The then switches to the audience of

The analysis of popular music is much more complex than it may initially seem. When listening to, or watching popular music, song structure, identity, and semiotics all contribute to a deeper layer of meaning, which is enhanced by multimedia that started to develop around 1980 with the establishment of MTV. Theories of popular music analysis by scholars such as Alan Moore, Philip Tagg and Nicholas Cook have made it possible to discuss the deeper meaning of these songs. In this essay, I aim to discuss these analytical concepts surrounding meaning and multimedia by analysing Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya!’.


As stated by Cook, ‘the pictures … serve to open the song up to the emergence of new meaning’ (1998: 159) and the music video of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, strongly supports this statement. ‘Music experience is not exclusively auditory, but takes place at several sensory levels’ (Leante 2005: 1) and in the case of ‘Thriller’, the visual aspect adds a new dimension of meaning to the song. When listening to the audio only, it is interpreted as a song, whereas when the music video is added, it is clear that this song is featuring within the context of a miniature horror film. The clearest evidence of the film-like nature of the music video is the unusually long length, which is framed by the opening titles introducing ‘Michael Jackson’s Thriller’, and the end titles which contain credits listing various directors and producers. The opening scene features Jackson transforming into a werewolf whilst in the company of his girlfriend. This then switches to the audience of the film, in which Jackson and the same girlfriend are spectators of the film they are in. The best way to describe this added dimension is that the music video consists of a film within a film. This aspect of the song would not be known if it wasn’t for the visual, therefore showing the importance of multimedia.

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The song is in a different context in the music video and this impacts the structure. The audio-only version contains influences of the ABAB song form, however, the music video is unique as it follows neither the ABAB nor the AABA structure. The song in the music video is through-composed. It is structured as three verses, an instrumental containing a monologue by Vincent Price (a famous horror actor of the 1950s), a dance instrumental and then finally the chorus (repeated four times). As well as the video influencing the structure, there are also film music interjections (composed by Elmer Bernstein). This is unique to the video, aiding to enhance the horror story being portrayed.


Moore claims that ‘the identity of the singing voice that delivers the song operates at three distinct levels’ (2012: 180-181): performer, persona and protagonist. As shown in Figure 1, the performer is Michael Jackson. When he is singing, he portrays the persona of himself as a performer, as well as an actor in the music video. Additionally, he portrays various personas: an actor in the on-screen film, a werewolf and a zombie. I argue that the protagonist is a character called Michael who happens to portray characteristics of Michael Jackson the performer (known due to his performing style), thus creating ambiguity as to whether the protagonist is Michael the character or Michael the performer. Further ambiguity is added at the end of the video, when the werewolf persona returns, thus suggesting that Jackson the werewolf has been present the whole time within the character/performer of Michael. The personas present in this video contradict Moore’s ‘bedrock’ position of the persona (2012: 183) because Jackson the werewolf and zombie are not realistic personas and it is not an everyday situation. This is only known through the visual, reinforcing the added meaning multimedia gives to popular music.

Although the music written by Bernstein is not in the audio track, it plays a crucial role in the music video by enhancing the horror style and for this reason, I believe it should be included in my analysis. Bernstein’s music shows clear examples of musical anaphones (Tagg 1999: 25). The forte, dissonant brass and percussion at 2:25 in the video, act as a sonic anaphone (Tagg 1999: 25) as it represents screaming and the dissonant, syncopated string interjections at 2:40-2:50 act as a tactile anaphone (Tagg 1999: 25) representing pain. The repeating rhythm played by the woodwind at 3:05 serves as a kinetic anaphone (Tagg 1999: 25) representing the heart thumping and this is reinforced by a tactile gesture that the girlfriend makes by holding her heart. The short fluctuating notes played by the violins at 3:35 are sonic, tactile and kinetic anaphones (Tagg 1999: 25) representing screams, pain and the desire to run away. Tagg’s anaphones can also be interpreted as musemes (1999: 32-33) as they represent a small unit of meaning in the horror music style. This reference to horror music within popular music is an example of a genre synecdoche (Tagg 1999: 25), which is when a foreign musical style is implanted into another musical genre. The use of chromatic, dissonant harmony played by orchestral instruments references the stereotypical sound of horror music that became popular during 1960s horror films such as ‘Pyscho’. The instrumental section with monologue and organ from 6:20-8:02 is also an example of a genre synecdoche (Tagg 1999: 25), as organ music of this style is often associated with horror music, not 1980s popular music.  

Moore states that the environment (musical accompaniment) supporting the persona can contribute to the meaning of the song (2012: 191). Out of five different relationships between persona and environment, the analysis of semiotics in ‘Thriller’ reveals that the environment is active because the accompanying music supports the various persona’s Jackson embodies during the video by using word painting (Moore 2012: 191) through the form of anaphones (Tagg 1999: 25). 

The functional layers (Moore 2012: 20-21) also enhance the popular music style. The functional bass layer (bass guitar), enters with the explicit beat layer (drums), at 4:13 (Moore 2012: 20). The riff played by the bass guitar is an example of a museme and a style indicator (Tagg 1999: 25, 32-33) representing popular music of the 1980s. A synthesiser enters just before the verse begins, acting as an episodic marker (Tagg 1999: 25) and it functions as a harmonic filler (Moore 2012: 21). This is also a style indicator (Tagg 1999: 25) as synthesisers were common in the 1980s. Finally, the melodic layer (Moore 2012: 20) is displayed by the lead voice. Furthermore, these verses contain tactile gestures that can be seen in the video. For example, with the lyrics ‘evil’s lurking in the dark’, Jackson acts as a monster, and with ‘stops your heart’, he mimics having a heart attack. These visual gestures enhance the meaning of the lyrics.

