It may not have set the charts alight when it was first released in 2003, but it’s entirely possible that Maps by New York art-punk outfit Yeah Yeah Yeahs has been the single most influential song of the 21st century so far. How? Let’s look…
There’s always a story connected to classic songs. Like the one about Bing Crosby recording White Christmas on the hottest day of the year. Or the one about Otis Redding putting that iconic bit of whistling in (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay in as a placeholder, and then being killed in a plane crash before he had a chance to finish it. Or how Lou Bega wrote Mambo No.5 in 15 minutes in his back garden.
The story you usually hear about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ best-known song, Maps, is the one about the video. The story about how, under those hot stage lights, Karen O was crying real, unrequested tears while singing the song because her boyfriend was supposed to turn up to the shoot to see her before she left to go on tour – but didn’t.
So shot after shot, where Karen is staring wet-eyed and distracted into the distance – her lips wobbling, her nose twitching – everything she does right up until that final slow exhale as the song ends: it’s all real.
She thought that her relationship was over. She thought her boyfriend (the one for whom the song had been written) didn’t want to see her any more and wasn’t even going to pay her the courtesy of saying farewell in person. She thought she had been stood up in front of her bandmates, the technical crew, the 30 million people who would later go on to watch the video on YouTube.
It’s hard enough to perform in that position at the best of times, but the poignancy borders on unbearable when you consider the song she’s singing is specifically about leaving your love to go on tour.
Her boyfriend did eventually show up to the studio, albeit three hours late.
They broke up soon after.
That’s the story that always gets told about Maps. The hook that every feature written on Karen O from here unto eternity will be hung from. The memory that will long outlast their second, third and fourth albums.
And that’s fine. It’s a good story.
There is another story surrounding Maps though. One that very rarely gets told.
The story of how – despite it only getting to No.26 in the UK Charts; and barely even scraping its way onto the US Billboard Hot 100 – the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have recorded and released what may well be the single most influential song of the 21st century so far.
Its impact has been quiet but undeniable. Since it was released (first in 2003, on the album Fever To Tell; then as a single in its own right in early 2004) practically every last part of that song has been sampled, covered or copied in a number of other artists’ work.
Three songs in particular, each released five years apart, have used Maps in three very different ways. Each of those songs has arguably defined (or helped to define) the era of pop in which they were released. One of them may even have altered the course of pop music forever.
If you don’t know Maps, now’s the time to get yourself acquainted with it. Take a quick listen and then we’ll begin.
The introduction to Maps is a strange thing. It starts with the band’s guitarist, Nick Zinner, strumming a single note extremely quickly for nearly fifteen full seconds before anything else happens.
This note (a D) is played to a basic semiquaver rhythm, meaning that Zinner is hitting it sixteen times in quick succession every bar. He plays about seven and a half bars entirely solo right at the start, which means that same note is played roughly 120 times in that section alone – over and over again in a rapid, regimented fashion.
Then come the drums.
Underneath that simple semiquaver guitar line, the drummer Brian Chase brings in a surprisingly intricate rhythm pattern.
These musical details don’t particularly matter, only to say that what you’re hearing is pretty distinctive. There is no mistaking it for another song – the way you might mistake Hall And Oates’ Maneater for Stevie Wonder’s Part-Time Lover, or No Doubt’s Don’t Speak for Supertramp’s Breakfast In America.
It is also tuneless. Literally, it’s tuneless. In fact, it’s literally monotonous too. The only note that is played before Karen O starts singing is that single D, ringing out for nearly thirty seconds before a second note is heard.
All of which makes it a rather strange choice for a sample, but this is the exact bit that the Black Eyed Peas chose to use – lock, stock and barrel – in their number one single Meet Me Halfway.
The sample kicks in at around the 40 second mark, under many layers of other music. If you’re listening to the song through bad speakers you may only be able to hear Zinner’s guitar line, twanging along at twice the speed of anything else. If you concentrate you’ll also be able to isolate Chase’s drum line too. It’s quite quiet in the mix (in stark contrast to the prominence it plays in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ original) but it’s there.
Why choose it as a sample if there’s no real melody to speak of and the original drum pattern gets all but drowned out by your drum machine?
You’ll have to ask will.i.am if you want the god’s honest truth about it, but this is our two cents.
