The Music Theory Behind Why Sigrid's Vibrant Pop Is So Catchy

The Music Theory Behind Why Sigrid's Vibrant Pop Is So Catchy

How the 21-year-old singer-songwriter went from a small town in Norway to winning the BBC's tastemaking Sound of 2018 poll.
KC
illustrated by Kim Cowie
February 9, 2018, 11:30am

Sigrid plunged onto the scene in 2017, looking as fresh-faced as Britney circa 1999 and sounding like Robyn had been her personal mentor for the past ten years. In mid-January, she won the coveted BBC Sound of… poll, whose alumni includes Adele, HAIM, and 50 Cent. Her predecessor, Ray BLK, is becoming one of the defining faces of contemporary British soul. It’s safe to say Sigrid’s on track for Big Things. The question is: what makes her so distinctive in a mass of emerging artists? What makes her pop stand out?

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Plenty of characteristics make Scandinavian music—and Norwegian Sigrid’s in particular—unique. She embodies the flawless, effortless Scandi sound that you recognize almost as soon as you hear it. This is not a new idea—late 19th-century politics and years of musical domination by the Austro-Germanic tradition led to Sibelius, Nielsen, Grieg and other Scandinavian composers turning to their cultural roots and beautiful surroundings as musical inspiration, honing a ‘national’ sound. Sigrid is not ostensibly looking to mountains and fjords as she writes but a breathless feel still permeates her music. You can hear a similar quality flutter through the work of MØ, Anna of the North, Tove Styrke, and Niki & The Dove, to name a few other Scandinavian artists.

Before the 2010s, we obviously had ABBA’s pop genius and distinctiveness. Then fellow Swede Max Martin’s songwriting style seamlessly blurred American and British pop from the 90s onwards (in other words, he’s basically written more massive songs than he hasn’t) and helped facilitate today’s common “sounds a bit like R&B but is mostly straight pop” mainstream music. More recently though, a new Scandi sound has developed and Sigrid rides that wave. There are specific music-geekery reasons behind how her latest single “Strangers”—with its huge drop and floaty synths in the verses contrasting with a fist-pumping beat in the chorus—pushes the boundaries of this style further than her debut EP Don’t Kill My Vibe. Even so, other threads run through her oeuvre so far, connecting her with the Scandi pop style that listeners can’t get enough of (and which works not just as part of a trend, but well enough to help break an artist).

Let’s start with “Strangers.” Broadly speaking, it hits the right combination of ethereal and pop banger, alternating between these elements in the verses and choruses. Sigrid’s voice, with its accented tinge and husky undertone, helps a lot—it’s the voice of the most fun girl at a party, who you sit on the kitchen counter with and talk to about boys until the early hours. Dive deeper though and several moments make “Strangers” come into its own, elevating it from cool upbeat background track to sound-of-the-year pop classic.

The driving bass, which kicks in in the chorus, gives “Strangers” its most obvious link to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” That bass throbs throughout the second verse and keeps the track alive, pulsating with energy. In fact, on a repeat listen you may notice that “Strangers” also harks back to Rihanna’s “Only Girl In The World”. Both tracks share a similar offbeat synth, steady, stomping pace and massive vocal.

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“Strangers” is a what I’ll call a ‘sad banger’: a track that combines emotional vulnerability with musical strength and assertiveness (AKA: they’ve put a donk on it). But even though the music and lyrics seem to express conflicting feelings, they’re not at odds with each other. The track uses common “word-painting” techniques (basically, musical onomatopoeia). Both verses end with a lyrical refrain: “and we fall.” This melody is shaped like an upside-down V: it rises on “we,” and descends on “fall.” The “fall” note is lower than the “and” note, accentuating the gesture of that slope. The second time Sigrid sings this refrain, “fall” is a vocal slide, descending even further. In the chorus, the melody is similarly expressive when she sings the “head over heels” of lines “Like strangers / Perfect pretenders / We're falling head over heels.” Here, the melody ascends slightly on “over,” and plummets on “heels.” When she repeats the melody in the next line, “something that ain’t real,” you feel the same sensation of the tune tripping over itself. The lyrics come to life by making you feel somehow displaced.

As well as these more calculated pop techniques, there’s something raw about “Strangers.” Go back to Sigrid’s debut EP, and you’ll find music that feels even more exposed. Her debut single “Don’t Kill My Vibe” propelled Sigrid into the limelight and is, again, a tour-de-force in finding power in your vulnerability. The track was inspired by a difficult writing session with older men who patronized her and Sigrid’s trailblazing mezzo soprano has a rasping, emotional quality that allows us to viscerally feel her indignance and frustration. The first time we hear the lyric “don’t kill my vibe,” her voice discernibly cracks on “kill.” But despite this sensitivity, the strength of the sentiment makes “Don’t Kill” positive and uplifting—imbued, maybe, with a (slightly anachronistic) sense of pride for delivering a hit without the help of the men who shot her down.

The whole track feels more left-field than “Strangers,” opening with a vocoder effect before developing into a relaxed verse and the sort of expansive yet minimal chorus you can freely associate with Scandinavian artists. It also possesses a quality that somewhat likens Sigrid to Lorde: the ability to fill a stadium with little more than a voice and some drums. Its gradual build culminates in a stripped-back bridge and a fake chorus, followed by a satisfying drop into the final chorus. “Don’t Kill My Vibe” sums up the essence of Sigrid at this early stage in her career: fresh and fragile, but rapidly gaining power with an accessibility that resonates with a millennial audience.

This song could have gone either way: its alternative undertone links it to the likes of Anna of the North and Niki & The Dove, respectively Norwegian and Swedish artists whose coolness is attained by remaining slightly aloof. But Sigrid seems to have chosen the other path available to her: young, fun, relatable—and, crucially, poptastic. Her second single, “Plot Twist,” with its vocal riffs and confident sit-on-the-beat, march-down-the-street tempo is reminiscent of Zara Larsson. Another refrain—this time a shouted “shots fired”—foreshadows thousands of people screaming into Sigrid’s outstretched microphone under a blue festival sky.

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As well as this shouted lyric, “Plot Twist” is half-spoken in the chorus, with the majority of the chorus’s first two lines (“Do you need me to spell it out loud? You screwed it up plot twist, moved on and now you want me”) barely deviating from a single note. This is not an uncommon feature of a pop melody, but here it sounds particularly like fellow Norwegian Dagny’s “Love You Like That,” the chorus of which is a bona fide one-noter. Both tracks rely on rhythm to propel them but where Dagny’s is more regular and pounding, Sigrid accelerates through her lyrics, first stalling—“do you need… me… to spell it out loud”—and then rolling downhill, cramming “you screwed it up plot twist moved on and now you want me” into the next bar.

We can’t claim to crack the code to effortless and perfect Scandi pop simply by identifying its key features. But in understanding why we like this sound, which permeates the cracks of British and American pop music, we can understand more about ourselves. Sigrid is a young woman expressing a vulnerability, while simultaneously radiating a power that can be soaked up by other young people. Her music comes with huge emotional releases, pounding heartbeats, and lyrical accents. It feels alive and yet, as with Anna of the North and others, there’s a sense of floating above and outside of reality, encompassing it with the expanse of dreamy sound and looking inwards.

In an interview with NME, Sigrid said that her favorite songs “are always the ones that [make] you wanna cry and dance at the same time.” This is true of many of us and seems to encapsulate what has drawn us to her: Sigrid is keeping busy writing her own favourite songs. Meanwhile, those of us less well-equipped will continue to cry and dance. I might buy a couple of yellow T-shirts too.

You can find Emily on Twitter and Kim on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.