MACINTOSH PLUS, Diana Ross, and the Tonic-Dominant Relationship

I may be a little late to the game, but I have recently discovered, and grew an appreciation for, the music of MACINTOSH PLUS—a brand name that requires ALL-CAPS from the Portland producer known as Vektroid. Although MACINTOSH PLUS has been around for well over a year, it’s hard to find a whole lot of information on it: it is nonexistent to Pandora and Pitchfork, and here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Macintosh Plus. As I just added that link, I got the “spinning color wheel thingy” that my MacOX shows whenever it becomes slow and choppy—which happen to be great adjectives to describe the MACINTOSH PLUS sound. MP aligns with a relatively new genre known as Vaporwave, which Michelle Lhooq of Thump describes as

Taking bits of 80’s Muzak, late-night infomercials, smooth jazz, and that tinny tune receptionists play when they put you on hold, then chopping that up, pitching it down, and scrambling it to the point where you’ve got saxophone goo dripping out of a cheap plastic valve.

… which basically ends up sounding like Chillwave with a “Tim and Eric” aesthetic (watch this clip! or this one! or why not this one?). For a better understanding of Vaporwave, read this amazing article by Adam Harper of Dummy.

Perhaps the most popular track by MACINTOSH PLUS (and the one that first got me hooked) is リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー from the album FLORAL SHOPPE (If you’re confused by those foreign characters, you really should give the Harper article a read). The source material for this track is Diana Ross’s 1984 single It’s Your Move. [As a way of thanking Whosampled.com for being such a wonderful resource, and for our conveniences, I’m including both MP’s and DR’s tracks with this link.] Let’s first take a look at the primary source.

It’s Your Move is a fairly standard, albeit enjoyable, pop tune. The formal structure exhibits formulaic balance and construction for a commercial radio single—three main sections (verse, “pre-chorus”, and chorus), one being a heavily emphasized refrain (that’s the chorus, of course), which appear in the following order:

Chorus (Intro) 0:00
Verse 0:17
Pre-chorus 0:34
Chorus 0:46
Verse 1:08
Pre-chorus 1:24
Chorus 1:37
Chorus (Solo) 2:02
Pre-chorus 2:28
Chorus 2:40
Chorus 2:57
Chorus 3:13
Chorus (fading out) 3:30

Like a good pop tune, It’s Your Move gives you lots of the chorus, especially at the end of the track, and keeps it all under four minutes.

[*IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER!* The pre-chorus is technically a phrase belonging to the verse section—meaning that this song really only has parts A and B—but for my purposes here, I give this second-half of the verse a distinct label.]

There are some interesting aspects to the tonality of this song. The song is unambiguously in the key of G major, although we don’t hear our tonic triad until the beginning of the verse. For those who need a refresher, the tonicdominant relationship is the most important in tonal music and is often used to establish the key—when you hear the harsh dominant-chord resolve into the stable tonic-chord, you know where “home base” is. Let’s take a look at the intro’s chord progression:

          Am9 – Bm7 – Am9 – Bm7 –Am9 – Bm7 – F#madd4 – (C) – D

And the full chorus adds a slight variation for a turnaround:

          Am9 – Bm7 – Am9 – Bm7 –Am9 – Bm7 – F#madd4 – B7
          Am9 – Bm7 – Am9 – Bm7 –Am9 – Bm7 – F#madd4 – (C) – D

[Two chords here (F#madd4 and B7) present a problem, as they are not found in the key of G major, but a lengthy explanation here would detract from my narrative, so let’s just say that the B7 acts as a secondary-dominant to the Em contained in the ensuing Am9 and the F#madd4 is a iii/V (three-of-five or secondary-mediant) chord and move on…]

The tonic triad (G major) is never heard throughout the chorus, but the dominant—which is hinted at with the Bm7 chord (its top three notes form a D major triad) and finally given in full at the very end—demands it. The entire chorus actually functions as an extended dominant chord, if we recognize that the Am9 and C have predominant functions (ii and IV, respectively, which both prepare the dominant) and the F#m can best be explained as a mediant of the dominant. Each chord either tonicizes or emphasizes the dominant harmony.

This all makes for a great intro because it introduces the tonality and creates the desire to hear more—specifically, to hear the tension created by the dominant harmony resolving into the comfort of the tonic triad, which appears exclusively in the verse. However, the intro becomes the chorus, which appears at the very end of the song, providing no sense of finality with a final statement of the dominant-tonic resolution. Furthermore, the chorus is repeated so many times at the end that the tonic chord becomes only a distant, faded memory to the listener. In fact, with duration of 3:38, our exposure to the tonic chord ends at the 1:20 mark, meaning that roughly the final two-thirds of the song avoids this crucial chord. FurtherFURTHERmore, the track ends with a fade-out. Without it, the song could only conclude logically with a final statement of the tonic G major chord (or less convincingly with the relative minor chord—E minor). The chorus has no end-in-itself, so the fade-out sidesteps the need for harmonic conclusion by creating the impression that the song is still going, even though your experience with it has ended.