Partly it’s a thematic inclusion. Though Meet Me Halfway is not explicitly concerned with cartography per se, the general ideas of direction, travel and navigation are littered throughout the song. Actual, physical maps play a big part in the song’s video too.
So maybe it’s there as a bit of an in-joke. An easter egg. A little wink and a nod to the nerds who are paying close attention.
But there’s more to it than just that. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to get a guitarist in to strum out a single note all over the top of the track, so why use a specific sample for something you could have effortlessly ripped off?
It’s not that will.i.am couldn’t have replicated it, or that he didn’t think to. More likely it’s that he admired the song and wanted to pay homage to Maps the only way he knows how. Namely: putting a bunch of bad rapping and robobeats all over the top of it.
How do we know? Because Maps‘ influence on Meet Me Halfway doesn’t begin and end with the inclusion of this sample. Consciously or otherwise, Maps has influenced the song’s entire structure.
Maps is pretty light on lyrics. The verses are mainly compromised of short, single-syllable words, used more as percussion than melody. This is particularly true of the word ‘say’, a word which Karen O repeats over and over in sets of three (“Oh, say, say, say / Oh, say, say, say” etc)
Now, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs can hardly lay claim to the Power Of Three. It’s a rhetorical trick that has been around as long as language itself. Nor is it the case that the Black Eyed Peas ever shy away from repeating line after line of their songs. They do it all the time.
So it might be coincidence that Meet Me Halfway mimics Maps in its liberal use of 3x repeated words (“I spend my time just thinking, thinking, thinking ’bout you” / “ “I, I, I want you right now” / “For, for, for you and I”)
What is less likely to be coincidence though, is what happens when the chorus kicks in.
Both Maps and Meet Me Halfway build up to their chorus with one of these repeated patterns of three (YYY: “say, say, say”; BEP: “wassup, wassup, wassup”) and then they both burst into their choruses on the same syllable sound.
Fergie and Karen O hit the first beat of their respective choruses by singing and stressing the exact same syllable (“way”) on the exact same note (D).
Given that there are thousands of syllables in the English language, the odds of picking the same one to start your chorus purely by chance are remote.
Picking the same note to sing is much more likely (there are, after all, only twelve to choose from) but that choice would be far less interesting had the two songs have been written in the same key.
But they’re not.
Meet Me Halfway is in B minor; Maps is in G major. Without getting lost in the theoretical long grass of this, the purpose of the note of D changes from key to key, serving a different function in the B minor scale than it does in G major.
It therefore appears to have been a deliberate choice on behalf of the Black Eyed Peas to manipulate their melody line in order to make the “way” syllable that both songs share – and start their choruses on – land on D.
Putting it in perfect unison not only with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ original melody line, but with also with Nick Zinner’s ringing guitar riff.
Still, as successful as the Black Eyed Peas were in the late 00s, will.i.am is not the most influential popstar to get his hands on Maps.
That honour is Beyoncé’s.
When Beyoncé’s latest album, Lemonade, was released back in April there was a lot of talk about two things: the identity of Becky With The Good Hair, and the track Hold Up.
Hold Up, perhaps more than any other of the tracks on the album, was the one that most people felt directly addressed her relationship with Jay-Z and his supposed infidelity. It is also the album’s most curious composition – mixing the easy-listening lounge crooner Andy Williams with a rap refrain of Soulja Boy’s and the indie-rock of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs all together into a slow, swaggering dancehall tune.
The Andy Williams sample is a pretty direct fit. Can’t Get Used To Losing You already has a sort of syncopated skank-lite rhythm, which forms the basic beat and chord progression of Hold Up. The Soulja Boy interpolation makes sense too as Beyoncé continues her move from an out-and-out pop production to a harder, darker sound – increasingly influenced by rap and trap.
But the inclusion of a New York art-punk ballad? How did that come to be involved in the mix?
It all started with a tweet.
In 2011 – eight years after Maps was released – Ezra Koenig, of the band Vampire Weekend, posted the words “Hold up… they don’t love you like I love you” to Twitter.
Three years later, in 2014, Koenig remembered it while working in the studio with the producer Diplo (of Major Lazer). Diplo was playing him the Andy Williams’ sample on a loop and Koenig started singing the slightly altered line “Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you / Slow down, they don’t love you like I love you” over the top of it.
