How music makes us happy


We can all agree that music is something which makes us happy. Even when we’re sad, and we want something to cry to, the empathy it can make us feel isn’t far off the emotions we feel when we’re hearing a euphoric dance track in a club after one drink too many. But these songs don’t evoke emotions by sheer chance – as soon as people realised what elements of songs made people happy, you can be sure they reused them again and again. Here’s a look at some of the most common musical motifs designed to make us feel happy.

The four chord song

If you’re starting a pop song from scratch and you’re looking for a winner, you’ll want to pick the 1-5-6-4 chord sequence. It sounds awfully complex, but you know it much better than you think you do – as the Australian comedy band Axis of Awesome pointed out in their popular YouTube viral video. The four chord sequence is practically spelled out for us by Sir Macca in the piano opening of Let It Be, and we haven’t stopped using it since. Most people associate it with ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’, and its most recent golden moment was the chorus of Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’. It makes us happy because musically, it goes in a circle, so we know exactly where it’s going. Also, our ears know we’ve heard it many times before, so we relax into it, and the familiarity makes us happy. Simple.


The key change

This is probably the most commonly used, and clichéd example of a song trying to please the ears of the audience, though even Simon Cowell’s acts are now steering clear of it. They can be subtle (‘If I Could Turn Back Time’), or abrupt and shameless (‘Money, Money, Money’). But they’ll mostly be known as the moment Joe Bloggs wins The X Factor and after a moment where the music dims, it comes back in, greater and higher, with a choir, confetti and Dermot O’Leary screaming out his name. Yes, of all the things in music he’s accused of ruining, Cowell took one of our greatest little pleasures and whored it out to within an inch of its life. He’s not alone though. The other nominees for worst key change include Stevie Wonder on ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’, and Beyonce on ‘Love On Top’ – the latter of whom, in an effort to show us just how high she can sing, takes on not one, but four key changes (so necessary). There is evidence that our love for the key change has not been completely destroyed – it’s still impossible to listen to Whitney’s ‘I Will Always Love You’, and not get goosebumps. You know, the bit that goes: BOOM – and I…


The looping chorus 

By its sheer definition, a chorus is something everyone can sing together. If a song’s going on, screw the verses – we want the chorus again, because we know it. Some choruses die down and come to a very final end – think of ‘Rolling In The Deep’. Other choruses are so satisfying to the ear, they could go on forever. They are designed to sound like they could loop back into themselves again once they’ve finished, and therefore could technically go on forever. Good examples are ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, or ‘Call Me Maybe’. The combination of the beat and the bright violins makes your brain want to hear more of it, and the Jepsen delivers. Even just the one-line refrain from that Bucks Fizz work of genius ‘Making Your Mind Up’ – get that stuck in your head and it could go on forever. Alright, that might not make you happy, but you get the idea. When the chorus does stop, we want to hear it again.


Build and release

This comes largely from the house dance music of the early 90s, currently making a revival in the work of Calvin Harris. The best current example is the one that comes after the choruses in Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’. The music is telling us it’s building up and it’s going to peak. It climaxes like a burst, and you’ll feel compelled to jump if you’re in a club. Stemming from a huge ecstacy scene, this style is reflecting how drug takers released energy in their dancing and response to the music. For the more Rihanna-inclined audiences, it’s more likely to reflect a release of pressure from stress and the daily grind. It sounds like summer – or a night out – both traditionally happy experiences. On a similar note, sometimes a build doesn’t culminate in an explosive release, sometimes it drops – like ‘Insomnia’ by Faithless – but it will largely provoke the same reaction.