But your experience hasn’t really ended; you still have the impression of the song (it’s “stuck in your head”), and a slight discomfort from not hearing the resolution-into-tonic at the end. What can you do but perhaps listen to the entire song over again to hear that resolution in the verse? To do this in the ‘80s, you’d either have to wait an hour or two until MTV or the radio replays it, or go to the store and buy the cassette tape. Now, you don’t suspect pop tunes are designed this way, do you? Of course they are, and it helps to make It’s Your Move a catchy ditty and a perfect candidate for the Vaporwave treatment.

Before moving on to リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー, I want to express that I am not opposed to the “pop formula” in any way. “Classical” music also had formulas, which served the purposes of its times. Every single Baroque, Classical, and probably Romantic piece ends with a dominant-to-tonic cadence (specifically, a perfect authentic cadence). It’s even somewhat disingenuous to suggest that there is only one “pop formula,” and while It’s Your Move does employ the simplest and most commonly used formal structure in popular music, its treatment of key is rare.

True to the formula (perhaps “aesthetic” is a more appropriate, or at least less cynical-sounding term) of Vaporwave, Vektroid (MACINTOSH PLUS) takes a highly commercial musical product, slows it down, chops it up, and adds effects to it. Using the same labels we gave It’s Your Move, we can show how Vektroid chops up the track in リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー:

Intro (x4) 0:00
Chorus 1:27
Intro (x4) 1:49
Verse (small fragment, x8) 3:09
Verse (x1/2) 3:52
Intro 4:03
Pre-chorus (x2) 4:25
Chorus (x2) 4:57
Chorus (small fragment, x4) 5:41
Intro (x2) 5:52
Verse (x1/2) 6:57

A few problems arise here, all of which are my fault: I used slightly different methods of presentation in my illustrations of the sections of the two songs, and the terms used to describe the sections of Ross’s single don’t translate as well to Vektroid’s reassemblage. There are not 11+ sections within リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー, but my above chart does illustrate the way Vektroid “chops” and reorders the sections of It’s Your Move, and it is somewhat interesting to see that Vektroid uses standard (or rather, natural) pop-mathematics for the loops: they repeat in 2s, 4s, and 8s in a song in 4/4 time with 4-bar phrases. Let’s give リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー a proper analysis of its formal structure using generic labels (left-most column):

A Intro (x4) 0:00
Chorus 1:27
Intro (x4) 1:49
transition Verse (small fragment, x8) 3:09
B Verse (x1/2) 3:52
A Intro 4:03
C Pre-chorus (x2) 4:25
A Chorus (x2) 4:57
Chorus (small fragment, x4) 5:41
A’ Intro (x2) 5:52
B’ Verse (x1/2) 6:57

Compared to It’s Your Move:

A Chorus (Intro) 0:00
B Verse 0:17
Pre-chorus 0:34
A Chorus 0:46
B Verse 1:08
Pre-chorus 1:24
A Chorus 1:37
Chorus (Solo) 2:02
B Pre-chorus 2:28
A Chorus (x4) 2:40

It’s clear from my interpretations that リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー, using the same materials, has a more sophisticated formal structure. Dare I claim that リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー has a rondo, or even a sonata–rondo form? No, but it does exhibit some of the features of these somewhat-malleable Classical forms. In my own experiments (screwing around with screw music), I have realized that this type of music requires the composer to focus in on formal structure as its primary compositional element, which makes sense considering the fact that so many other compositional aspects have already been provided by the source sample.

Let’s talk key again. リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー slows down Ross’s tempo to three-quarters of the original value, which lowers the key by a perfect-fourth to D major (the dominant key of original source). For the final sections labeled A’ and B’ (there’s a reason for those apostrophes…), the track gets slowed yet again, this time by two-thirds the previous tempo, or one-half the tempo of It’s Your Move, which stretches Ross’s tune down an octave and back to her key of G major. So what we have is a track that modulates from D major to G major.

It may appear as though Vektroid purposefully created this dominant-tonic relationship. I can’t make that claim, but the result is a more comforting and more (though not completely) stable ending than It’s Your Move. Additionally, the last time we hear a tonic chord in the 7:22-long リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー is at the 7:05 mark. Compare that to the 3:38-long It’s Your Move, where (as mentioned above) the last tonic chord is heard at the 1:20 mark. The MACINTOSH PLUS track’s added sense of finality robs It’s Your Move of some of it’s commercial magic.

Let’s take a closer look at proportions. By repeating its phrase, It’s Your Move’s verse contains two utterances of the tonic chord, and its “musical release” first comes at the 0:17 mark—fairly early in the song. リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー holds off on this release until its 3:52 mark—a little after its halfway point, and longer than the entire length of its source song—and even here, Vektroid only gives us one utterance of the tonic chord, AND it’s obscured by delay-effected toms. In fact, リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー only sounds the tonic chord twice—once to establish each key. So, It’s Your Thing climaxes prematurely and then builds back the tension to leave you wanting more, whereas リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー prolongs the tension and holds off on its multiple “eargasms” until closer to its end, leaving you more satisfied: two different, yet perfectly acceptable approaches to aural congress.