Koenig riffed a bit more, adding more lines and fleshing it out with the full intention of turning it into a Vampire Weekend song of his own. He and Diplo got as far as working it into a demo, but never got round to recording it properly. Instead the demo got passed up the way. To Beyoncé.
The bit that Beyoncé uses is Maps’ most famous segment: the chorus. The line “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you”
It’s instantly recognisable as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ song, and yet every single element of its composition has been changed. The lyrics have been altered in order to accommodate the song’s title, the rhythm has been altered to keep time with the dancehall beat, and the melody has been altered (presumably) in order to avoid a discordant clash with the unorthodox chord progression of the Andy Williams sample.
Again though, the question crops up: Why? If the sample needs such a comprehensive overhaul in order to make it fit, why use it at all?
It wouldn’t have taken much to obscure the raw materials provided by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs beyond recognition. The groove that Beyoncé uses is different enough from the eight-beat rock of the original that it would avoid any sort of Blurred Lines-style lawsuit. The melody dips and turns in different ways too, so it’s only really the distinctive lyrical hook of “They don’t love you like I love you” that would have left Bey open to a legal challenge if she hadn’t cleared it with Karen and the boys first.
If she’d have changed those words though it’s likely that no-one would have been any the wiser that the whole inspiration for the song came from a weird tweet about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Clearly though that lyrical hook was important. Important enough to give Karen, Nick and Brian all a writing credit on one of the biggest album releases of this year; but also important enough that none of the many, many people who worked on Hold Up never thought to chuck it out either.
In the four years between the demo and the release, Diplo could have said to Ezra Koenig “Hmmm, can you try something else?” Throughout the Lemonade songwriting sessions, Father John Misty (who wrote Hold Up’s first verse) could have decided to take the song in an entirely different direction. And at any point in any of these proceedings Beyoncé could have put the kibosh on it.
But she didn’t. Bey obviously wanted it there – front and centre.
When you consider how many people worked on that song – artists from so many different genres and disciplines, including indie, electronic, dancehall, RnB, folk, rap and garage – and all of them deciding that this sample would take the limelight, it’s a phenomenal endorsement. Especially given that (as with the Black Eyed Peas) it would have been so simple to rip it off without acknowledgement.
And this is where it gets hard to nail down the true extent of a song’s influence, because not everyone is as scrupulous with acknowledgement as will.i.am and Beyoncé have been.
Arguably the biggest impact that Maps has had on the landscape of 21st century pop music comes from two people who haven’t given the Yeah Yeah Yeahs a single credit on any of the songs they’ve written, yet they owe them the biggest artistic debt of gratitude.
Oh, just the producers behind some of the biggest, multi-million number one selling pop hits of all time: Max Martin and Dr Luke.
In his fascinating book The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, New Yorker writer John Seabrook explains how Max Martin and ‘Dr’ Luke Gottwald had been listening to an indie song on the radio which they thought had all the makings of a massive pop hit – except for one vital thing. A big chorus.
“We were listening to alternative and indie music,” Dr Luke says, “and talking about some song – I don’t remember what it was. I said, ‘Ah, I love this song,’ and Max was like, ‘If they would just write a damn pop chorus on it!’ It was driving him nuts, because that indie song was sort of on six, going to seven, going to eight, the chorus comes … and it goes back down to five. It drove him crazy. And when he said that, it was like, light bulb. ‘Why don’t we do that, but put a big chorus on it?’
So they decided that they would take it upon themselves to correct that mistake. They sat down and wrote the song that they so desperately wanted Maps to be.
Though there are a couple of clear similarities between Since U Been Gone and Maps (the prominent chugging guitar intro, the key of G major, the final word before the chorus being ‘say’) for the most part the song is an entirely original composition – one which has just taken a few stylistic, sonic cues from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ original.
The instrumental breakdown though? That is spliced almost exactly from the middle eight of Maps.
The ‘middle eight’ of a song is an optional section. It usually happens about two thirds of the way through to ring the changes a bit, a new eight-bar phrase that’s plopped in to stop a song from just flitting between verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus.
