Unless you have been frozen in some sort of cryogenic chamber since July of 2010, you’ve heard Katy Perry’s song, “Teenage Dream.” Whether you wanted to or not… it’s been blasted into your ears dozens of times.
Like you, I have not escaped its grasp. Personally, I think it’s a fun song, full of energy and a very catchy, beltable hook (and that “second chorus” for lack of a better term is really fun, too!). If history is any indication, somebody will want to take this opportunity to talk to comment on the appropriateness of the song for impressionable youth (it happened during my defense of “Glee”, you know… before it was “bad awful,” rather than the “fun awful” it had been before). This post is about the recording of the song and the deliberate decisions the producers made.
While I was listening to my Spotify “Party Mix”, I noticed something I had not heard before. Considering the number of times I’ve heard the song, I was surprised when I discovered something completely new.
Listen to the first two measures (headphones definitely help):
Did you notice it? That opening guitar part isn’t perfectly in time! Listen to the first couple of 8th notes and the couple of beats starting on beat two of the second measure. In case you are having a hard time hearing it, I’ve looped the first two measures a couple of times:
If you prefer visuals, here ya go. The line indicates the attack from the guitar in the left ear. Notice the placement of the attacks in the right ear. (Click to enlarge)
Why do I find this interesting?
(Read below the break for the exciting conclusion!)
Well, in our postperformance world (h/t to Matthew Thibeault)- a place where recordings are flawless, every note’s rhythm and pitch corrected, dynamics compressed and everything sparkles with perfection - I find it striking that the first two measures of a bona fide pop star contains this imperfection.
“Striking” does not mean “bad”. Far from it, I find it strangely compelling. Clearly, there are two guitar parts playing simultaneously - each guitar individually panned (placed) into the left and right ears. It’s the guitar in the right ear that lags behind. Here is a slowed down version of the intro to help exaggerate the timing differences:
Maybe I’m thinking about this too much, but the decision to allow this slight imperfection onto an pop album with a sparkling aesthetic and designed to sell millions of records is, at least, interesting to anybody who is curious about production techniques. (For the record, the album has sold over 2.3 million units as of July 2012 and the “Teenage Dream” video has been viewed over 110 million times on YouTube).
If this had been my recording, I definitely would have re-recorded the guitar in the right ear to make it line up closer with the left ear. I wouldn’t have thought twice about it and the entire process would’ve taken a few minutes at most.
Also, consider that this song is not only the title track of Perry’s album but also the opening track! These imperfect notes are the first ones we hear when entering the world of Katy Perry. Other moments on the track have been highly adjusted (Katy’s voice for starters) and a lot of the instruments are programmed and not performed live. So, all that’s left is this thread of a guitar part that plays throughout the song - falling in and out of precise alignment throughout the entire piece.
Perhaps the producers felt that this bit of authentic imperfection lent the song a bit of realness that evades the rest of the song. I’ll probably never know and I don’t want to read too much into this (he says after an overly long blog post). All I know is that this decision was clearly deliberate and fun to ponder.
Every time I hear the song in the future (which will, undoubtedly, be a lot), I know that I’ll picture that guitar player with headphones on, just laying down a track to get things moving in the studio.
This post gives me an opportunity to share this wonderful cover of “Teenage Dream” by The Rescues. They make some changes to the lyrics and reharmonize some moments. The build up is really well done and worth checking out.