of the song (which is a contributing factor for the song’s originality and uniqueness) by finally having a perfect cadence instead of a plagal cadence which doesn’t really give a strong solid tone. The only instance in the entire song that actually uses the perfect cadence is whenever the title is sung giving emphasis. The chorus uses three chord progression, IV-V-vi where it is repeated and ultimately goes to its tonic (A major) replacing the vi chord at the end of the phrase. After the first encounter with the chorus the next verse has only two phrases instead of four and it jumps again back to the chorus. Note the second time around, the chorus does something a bit more interesting: “I want it that way” is now using a suspended chord that resolves to the dominant chord of the bridge section: F# minor (making the progression V of the relative minor key). The reason for the suspended chord and not another dominant chord is to suspend the growing tensions which lead to the bridge.

The bridge section of this piece is in the relative minor (A major – F# minor) which gives a contrasting tone to the first half of the piece. It’s interesting to note that the bridge utilizes a different chord progression – it is no longer three chord progression but it uses a descending progression: i-vii-vi-IV-V which basically outlines the minor scale going downwards. After the bridge there is a repetition of the first verse however what is interesting about the verse this time is that the individual male voices outline the F#m7 with an added 9th to give it a more grand feeling before it modulates to the supertonic – B major. Although not a wide key modulation, the transition from the key of A major to B major was made very smooth by using the added 9th and linking it with the overlap of the last key in A major to the very first key in B major.

The overall tone of this piece has a sensitive quality by using a submediant (vi) chord right at the beginning and a progression that’s not as strong.

Melody and lyrics

Why is it that people are able to recall the chorus of the song “Tell me why Ain’t nothing but a heartache Tell me why Ain’t nothing but a mistake Tell me why I never wanna hear you say I want it that way” even if they have no clue on the rest of the lyrics? The chorus is made the most prominent of the song. It actually follows good counterpoint rules, which date back to the baroque era and Bach’s music: what goes up must come down in the melody line and skips of a third or more needs to be resolved step-wise downward. The “Tell me why” sections are exactly a third with a step up to the climax going up and once its reached the top it falls down in a step-wise motion outlining the major scale (Sol-Fa-Mi-Re-Do-Ti-Do) This is really simple but very effective paired with the three chord progression in the bass line. The end of the melody does a small “dip” using the lyrics “…heartache…” and “…mistake…” but it is dramatized by associating these words with the V chord and then instead of going to the tonic it gives us a deceptive cadence (from a V chord to a vi chord instead of the I chord in this case) emphasizing heartache and mistake to be a bit melodramatic. The other interesting thing is that the chorus is in ways a counterpoint by using two interacting melodic lines: One states a question (Tell me why?) and the other follows up (Ain’t nothing but a heartache).

The lyrics of this song are sensitive and the target audience is typically teenage girls. It opens up with a strong using the words “fire”, which gives an image of passion, paired up with “desire”. But it is more interesting to note that not only does the singer want that person to be their fire and desire but he also states that he wants it to be that way.

“You are my fire
The one desire
Believe when I say
I want it that way”

This nature of this song revolves around a failing relationship or one that doesn’t have the usual happy ending.

“But we are two worlds apart
Can’t reach to your heart
When you say
I want it that way”

It’s interesting to note how the two characters use the phrase “I want it that way”. Our singer uses it to state that he wants to be in love with the person where as the other person wants it to end and stay that way.

“Tell me why
Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache
Tell me why
Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake
Tell me why
I never wanna hear you say
I want it that way”

The chorus states the singer questioning the other person’s motive on the break-up where the other person counteracts with the fact that it’s a “heartache” and that it was a “mistake”. However the singer states that he doesn’t want to hear the words to end the relationship.

“Now I can see that we’re falling apart
From the way that it used to be, yeah
No matter the distance
I want you to know
That deep down inside of me…
You are my fire
The one desire
You are, you are, you are, you are…”

The main idea is so that the singer is able to convey to the person that he does not regret being in love nor does he want the his target to have the regret either. The four “You are”s are interesting because it is technically an incomplete phrase and as I mentioned earlier uses a special F#minor7 chord with an added 9th. In a way it kind of accentuates the other person, the added 9th into the chord really makes the tone a bit more heavenly. This is an example of word painting without having the lyrics to finish the phrase, instead it is intended in just the music alone.

Although the lyrics is about love and a person’s undying passion for another, this hit song is significant because it shows the way the boy band is being marketed at the time: 5 handsome boys singing about love to teenage girls. This gave rise to an era of teenage culture where issues of love, heartbreak and even indirect underlying sexual tension are addressed. It acted as the trend in order to appeal and connect with the teenage audience, highlighting the era of pop music from the 90s on.


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