In contrast to Michael Jackson, OutKast is a hip-hop duo and ‘Hey Ya!’ is one of their most successful songs from 2003. The music video is interesting as the visual does not strongly add supportive meaning to the narrative. The topics the lyrics discuss are mostly pessimistic: relationships breaking up, lack of trust, whereas the song sounds optimistic due to the style indicator (Tagg 1999: 25) of hip-hop: conventionally an energetic upbeat tempo. This style indicator (Tagg 1999: 25) draws away from the meaning of the song, making the environment oppositional (Moore 2012: 191). The portrayal of 1960s fandom is only known through the visual showing screaming girls, but this does not support the lyrical meaning of the song. The oppositional (Moore 2012: 191) quality is already heard in the audio through the opposing lyrics and tempo, and therefore, the video enhances this opposition.

The majority of the video opposes the narrative, however, there are two points that don’t. The name of the band, ‘The Love Below’ clearly relates to the love theme and the lyric ‘shake it like a Polaroid picture’, is supported by the tactile gesture of spectators dancing.  

The issue of persona (Moore 2012: 180), becomes very complex when analysing this song. André 3000 (one of the members of the duo), is the performer, however, he takes on numerous personas. He plays all eight members of the band, therefore, playing eight personas. This makes the protagonist debatable, as various members of the band have important features in the video, but it is likely to be the lead singer (Ice Cold 3000). Although the other member of the duo, Big Boi, doesn’t feature as a musical performer, he takes on the persona of the band manager which is seen in the opening scene of the video. There is, however, another layer of complexity to be discussed. The names, André 3000 and Big Boi, are the duo’s stage names, thus, when they are performers, they are also embodying personas of performers, thereby, transmitting a double persona in the video. Their personas are portrayed as being upbeat, whereas the lyrics are not, this also reinforces the oppositional environment (Moore 2012: 191).

The song structure can be interpreted as a development of the ABAB song form. The refrain, using the title of the song ‘Hey Ya!’, contains the most memorable material of the song. Here, the video plays with personas as this memorable material is sung by the ‘backing singers’ which is in fact still, André 3000. Within these refrains, verses and a bridge are inserted to create an overall structure of ABA’BCB. There is a cyclic influence as the bass riff and chord progression remains the same throughout, and therefore, the different sections are distinguished by the lyrics. In the second refrain, there is an example of a sonic anaphone (Tagg 1999: 25), as the ‘Uh-oh’, mimics the sound somebody may make if they were in trouble, relating to the lyrics about not wanting to meet the girlfriend’s parents. Another sonic anaphone (Tagg 1999: 25) is the use of ‘sh-sh’ on the word ‘shake’ to mimic the sound of a shaker.

The application of Moore’s functional layers (2012: 20-21) also shows the oppositional relationship between the environment and the meaning of the song (Moore 2012: 191). The explicit beat layer (Moore 2012: 20) is displayed by the drums and the melodic layer (Moore 2012: 20) by Ice Cold 3000. The functional bass layer (Moore 2012: 20) is displayed by the bass guitar and the harmonic filler (Moore 2012: 21) by the acoustic guitar and backing singers. None of the features of the bass or harmonic layer are common to the hip-hop genre. This is a genre synecdoche (Tagg 1999: 25) and the video emphasises this by showing how the foreign style of a 1960s rock ‘n’ roll band is implanted into hip-hop. This is further enhanced by electronically produced keyboard sounds (heard in the refrain), which would not have been prominent in the decade the video depicts. This clearly shows how multimedia has had an impact on the meaning of this song (Cook 1998: 159), as the video depicting a positive upbeat scene of a 1960s rock ‘n’ roll concert adds further contrast with the despondent lyrics.

These two pieces both show, in different ways, how the addition of multimedia can enhance the meaning of popular music (Cook 1998: 159). The most obvious contrast between the videos of these songs is that the ‘Thriller’ video aids the meaning by enriching the horror style, whereas contrastingly, the ‘Hey Ya!’ video detracts from the lyrical meaning. Another difference is that the personas seen in ‘Hey Ya!’ are more realistic than those in ‘Thriller’ and therefore, ‘Hey Ya!’ agrees more with Moore’s ‘bedrock’ position of the persona (2012: 183). In ‘Hey Ya!’ the realistic persona is due to the song having a realistic narrative, whereas, in ‘Thriller’ the unrealistic persona is due to the unrealistic narrative. Furthermore, the functional layers (Moore 2012: 20) identified in these songs also contrast. In ‘Thriller’ the layers predominantly act as style indicators (Tagg 1999: 25) of 1980s popular music, whereas in ‘Hey Ya!’ the layers are predominantly a genre synecdoche (Tagg 1999: 25), referencing the 1960s within the hip-hop style. Both songs also contrast in song structure. ‘Hey Ya!’ shows developments of the ABAB song form, whereas, ‘Thriller’ (the music video) is through-composed, containing interjections of classic horror music. These interjections enhance the idea that the video in ‘Thriller’ serves to enrich the music, whereas, in ‘Hey Ya!’ the video and music predominantly work against each other.

These two songs emphasise that popular music is not only an auditory experience (Leante 2005: 1). The addition of video can either add to the meaning of the audio track (‘Thriller’) or take away from it (‘Hey Ya!). Regardless, the visual adds another layer of meaning to popular music that cannot be known through audio alone (Cook 1998: 159). By applying the analytical methods proposed by Moore, Cook and Tagg, it equips musicologists with the tools needed to explain the deeper layer of meaning in popular music. The flexibility of what can be achieved through the addition of video is, in my opinion, what makes popular music so unique.


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