The wordless refrain

It’s a combination of a refrain having a catchy tune and nonsensical words that please us, and make us want to sing along, thus pleasing us more. I guarantee that the part of ‘Walking On Sunshine’ you enjoy the most is the ‘Woah-oh’. Just me? These wordless hooks often bring the greatest happiness, but ironically often require the least amount of effort from songwriters. How long did Van Morrison toil over ‘Sha la la la la la la la la la la la la’? Seconds at least. Similarly, replace Van’s ‘sha’ and every ‘la’ with ‘na’, and you get One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ – currently making teenage girls experience unbeknownst emotions the world over. The more sensible music lovers among us will identify with the four minute outro of ‘Hey Jude’, or the ‘woah oh oh’ of Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’. But largely the latter, because you can do a hand dance with it. And if that doesn’t make you happy, nothing will.

This article originally appeared on SoSoGay online.

Rihanna: The bad gal of Instagram


I followed Rihanna soon after joining Instagram last year, seeing that she had 4.5 million followers, and was clearly a popular user. Very quickly I began to see that despite how many meals, outfit changes and facial expressions Jessie J chooses to share, she still doesn’t appear on my feed half as much as ‘BADGALRIRI’. Pretty soon it became clear that she never gets bored of sharing herself, and there are thousands of people who never get bored of seeing her. Most of these ardent fans are school age girls. We’re very aware that Rihanna is a beautiful, talented woman. Women want to be her, men want to sleep with her. So I’d be forgiven for implying that she holds a lot of influence over young girls, some of whom are still finding themselves. What they find on Rihanna’s Instagram profile are photos of the star which are overwhelmingly sexually provocative.


I realise that line makes me sound like an old man. I assure you I’m not. I’m 23 years old, and I consider myself as being quite liberal. But, Rihanna is an undeniable role model. Even my 18 year-old sister, who enjoys the endless outfits Rihanna shares on her page, agreed with me that some of the imagery was too much. For a woman who will happily pose topless on an album cover and wear nothing but a jacket draped on her shoulders for GQ, you can bet the standards only decline on something as free reigned as social media.

I felt particularly compelled to write this piece after seeing a series of photos she posted on January 14th. In a t-shirt that’s been cut in half, she flashes her breasts, and proceeds to photograph her own crotch. Then she’s on her laptop, working away in a position you’d only see if you were to interact with the girls on Live Jasmin. Then there’s a picture with 9 frames in it, which look like someone trapped a crazed nymphomaniac in a photo booth at Boots. Underneath it she simply captions ‘#complex’. Indeed. Because about a third of the photos Rihanna posts are snaps of scripture pages, with certain quotes and phrases highlighted. It took me a while to realise they were coming from her, and not some ‘inspire your day’ account I’d accidentally subscribed to. Aha! She’s a holy bad bitch.


I recall her appearance on The Jonathan Ross Show in 2012 when she explained that her aversion to clothing and love of all things saucy, in spite of fervent faith, was a part of her ‘culture’ – making her sound a bit like the gyrating little girls in My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (who, ironically, she also inspires). But looking at a photo she posted, in which she’s the cover girl for a Barbados tourism ad (in a bikini, bent over on a beach), I’d be inclined to believe she’s probably telling the truth. However I dare say this isn’t fully understood by many of her young female fans around the world, who wouldn’t look quite the same pulling the same pose down on Brighton pier.

I couldn’t possibly comment on every controversial photo she posts, but outside of sexual images of herself, there’s plenty of quotes about doing drugs, not giving a f*ck, and of course – being a bad bitch. There are naked women. There are drugs. There are guns. There are naked women doing drugs, holding guns. The young girls lap this up, and indulging in the tones and language she encourages. They make comments like ‘You are pure perfection’, ‘#one #bad #bitch’ and ‘I’m in love with this pic…pussy boner!’ They will attack others who criticise. One user typically sums up this noble defence,  saying: ‘All you people are straight up dumb as fuck real shit! LMFAO @badgalriri does NOT .. Give a fuck about your opinions .. ;) trust !’ Oh I trust. I trust that she doesn’t care about you either, dear. Interestingly, a quick scroll through comments will show that it’s actually young male users who regularly call Rihanna out on her ‘morals’, with all the typical language of ‘bitch’, ‘slut’ and worse.

