On The Trickle Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics II: Maroon 5′s “Move Like Jagger”

by Thomas Brett

Almost everywhere you listen in mainstream American popular music today you hear bands coming to terms with electronic dance music’s most thumping contribution to 21st-century sonic entertainment: the “four-on-the-floor” bass drum pulse. This is the pulse that drove (and still drives) disco, electro, techno and house, as well as all kinds of derivatives of these pioneering electronic dance music styles. Precisely calibrated around a tempo between 120-130 beats per minute, the pulse is insistent in its insistence on moving people to dance. As long as you have a strong four-on-the-floor kick drum, you hardly need much else in the mix.  But combine a relentless beat with a catchy pop hook and you’ve got a seriously infectious musical artifact.

Maroon 5′s “Moves Like Jagger”(2011) has just this blend of four-on-the-floor and simple and contagious melody. The song is built around a repeating 8-bar sequence of two chords: b minor for four bars, and then e minor for four bars. Repeat, repeat, and repeat. The beat and melody mix works to scary perfection and not surprisingly the song has hit the top of the pop music charts in 17 countries.  Here it is:

Two comments about the sound of this song. First, listen on headphones and note the timbre of the kick drum.  It’s a real drummer playing the kick, of course, but the drum sound’s envelope and tone contour evoke the kick sound on the Roland TR-808 drum machine (a key instrument of early electro and techno). This sound referencing is not accidental: it’s what makes”Moves Like Jagger” electronic dance music, rather than pop-rock-soul music. Or if not being dance music, then certainly capable of functioning as dance music. (Is there a difference?) With the kick drum sounding crystalline and perfectly steady, the other instruments (the disco guitar, pulsating synths, and the bass on the off-beats) fall in step. Second, listen at 3:16 when Christina Aguilera enters with her cameo vocal. Here you hear something else from the DJ world: a full frequency filter sweep that makes the music sound likes its gone underwater for a time. Again, this is a deliberate referencing of a classic mixing technique from electronic dance music: the filter sweep brings us down somewhere and then returns us to the surface, revitalized, like we’ve been holding our breaths and need to gasp for air just as the chorus hits.

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But “Moves Like Jagger” isn’t as convincing when it’s performed live because without the sound processing required to make a drumset sound like a drum machine or a mix sound like it’s being tweaked by a DJ, Maroon 5 is just a band playing a strange rockified electro pop. What is interesting to me is how the recorded and processed sound artifact continues as a gold standard for musicians to re-create/emulate in their performances.  Given the surgical technological tweaking that goes into making a pop music beast like “Moves Like Jagger” (which will surely continue to replicate itself in DJ mixes for years to come), it’s not always easy for a band to copy themselves onstage, note for Auto-Tuned note. Here’s a clip from Maroon 5′s recent performance on SNL, doing their best to make themselves sound like their electronic dance music selves:

In a Billboard interview, Maroon 5′s singer Adam Levine talks elliptically about “Moves Like Jagger”: “It was one of those songs that was definitely a risk. It’s a bold statement. We’ve never really released a song like that. But it’s exciting to do something different, do something new. I’m just glad that everyone likes it.”

You can read more about the trickle down of electronic dance music aesthetics here.