March 4, 2020 Musicology 4 Comments

First off, this isn’t headed anywhere, because Billy Idol is credited on The Strokes recent single “Bad Decisions.” Still interested in hypothesizing about how that came about, and the appropriateness of it, and looking forward to the Strokes maybe one day telling the story.

First, in case you’ve not heard it, here’s “Bad Decisions” by The Strokes.

And here of course is Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself.”

Yep. They’re similar. Then the question is what’s similar about them and how big a deal is it? So let us look.

They’re similar because of a couple of motives that run through both songs. A motive is a small musical idea. It could be a rhythmic figure, or a melodic figure, or a combination. It can be other things too. Those first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? “Dun Dun Dun DUN.” That’s everyone’s favorite example of a motive.

The first motive we hear in Bad Decisions is a guitar intro. And it’s rhythmically somewhat similar to Dancing With Myself. Both contain a good amount of syncopations (all those places in the figure below where you see adjacent notes connected with a small curvy thing? Those are the syncopations happening.)

Plenty of notes that are similar; plenty that aren’t. If you could’ve sworn these sound much more similar than what your eyes see here, give yourself a break; other stuff comes into play — instrumentation and texture for instance. Electric guitars are playing similar roles in similar environments in both tracks. If one of these songs were a brass quintet, it might not sound so much alike to you. But these are two rock bands with just drums, bass and electric guitars, and they share what we might call “sparse” production style, with not too much polish, as compared to say a Taylor Swift production. All this leads to their being perceived as more similar.

But don’t leave yet. In the pre-chorus, Jullian Casablancas modifies Bad Decisions’ motive. In this key vocal line, where he sings, “I’m making bad decisions,” we find that for six consecutive notes at least, his line is melodically the same as Dancing’s. Even if you don’t read music, or barely read music, look at the figure below.

Here we see the two lines note by note. Idol sings: “(On the) floors of Tokyo; A-down in London town’s a go go. ” Though my transcription skips the pickup notes and begins on “floors,” and similarly my transcription of Bad Decisions begins on “Mak-ing”

Halfway through this line, in measure five whereas Bad Decisions repeats the same figure a third time, Idol moves on to a new melody with the familiar…
A-with the record selection,
And the mirror’s reflection,
I’m a dancin’ with myself

Anyway, those are for four measures at least, very much the same.

Adding to it, Casablancas fills in the empty spaces with Billy Idol-like “oh oh oh oh’s.” This is where I, as a musicologist, would’ve thrown up my hands for sure and most likely yelled, “You copped the multisyllabic one-syllable word trick?!” No no no no, no! That’s gonna necessitate a phone call.”

What about the accompanying harmony? Are the chord progressions the same? No. Dancing With Myself’s chord progression is I – IV – V – IV; whereas Bad Decisions’ is I – IV – I – IV. Yep, it just goes from the I chord to the IV chord back to the I chord and back to the IV chord for like forever.

Hey, wait…

But again, not a brass quintet; it’s another rock band with an electric guitar spelling out one of the main motifs in the track — the one that accompanies the verses throughout.

It’s not the same figure. Wanna see all three transcriptions aligned?

Is there anything really wrong with writing a track that’s a bit of a combination of “Dancing With Myself” and “I Melt With You,” even on purpose? Not necessarily. It depends on how you execute it.

But I’ll say this… When you’re of that mind and composing your melody, maybe don’t break up monosyllabic words such as “world” into “wir-irld” or “Tokyo” into “Tow-Key-Oh-Oh.” And consider NOT doing a breakdown just before the refrain fade where you hum reflectively.

Or, hey, do all those things and preemptively share a songwriting credit.

Written by Brian McBrearty