Good company for Rihanna in the land of dubious social media profiles is Azealia Banks. We were all shocked yet humoured by the risqué lyrics of  ‘212’. Sorry did I say risqué? I meant filthé. Sexual lyrics are one thing – violent lyrics are a step further. Her online persona is another that I have very little time for. Look at these three profound tweets she blessed us with last weekend within a half hour:

‘Fuck bad press, ima bad bitch.’

‘The only cure for boldness, is more boldness.’

‘You a crackhead son.’

It was the first tweet that really riled me up. What does it mean to be a bad bitch, and why should she, and her 300,000 followers, celebrate it? Perhaps it’s the homophobic rant she aimed at Perez Hilton not long before, calling him a ‘messy faggot’, ‘dick-breath’, and telling him he should kill himself. Two British journalists who suggested she retract her comments were also duly told that they should kill themselves too. Presumably this is an example of boldness curing boldness?


I suppose what really irks me is this constant need to be outrageous in an offensive sense: ‘Look at me, I’m rude! Look at me I’m bad!’ For Michael Jackson to be Bad in 1987 required nothing more than wearing a leather jacket and performing some killer ballet moves from West Side Story. Now you need to be threatening to ruin someone – reputation wise, and in the genitalia. I’m always drawn in to artists who have a bit of an edge about them, but when someone has the distinct aura of being fake, it’s obvious. I believe in Lady Gaga’s lust for popular culture stunts, but I don’t believe that wearing meat is something she would do on an ordinary day of the week. Likewise, Lana del Rey may well be a little retro, but to imply she is both vacant and profound at all times is a little far fetched. That said, I’d much rather see the kind of exaggerated personality presented by Lady Gaga and Lana del Rey than the violent and overtly sexual tones given off by Rihanna and Azealia Banks. I can see through them, but many of their young impressionable fans cannot.

This article originally appeared on SoSoGay online.

My LGBT Hero: Oscar Wilde

WILDE1Watching Rupert Everett’s impassioned West End performance in The Judas Kiss a few weeks ago reminded me of just how important the story of Oscar Wilde is to gay history. I feel the need to champion his story again and again because many young people in the gay community are often only vaguely aware of some relevance he once had, or oblivious to his legacy altogether. We must all fully understand and appreciate the stand he made.

Oscar spoke up for same sex love at a time when it was barely even understood, let along accepted, or tolerated – and for it, he paid a great price. Victorian England was not particularly welcoming to the prospect of homosexuality. It was still illegal and carried a prison sentence. Old Queen Vic herself famously refused to believe lesbianism existed. Wilde was a one of a kind, flamboyant genius from Irish aristocracy who arrived in London armed with staggering intelligence, a killer wardrobe and astonishing wit. Soon, he was documented in newspapers and his name spread to America, where he then travelled to deliver lectures. He was a celebrity in a time before celebrities existed.

His appeal was extraordinary, and when he took to playwriting, he became the star of the London stage. But his private life earned him many enemies, who resented his relationships with young men, which he unashamedly played out in public, despite having a wife and children. The irony was that it was largely young men who had led him into the gay lifestyle and not the other way around. It was his one ill-fated love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), which put him in the bad books of the boy’s father Lord Queensbury, and ultimately led to his arrest for ‘gross indecency’. The scores of men who had followed Oscar so faithfully around London society, and basked in his fame and fortune, were suddenly nowhere to be seen – including Bosie himself. The links made in The Judas Kiss to the story of Jesus are slightly exaggerated but not without relevance. Oscar suffered the same arc of fame, adoration, envy, betrayal and ultimate destruction – all the while holding his head high in defiance of contemporary society.

WILDE2Oscar could have fled abroad and never had to face the charges that most publications dared not even describe – but he chose to stay. His trial in 1895 was quite literally the trial of the century, on account of his celebrity, and the shocking charges placed against him for living life so openly as a homosexual. The judge called it ‘the worst case I have ever tried’. Taking the stand in London’s Old Bailey, Oscar gave one of the most spellbinding testimonies in history, defending what he referred to as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. When asked to explain what that was, he declared:

‘”The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name,” and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.’

