It was announced yesterday that Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her bananas good A Visit From the Goon Squad. Congratulations to her! Goon Squad is an incredible book covering multiple eras, past present and future, told through the lens of those working in, playing and loving music. One particularly moving chapter, which is told in all Power Point, addresses a young boy’s Asberger’s-fueled obsession with brief pauses in songs. When the book was released, Egan wrote a story for our Vinyl Archeology column, writing about seven songs with distinct pauses. Read the below, pick up the book and make sure to watch the chapter as a Power Point presentation.
Enjoy the Silence: Pop Music’s Greatest Pauses
I had never thought much about the pauses in songs until I read So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star by Jacob Slichter, the drummer for Semisonic. Slichter describes mixing “Closing Time,” the band’s 1998 mega-hit, with Bob Clearmountain, who inserted a pause before the final chorus—a move so characteristic of his mixes that the pauses are known as “Clearmountain pauses.” I was working on A Visit From the Goon Squad, a novel about people in the music business, and Slichter’s anecdote inspired a chapter called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” The narrator, a 12-year-old girl writing in her journal (which she keeps in PowerPoint) describes a series of conflicts between her father and her older brother Lincoln, who has an Asperger’s obsession with pauses in songs. At one point their father demands to know what the pauses mean to his son. Their mother, fed up with the strife, answers for the boy: “The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.” She’s describing what I’d call a Classic Pause. The following are further elaborations and variants (along with a few metaphors).
The Doobie Brothers, “Long Train Runnin’”
Here, a Classic Pause functions in exactly the way Lincoln’s mother describes, and does it better than any other song I can think of. A complete two-second silence, 45 seconds before the end of the song, creates a suspension so pure that it feels like the song might actually be over. The pause is broken by the guitar refrain presaging the final chorus, and its reappearance brings a bittersweet relief, like spotting someone out a window whose arrival you’ve wildly hoped for—if only to say goodbye.
NOFX, “Please Play This Song on the Radio”
The first part of this song about trying to write a hit single consists of the naming and delivery of several necessary elements of the “hit” formula—one of which is “a little pause.” The pause, when it arrives two-thirds through, is a fully committed two seconds of silence that also functions as a Structural Pause: It heralds a switch of topic and attitude from the slavish desire for airplay to a gleeful skewering of the imagined DJ who opts not to play it, followed by a flurry of profanity that of course precludes airplay.
The Structural Pauses in this song function in a diametrically opposite way from all other pauses discussed here: they’re purely structural, providing no dramatic emphasis at all. Two one-second interruptions have been inserted into each of the three musical refrains for a total of six pauses, each of which disrupts the song’s rhythm and then reasserts it on a slightly different beat. The pauses are neutral elements of the song’s basic architecture, like tent poles around which the rest of it is draped.
Eminem, “No Love (Clean Version)”
Behold: the Inadvertent Pause, created by the removal of profanity in “clean” versions of Eminem’s songs—the only ones I’ll let my nine-year-old son (who first introduced me to him) listen to. Depending on the density of original profanity, the clean versions can display an almost lacy texture that is more air than noise. In “No Love,” though, the gaps are more modest, like sutures pulling the seam of the song tighter, exaggerating the jittery staccato of Eminem’s verse. Now here’s the weird and fascinating part: those gaps are actually more compelling than the profanity itself, which—let’s face it—is pretty dull and flavorless beside the verbal feats Eminem is capable of, his riff on “corridor,” “coroner” and “corner” in “3AM” being my personal favorite.
George Michael, “Faith”
George Michael’s employment of the Classic Pause is noteworthy both for its commitment—a full three seconds of total silence—and its beautiful mirroring of the song’s lyrics. It comes at a point where the song would feel truncated if it were to actually end, so I find myself saying, as the silence opens and continues, “I know the song isn’t over…I think the song isn’t over…I hope the song isn’t—” at which point the refrain swoops back in: “You got to have faith!” Need I say more?
Semisonic, “Closing Time”
This song is built around the contrast between the gentle, cerebral quality of its verses and the explosive force of the chorus. The pause, inserted before the final chorus, is what I’d call an Anticipatory Pause: a three-second suspension of vocals but not instrumentation, so we know the song isn’t over. Being made to wait for that final outburst is delicious, like pausing to gulp in breath before blowing out the candles on a cake.
The Zombies, “Time of the Season”
This song invokes what I’d call Ambient Pauses—they have a mellowing effect rather than a dramatic one. This is not to say the pausing is non-committal—we’re talking four complete silences of two seconds each. But the general tempo of the song is so relaxed that the pauses register more as expressions of its (if you will) spacey flow than interruptions of it. They’re like the gaps between clouds, lovely but not unexpected.