Interpretation: So What?

Authored by: Allan F. Moore

The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Musicology

Print publication date:  December  2009
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754664765
eBook ISBN: 9781315613451
Adobe ISBN: 9781317041986


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The Beach Boys’ original recording of ‘Good Vibrations’ employs a striking double transformation. The song opens with a stepwise harmonic descent from E minor and repeats this move, before shifting to the relative major for the chorus. Carl Wilson’s voice gives way to Mike Love’s, who sings of being in receipt of ‘good vibrations’, over a harmonic pattern which moves upward, from G to A to B in readiness for the second verse. 2 The vector is clear: a gradual upward motion of harmonic roots coincides with activity in the relationship by his partner, towards him. This link is merely associative, but, once made, it becomes an operative force (at least within this single track). In the centre of the song the texture slims remarkably, down to organ and shakers, a change which coincides with the singer’s dawning realization of his culpability – he’s ‘Gotta keep those … vibrations / A happenin’ with her’ - that is, he has to become active in the relationship himself. Thereafter, the ‘good vibrations’ hook is sung over the same pattern, but now transposed in the reverse direction, from B to A,to G. Now that ‘he’ has become active in the relationship a new, smoother, coda melody enters, is repeated transposed from G to A to B, and finally back to A, thereby finishing mid-way between the outer reaches of this pattern. The original G–A–B sequential motion is thus first reversed and then combined with its reversal to provide a conclusion. This transformation thus enables a reading of the future history of the protagonist, himself identified through his lyric, as one in which he will enjoy a probably successful relationship, resulting from the ‘emotional work’ he has implicitly agreed to undertake. What is the status of this reading?

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