February 22, 2024 Musicology 16 Comments

Anyone can hear that it’s wrong. A forensic musicologist can tell you why.

Everyone hates these commercials, but nobody can ignore them, so props to the creators of the Burger King jingle; the “earworm that’s taken over America.”

Ask almost anyone why it’s so “bad” and they’ll say, “It’s because the singer can’t carry a tune.” That’s wrong. A little forensic musicology turns up some interesting stuff, and believe it or not…

He sang it fine. It’s mostly something else.

The BK jingle seems to be on tv constantly, but for the blessedly unfamiliar, believe it when I tell you, it’d be hard to overstate the cringy awfulness of the present vintages of Burger King commercials and their “Whopper Whopper Whopper Whopper” jingle. This thing generates Reddit threads with titles that spell it out: “I DESPISE the Burger King commercials and their out-of-tune jingles,” and spawns mainstream media headlines about driving NFL fans crazy, because they seem to put most of their ad spend into live NFL broadcasts. Which, again, evil genius stuff; nobody fast-forwards live sports. “YOU WILL LISTEN TO OUR TERRIBLE SOUNDING JINGLE.”

Blame to go around.

I understand why everyone points first to the out-of-tune singing. It’s an unfussy vocal alright, though not quite what it seems. Add to that the over-the-top ridiculous “Whopper Whopper Whopper” lyric. So yes, the “unpolished” singing and the absurd lyrics are cringe components, but there’s a secret sauce doing the real heavy lifting. So we’ll get at the recipe.

But like any recipe on the internet nowadays, we’ll opine before getting to the ingredient list, though unlike all those recipe sites, we’ll be interesting.

First, here’s the Burger King jingle we’re talking about. There are several versions, but they’re all pretty much this:

BK Whopper Whopper You Rule Jingle

No matter how many times I hear it. Wow. Let’s hand it to them. It was a total gangster move producing a jingle so absurd that it mocks itself and all jingles past, present, and future.

How can you say it’s not the singing?!

I’m getting there. Here we go. Did you know “Whopper Whopper Whopper” or whatever they call this thing didn’t just come out of nowhere? It’s the rebirth of Burger King’s “Have It Your Way” jingle that was super famous in the 1970’s, and spelled out Burger King’s main differentiator, “having it your way.” Every kid in Poughkeepsie, NY knew the Burger King jingle by heart well before a Burger King even arrived in our town. When that first one popped up on Vassar Rd, we knew to hold the pickles, hold the lettuce.

The elementary school band played the jingle at the Ice Cream Social! It’s funny how you remember such things. It went a little something like this:

The melody from fifty years ago is the melody today. So what’s going on?

The lyric used to go, “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us,” and now goes, “Whopper Whopper Whopper Whopper, Single Double Triple Whopper.”

And the chorus that used to go “(Have it) Your Way, Have It Your Way,” now goes, “Beeee – Kaaay – Have It Your Way.”

But the notes are the same.

Since this is Musicologize, I’ll sidebar the idea of “prosody,” the appropriate assignment of music to lyrics taking into consideration the natural flow of language and accented words or syllables. When music ignores or fights those sensibilities it sounds awkward and amateurish. Taken to the absurd by squeezing too many rapidly sung syllables into a short musical phrase (which some versions of the Burger King jingle do) you get some cringe value there too.

And that ain’t it either. Everyone is in on that joke too.

I’m not saying the singing is “good” exactly.

The vocal performance is pretty “unfussy.”

Here’s a snippet from one of the several hate threads on Reddit.

They did not pick a random guy off the street. It’s Will Crown, from Crown and the Mob. And get off his back! It’s not him, it’s this:

Here’s The Evil Trick.

The big move is that although they faithfully preserved that famous old jingle’s melody, they fiendishly changed all the chords! Nobody is in on that joke, and it’s doing most of the work.

Again, this being Musicologize, let’s make a broad musicological point…

I sometimes find forensic musicologists leaning into the idea of “filtering” to help discern and draw the lines between ideas and expression. (Copyright protects only expression.) Musicologists will often, because admittedly the law asks us to, break down a musical work into its component elements and explain whether those elements on their own are unprotectable by copyright because those elements or sub-elements (again, on their own) are ideas, public domain, found in prior art, or otherwise unoriginal. This widely accepted convention called “abstraction-filtering-comparison” then asks that we filter those elements out of the analysis and be concerned only with comparing similarities in what’s left over. The implication is that any observed similarity in unprotectable elements is irrelevant.