Wilde served the maximum sentence of two years hard labour, which the court ruled ‘totally inadequate’, but his real punishment was much worse. Upon leaving prison, Wilde was forced into exile in Europe – far too infamous to stay in England, with a reputation too toxic to be allowed anywhere near his wife and children. He was penniless, in terrible physical and mental health, and suffering from writer’s block when he died in Paris at age 46. There is nothing more tragic than considering how – on his death bed – he surely thought his crime had resigned him to the dustbin of history.

But a genius like Oscar’s – much like many of our LGBT heroes before and after – is one which could never be erased. As the tide turned on sexual politics in the 20th century, and his legacy began to be reassessed, Wilde was soon catapulted back to the fore of the literary canon and his legacy is now remembered with wonder, not blocked out in shame as it was in his lifetime. Plays like The Importance Of Being Earnest and A Woman Of No Importance are some of the most performed works in theatre, and many would cite him as the greatest playwright since Shakespeare. His letters – including De Profundis, written to Bosie from jail – are some of the greatest to be written in the English language.

Aside from his political importance, Oscar’s famous wit was equally revelatory and more than just satirical banter for his contemporaries. It was the foundation of camp, which remained the unofficial language of the gay community for the century to come. Oscar concealed knowing references to same sex love in his jokes and plays, and played out a certain fabulousness through characters like Lady Bracknell, to the delight of Victorian high society, who never knew what he was really talking about. As a result, the gay community grew to communicate with one another in ways that didn’t reveal its true nature to outsiders. As gay equality becomes more of a reality, there is less of a need for this unspoken sensibility, but we should never forget where it comes from and how it was used for decades as a means of both friendly dialogue and social survival.

As with any great movement, there are many people who chip away at the issue before it sees its full glory. Certainly the 20th century gave us more gay icons than we can shake a stick at, but in my opinion, Wilde is our founding father. He opened the door through which everyone else would pass, and in doing so, sacrificed his reputation, his art and ultimately his life. A special place should always be reserved for him in LGBT history.

WILDE3This article originally appeared on SoSoGay online.

The resignation of Benedict XVI: what happens next?


It was less than a month before news of the Pope’s resignation that I penned an article about what it meant to be a young gay Catholic in the 21st century. Now, it’s interesting to see similar religious issues brought to the fore of public discussion in the wake of recent news. As we know, Pope Benedict XVI is one of only a handful of popes to resign and the first to so do for over 600 years. Lofty rhetoric aside, this is an historic abdication, which will play out quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

When the Pope takes off to his glorified retirement home at the end of February, he won’t leave behind too much of a papal legacy. He will largely be remembered for his covering up of the church sex abuse and his conservative views on contraception, abortion and homosexuality – that is, if history remembers him at all. The abuse scandal was a whole lot greater than him, and as for the conservative views, well, they’re nothing new. The Pope stood for stagnant and painful continuity, so it’s not surprising that many people are now hopeful for the ‘Obama moment’ – the coming of a new leader who will change the face of the church and bring new hope to an old role. Unfortunately, we’ve become too swept up in a political world where TV debates and smiles win votes, and ‘out with the old’ also means ‘in with the new’. I hate to break it to you, but the election of the new pope will most likely be a standard changing of the guard.

In early March there will commence a conclave – a private meeting between over 200 top cardinals, enclosed in isolation until they select the next leader. Although the only rule is that the Pope be a Catholic-baptised male (yes, I’m available), it’s usually one of the Cardinals in the room who is selected. Once they have decided on their man, they let us know by sending white smoke out of their chimney. And who can we expect to emerge triumphant onto the balcony?

Unlike last time, when right-hand man Ratzinger was the obvious favourite, there isn’t really a leading contender this time, but two things are being discussed. One is that the very fact of Benedict’s continued existence will influence the Cardinals’ choice, assuring that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree; the other is that a non-European pope will be selected for the first time in modern history. Will this mean he’ll be different? The simple answer is, probably not.