In Maps it’s the instrumental bit where Karen O stops singing and Zinner and Chase rock out for a bit, crashing and chugging to a slightly different rhythm. It starts on bar 61 at roughly the 2:00 mark.
Since U Been Gone features an instrumental section of its own that is practically identical. It starts on bar 70, at roughly the 2:05 mark.
We raise the point not to call Max Martin or Dr Luke out for any sort of plagiarism or copyright infringement (although skirting the edges of the law does seem to be something of a signature move of Dr Luke’s – both artistically and otherwise). We raise it to make clear that Maps didn’t just have some sort of vague, amorphous inspiration on their wider writing process. It very clearly informed the actual nuts and bolts of Since U Been Gone‘s composition.
We’ve written about the evolution of Max Martin’s musical process elsewhere (so if it’s of interest, take a look) but what happened with the recording and release of Since U Been Gone is worth more detailed examination.
In 2004, Max Martin was already hugely in demand as a writer and producer. He had some massive hits under his belt using what was – up until that point – his signature sound: a kind of funky slap bass and cowbell pop jam. Slam Dunk Da Funk for 5ive, Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) for Backstreet Boys, It’s Gonna Be Me for NSYNC, …Baby, One More Time for Britney.
That sound had done him proud for many years, but the world was moving on. He needed something new. Something to keep him fresh and relevant. Dr Luke brought Maps to him and it changed everything.
Since U Been Gone was the biggest hit he had turned in since …Baby, One More Time. It was massive. Giving the first winner of American Idol a gutsy, balls-out pop-rock song was a huge gamble – one that Kelly Clarkson hated, but one that really paid off.
Its success opened up whole new avenues to him, allowing him to refine that same pop-punk sound, not only with Clarkson for another album and a half, but with other artists like Pink, Avril Lavigne and The Veronicas.
All of which proved to be good practice to get him ready for I Kissed A Girl by Katy Perry.
Though there aren’t any direct musical lifts from Maps in it, I Kissed A Girl draws very heavily from the same sound palettes as Since U Been Gone did – replicating, and building upon, its success.
This is not by accident. And how do we know?
I Kissed A Girl was originally offered to Macy Gray. As Gray reveals in this interview, the demo she was sent originally “wasn’t like a big rock thing”. She said that the original had a groovy bass line – the hallmark of Max Martin’s early sound.
The demo that Macy is talking about never saw the light of day (though, curiously enough, she has since recorded her own cover version of Maps). The version that did was a rewrite. A rewrite that went on to become an international number one, selling six million copies worldwide. That version just so happened to sound a lot more like Since U Been Gone – with its chugging guitar line hitting out an extremely fast and monotonous riff in triplet quavers.
It wasn’t just a one-off either. If you ever hear that same sound cropping up in a Katy Perry song (and you can take your pick from Hot ’N’ Cold, Teenage Dream, Part Of Me etc) the chances are it’s a Max Martin/Dr Luke cut.
Again, it’s important to point out this isn’t a sound that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs invented. They have no artistic claim to semiquavers or to single note riffs. However, in popifying Maps – which was their stated (and successful) goal – Max Martin and Dr Luke essentially created the sonic template for a decade’s worth of smash hits, from Since U Been Gone, through I Kissed A Girl, and right up to the 16-semiquaver synth-chug of Taylor Swift’s Style.
This has not escaped the notice of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Karen O told Rolling Stone that hearing the Kelly Clarkson take-off of Maps‘ breakdown was like “getting bitten by a poisonous varmint” – and, in 2006, with no idea how far and wide both songs’ influence would spread, it may well have felt deadly. But Maps has not only survived, it has flourished.
Rolling Stone has it listed as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time. NME has called it the greatest alternative love song of all time. It was picked to be part of the multi-million selling video game Rock Band, and it has been covered – in whole or in part – by everyone from The White Stripes, to Radiohead, to N-Dubz.
There is no telling what the world of popular music would sound like now if Dr Luke had brought Max Martin a different song to emulate, any more than we can tell if, or how, Maps will reappear again in some other form.
Anyone who can predict the path of pop stands to make themselves incredibly rich, but whoever it is that ends up setting the trends of 2021 should invest in a copy of Fever To Tell.
That “Say, say, say” refrain is practically begging to be used in something.