Feats of Strength: OutKast

If my Facebook feed is any indication, we’re in the middle of wedding season right now; if you’re of a certain age, it seems like every week brings news of one friend or another getting married.  In fact, I was just at a friend’s wedding a few weeks ago, and because I’m always working, I found inspiration for an article on the dance floor.  In the past decade, “Hey Ya” has become an unofficial wedding staple; in fact, I believe in most states it is now the law that the couple is not officially wed until the DJ plays the song.

What is it that makes “Hey Ya” such a universally beloved song, crossing over beyond traditional hip-hop and pop audiences into rock radio, and now onto the wedding dancefloor where grandma and grandpa are throwing it down?  The answer is in the very basic structure of the song itself, with OutKast putting an ingenious twist on an old songwriting standard.  The chords to the song are among the first that any musician learns, (G, C, D, and E minor), and they’re played in a common progression (I, IV, V, and vi).  Throughout the whole song, none of this varies; it sounds universal, because it’s based on a music tradition we’ve had ingrained for years.

The subtle trick to the song is a slight modification to the rhythm of the progression.  Instead of giving each chord the same amount of beats, OutKast stretches out the number of measures for one chord, then shortens the measure for the next chord.  The first modification gives a natural tension to the progression, because the listener is conditioned to expect the next chord to come in earlier; the second alteration resolves it quickly, but does it in a way that pushes the listener into the next phrase.  So, “Hey Ya” begins with four beats of the G chord, eight beats of the C chord, two beats of the D chord, and then four beats or the E minor chord.  The eight beats creates tension, the two releases it, but pushes the phrase forward.  Because of the uneven distribution, the short D chord measure acts as a pickup into the E minor; the E minor works as a resolution, because it’s the relative of the G, the key in which the song is written.

The result is that the listener gets the benefit of both the expected and the unexpected; there is appreciation for the familiarity, but there is enough distinction that OutKast can maintain the listener’s attention throughout the song.  And it’s on top of this base that OutKast can add other touches that augment this feeling, from the traditional drumbeat to the funky bass that emphasizes those downbeats.  Throw in some goofy keyboard leas and some backing vocals, and you’ve got yourself a hit.

What’s interesting is that the structure of the song also gives clues to the lyrical sentiment as well–contrary to first impressions, this isn’t really all that happy of a song.  Each phrase ends on a minor key, which sounds “darker” and “sadder” in contrast to the preceding major keys; it mirrors the tone of lines like “Thank God for mom and dad for sticking through together, cause we don’t know how” and “If what they say is ‘nothing is forever’, then what makes love the exception?  So why oh why are so in denial when we know we’re not happy here?”  But we’re so focused on the initial happiness, that we tend not to pay attention to the end of each line.

Then again, maybe we just like singing “Hey Ya”, informing the populace what’s cooler than being cool, and shaking it like a Polaroid picture.

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