Pope John Paul II: His Remarkable Journey

It’s easy to hope Western civilization’s rapid gains in gay equality will be reflected by every incoming global leader, but the Catholic Church is not about to start entering popularity contests. It doesn’t need to. The gay cause may be one which reaches political fruition this century, but for every rainbow-flag-waving, well educated European mocking Vatican doctrine,  many more people in the developing world are still dependent on the church for day-to-day survival, basic knowledge and invaluable faith. I know what that feels like, for not so long ago Ireland was one such country, but just as it has lost the faith of a few million on the Emerald Isle, the Church has made huge gains in Africa, Asia and South America, which all boast growing Catholic populations. It’s hoped the new Pope will represent this.

Will this mean a black Pope? Quite possibly – but again, this is not a sign of the moving times. A black man in the Vatican is not quite as progressive as a black man in the White House. In many areas where we thought Benedict was archaic, an African Pope would likely be even more conservative. This is Catholicism’s Africa, where the Church denies condoms to a continent devastated by AIDS and where homosexuality is still largely punishable by death. As names and photos of African cardinals began to swirl around after Pope Benedict’s announcement, I remembered a myth I’d heard as a child in Ireland that a black Pope’s election would preface the end of the world. Unsure of whether this was based on anything concrete, or if it was just a bit of casual racism that circulated among country folk, I did my research. Certainly there are people who link a black Pope with apocalyptic consequences, but nothing is founded in any substantial source. What I did stumble across was something much more interesting: The Prophecy of the Popes.

This is a text which was written by Saint Malachy, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, in the 1100s, which was the result of a vision he experienced on a trip to Rome. He foresaw the future of the papacy, and using short descriptive phrases, predicted the identities of all the popes who would lead the church. For example, John Paul II is depicted as ‘of the eclipse of the sun’ – and he was indeed born during a solar eclipse. Benedict is marked as ‘the glory of the olive’ – the olive being the symbol of the Benedictine order. The document is in some doubt. The church obviously dismisses it and the fact that it wasn’t unearthed until the 1500s (plenty of time to fill in all the contemporary history if it’s a fake), means many people are wary of its authenticity. But theologians haven’t ruled it out completely. It counts up to 112 Popes, of which we can calculate Benedict to be 111. As for 112, (brace yourselves), the prophecy tells us:

‘In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit Peter the Roman, who will pasture his sheep in many tribulations, and when these things are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The End.’

The city of seven hills is Rome. Again, I have to point out that some scholars question if there was a gap in the text between pope 111, and the final ‘Peter the Roman’, due to some awkward grammar but for anyone interested in a juicy prediction, they don’t come much better than this. No pope has ever taken the regnal name Peter, since the very first – Peter of the 12 apostles – friend of Jesus, and founder of the church. They withhold his name out of respect. Surely they wouldn’t break that tradition now, especially since the prophecy names him? Probably not. But if his birth name is Peter, that’s a different story. So try Peter Turkson on for size, the black Ghanaian Cardinal who is currently standing with odds of 4/1 to take the papacy next month. Could he be the Peter in question? Is he the black Pope of urban myth? Is he the next Pope, and the last Pope?


For centuries, theologians have imaged the Prophecy of the Popes speaks of the end of the world. I wonder if it does not speak of the destruction of the earth but of the church itself. Consider the ‘persecution’ – is this a precursor to reversed intolerance of religion, fuelled by science, liberalism and desire for an almost post-colonial revenge? The destruction of Rome need not mean the city, but the Vatican as a place and an institution. The line about judgement is one we are used to hearing. The OED defines ‘apocalypse’ as ‘an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale’. When translated directly from Greek, it means a disclosure of knowledge, hidden from humanity in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception. In other words, a revelation. Is it possible that the sustained and stubborn conservatism of a new Pope could bring about a separation of church and people, evoking a devastation of faith? If the scriptures were speaking metaphorically or theologically, then surely there could be no greater apocalypse for the church than this.