But all that is dicey at best, and the Burger King jingle illustrates one reason why.

In any melody, the individual notes enjoy degrees of consonance or dissonance with, first, the other notes in the melody, and also with the notes that are simultaneously occurring in accompanying harmony; in the chords. This is rather a lot of what melody is. It’s a lot of what music is.

Each note has a meaning and function compared to all the other notes.

Try this experiment: Sing “Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do” to yourself a few times, taking a little care to sing it the same way each time. A sense of “key” may establish itself in your mind; it’s the key of “Do” major. You pulled “Do” out of thin air (unless you have perfect pitch) and all the other notes were determined relative to “Do.”

Next, after you’ve sung that scale to yourself a few times, repeat it again, but try stopping at random notes here and there, noticing that some stopping points are more comfortable than others. It’s especially uncomfortable stopping on “Ti.” But “Ti,” isn’t unstable on its own; it’s the context doing that. Its relationship to the other pitches in the scale is why we can’t comfortably linger on “Ti.” It’s fine as a drink with jam and bread ONLY WHEN it brings us back to Do!” If it doesn’t bring us somewhere right away, we teeter uncomfortably.

Melody is a series of such relative teeterings and landings, similar to language. Language has contours and emphases as well. And it’s not quite a free-for-all. We would not say “Four SCORE AND se-VEN years A-go,” because the flow is awkward. We accent certain syllables, upspeak, downspeak, and give phrases a pleasing contour. In melody, the consonant notes are sort of like the syllables we’re more comfortable accenting and lingering on, whereas dissonant notes work better in small doses and unaccented.

Back to the Burger King Jingle

When set to the new and mismatched chord progression, that fifty-year-old melody’s sequence of relative consonances and dissonances will no longer have notes falling gracefully against their accompaniment. It’s virtually a mashup — two songs played at once, but ordinarily we select mashup material because two songs work together nicely. Not here. Here we just let the awkwardness happen; rough under any circumstances, but way way out of bounds in the world of jingles.

The old chords versus the new chords?

Like, if you wanna learn the Burger King jingle on your guitar or something?

OLD: | D     | Bm    | G       | E   A   |
versus
NEW: | Bm  D | G  Em | Bm  G/D | E   E/B |

When you put the old melody over these new chords, well… we begin with amateurish sounding but mostly tolerable pairings of melody and accompaniment in the first measure, but as the cringiness starts to set in we arrive at that second measure where the melody note is F# and the top note of the accompanying chord is G. These two notes sit immediately adjacent to each other on a piano and sound like:

But Crown is hitting the right notes, he’s just singing the old melody.

Check it out: it sounds just as bad when the woman from the 70’s does it. Here’s her perfectly fine singing of that whole series of F#’s which (in simpler times) were pleasingly consonant with the B minor chord that accompanied them but are nails on a chalkboard with the G major chord from the new scheme.

I’ll loop her three times so you can really enjoy. Try not to dance.

It’s not that the singer is out of tune. The band is playing a different song.

How would our hero sound if I dropped him into the 1970’s commercial which is, what an amazing coincidence, in the same key and at the same tempo? He’s not Johnny Mathis, but it’s perfectly fine!

That’s why the Burger King jingle sounds so cringy.

What does this say about filtering in musicology?

Everyone is filtering out the part that matters most to this jingle; the chord progression. There’s nothing “original” about the original chords. It’s one of if not the most common chord progression of all time. By itself, it would not be protected by copyright. But every note in its melody, like any melody, derives meaning and function from its context. If I’m analyzing these works, filtering out the harmonic context would be like throwing much of their meaning away.

Of course, copyright law seeks efficiency and wants to be practical, so it establishes ideas like the Abstraction-Filtration-Comparison method which makes sense in some circumstances. Other times it’s sticking your head in the sand for the sake of expedience. Worse, it’s often just a con.

Leave the Burger King jingle singer alone. He did fine.

Your thoughts are most welcome. Catch me on X.

Written by Brian McBrearty