Tonality and harmony are not the sole means of creating tension and release, nor is tension-and-release the only way to make music interesting. Another procedure that can be applied is that of variation. Aside from the lyrics, It’s Your Move offers no variation in the repetitions of its chorus, verse, or pre-chorus. リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー, on the other hand, does—most notably in its loops of It’s Your Move’s intro section. リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー begins with the intro looped four times. Over these 4 repetitions is applied a gradual EQ shift from low frequencies to high. Over the next loop–group of the intro section (beginning at the 1:49 mark), Vektroid does something different—applies a delay that gradually becomes more prominent: i.e., the sample is layered over itself and this added layer gradually shifts further out-of-sync with the original, creating an “echoey” reverb effect. The above effects are also applied to the chorus section beginning at 4:57, with the vocal track’s dynamic softening into the background. The intro’s appearance in the A’ section is, of course, different, due to its tempo and key shift, but also through the application of these above-mentioned effects, and the addition of (what I suspect is) a reversed copy of the section layered over it. What all these variations in the A’ section achieve is the track’s pinnacle of chaos and tension, which is then relinquished with the B’ section.

There are some other cool things about リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー’s construction that warrant discussion…

1) I labeled the repeated fragment of the verse at 3:09 a transition because the repeated ii-V triad progression continues the dominant harmony of the preceding A section, and prepares, and is a fragment of, the material of section B. This is similar to Schoenberg’s concept of liquidation. [Note: the definition given of liquiditation in this Wikipedia link is misleading (read: erroneous). The “large-scale musical idea in its essential form” is known as the grundgestalt: liquidation is the process of breaking down a theme into fragments (that may or may not be the grundgestalt) that are gradually varied until they morph into the next theme—basically, a true transition.]

2) While リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー reduces the length of It’s Your Move’s verse to its basic phrase, it extends the pre-chorus by repeating its entirety. I don’t often focus on lyrical content, but here I believe the lyrics are so important, they are form-determining. The meaning of Ross’s lyrics, “I’m giving up on trying to sell you things that you ain’t buying,” becomes, with MACINTOSH PLUS’s treatment, ironic, and deserves repetition in case you missed out on the irony the first time. Aside from the obvious “fatigued by capitalism” connotations of these lyrics (which fit the aesthetic of the Vaporwave genre) there’s also a certain irony to Diana Ross singing this line in the 1984 when, after switching from the Motown label to RCA, her album sales dwindled and she never gained the popularity with the MTV generation that, say, her contemporary and protégé Michael Jackson achieved. But disappointing album sales didn’t stop Diana from releasing nine more, even worse selling albums after this lyrical line (or should I say “lyrical LIE!?”) appeared on 1984’s “Swept Away” album… And let’s not lie to each other, the G major tonic chord’s arrival at 6:57 is the most crucial moment of this song, but this prechorus-turned-bridge is equally rewarding—far more so than in It’s Your Move—and deserves to be heard twice in a row.

3) The editing between the two statements of this C section (among other places) is a bit sloppy (the splice is made in the middle of a measure), which I believe is done purposefully. Vektroid has proven, in this song and others, that he or she or she or he is fully capable of tight editing. The lackadaisical editing (glitch) here jolts you out of the groove, forcing you to pay closer attention in order to recollect yourself, and while doing so you hear the irony in the lyrics and the beauty of its simple progression. This sloppy, forceful editing—exploited often by Vaporwave artists—also mocks the promises of Hi-Fi professional commercial-music products, but really all of Vaporwave’s techniques achieve this aim. Imagine the Ross single being released with such beat-skips and tone-warps; it would be a flawed product, an embarrassment to the label, and unsellable (“I can’t dance to this!”). But, of course, we heard these skips and warps on the fallible vinyl, cassette, or CD products anyway.

4) The aspect of リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー that initially sold me is the vocal “hiccup” that occurs where the pick-up note to Diana’s verse melody gets chopped off as the opening intro statements loop. This moment plays with your expectations and anticipates upcoming material, which contributes to the track’s tension building and gives us just a taste of release when the vocals come in fully at the chorus.

Conclusion: Make of this analysis what you will. I don’t mean to insinuate that my findings were Vektroid’s intentions, but it does showcase some of the inner workings of リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー. Vektroid applies key changes, tempo changes, variation, and frequency shifts: devices that are NOT utilized in its source material. The structure of the source song (which is a purely pop construction) is reassembled into a form that is more classical than pop, and more pop than classical (welcome to postmodernism, where the lines that distinguish highbrow from lowbrow, and good from bad, have long ago been blurred). I haven’t even (until right now) touched upon the fact that the simple process of slowing down this pop tune changes its mood entirely, and makes Diana Ross sound like a man.

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4 thoughts on “MACINTOSH PLUS, Diana Ross, and the Tonic-Dominant Relationship

  1. finally finished this read- way more than I know about music theory, but interesting to peek into the types of things that experts do recognize when listening to this stuff

  2. This has nothing to do with music theory, but you probably should have mentioned how Nile Rodger’s excellent guitar line dominates the intro and chorus sections. Considering that these two sections comprise the majority of リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー, this melody seems to pack most of the song’s appeal.

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