I have speculated on possibilities here and no one can say for sure whether any of it will become relevant in the near future. Remember that the decline of the church could do a whole lot more damage to civilisation than advocates of gay equality might imagine. Personally, I hold out hope for a reinvention of the church. It’s not too late to salvage its reputation, but time is running out and the next Pope might just be the tipping point. This is certainly plenty to chew on and to bear in mind as we wait for that white smoke to emerge from the Vatican some time in March.

This article appeared originally on SoSoGay online.

BRIT Awards 2013

Brit Awards 2013 - Show

As ITV’s ad campaign reminded us this year, the BRIT Awards have always been and always will be the biggest night in British music, and 2013 didn’t disappoint. Last night’s ceremony was a look back at a year in music where Britain gave some incredible exports to the world: from Adele to One Direction, Mumford and Sons to Emeli Sandé, there was plenty of celebrating to be done.

Adele won the Best British Single for ‘Skyfall’ which she accepted from L.A. where she is hoping to bag the Oscar on Sunday night. Fellow Londoners-done-good Mumford and Sons were the toast of the night, taking Best British Band before bringing down the house with a performance of ‘I Will Wait’.

But as far as performances go, the evening was a little underwhelming. Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift gave decent performances, but none of the spectacle we have come to expect from our American visitors. One Direction ticked the pop segment, but not with anything too exciting. Robbie Williams had a nice set design, but looked a bit like Morrissey had walked on to Olly Murs’ performance by mistake. Worst of all there were none of the ceremony’s famous duets. Anyone holding out for a surprise appearance from Beyoncé or the Rolling Stones will have been very disappointed.

Even the banter was a little thin on the ground. James Cordon relied on worn jokes about Harry Styles’ flings with older women, and his infamous interjection to Adele’s speech last year. Even kissing Nick Grimshaw on the lips didn’t make him seem very funny. Had Sharon Osbourne not come on and said ‘willy’, the evening would have gone without lukewarm watershed defiance completely. Even then, it was Harry Styles’ willy she was talking about.

The evening’s ‘who the hell is this’ moment came twice – as chilled out, lesser know, guitar playing Ben Howard won British Breakthrough Act and Best British Male (he dropped out of uni, you know), both times proving that he had absolutely nothing to say for himself. Other winners included Coldplay, Frank Ocean, and the ever profound Lana ‘I made my life into a work of art’ Del Rey.

The losers of the evening were Alt-J, Plan B and Paloma Faith, who held double nominations but didn’t win. However, the profiles which were put together to mark their nominations in the Best British Album category certainly showed off the modest masterpieces they’ve created, and were a reminder that that the British album contest remains a powerhouse, even when it’s not dominated by major pop acts.

Emeli Sandé professed herself to be ‘a very unlikely pop star’, as she picked up the awards for Best British Female and Best British Album, and most people would probably agree. Her success in 2012 cannot be denied – in fact, it could not be escaped. But her omnipresence is only just made tolerable by the fact that she is a truly great talent, with a formidable catalogue of songs already under her belt. She closed the show (as only she can), reminding everyone that this night truly belonged to her.

All in all, a night without incident or highlight, but a celebration of one of the best years British music has had in a long time.

Full winners list
  • Critics’ Choice – Tom Odell
  • British Female Solo Artist – Emeli Sande
  • British Breakthrough – Ben Howard
  • British Group – Mumford & Sons
  • Best Male Solo Artist – Ben Howard
  • International Female Solo Artist – Lana Del Rey
  • Best Live Act – Coldplay
  • International Female Solo Artist – Lana Del Rey
  • Best British Single with Capital FM – Adele, ‘Skyfall’
  • International Male Solo artist – Frank Ocean
  • British Album Of The Year – Emeli Sande, ‘Our Version Of Events’
  • BRITs Global Success – One Direction

The BRIT Awards 2013 can be watched in their entirety on the ITV Player.

This review appeared originally on SoSoGay online.