WHY I HATE…4/4
I blame capitalism. As a tiny urchin I’d insist upon watching The Money Programme, to the chagrin of my staunchly socialist dad. Then, as now, I had nary a stock or share to my name – but I did have a yen for the theme tune. Half-inched from the 1964 movie The Carpetbaggers, this Elmer Bernstein-hewn dynamic cartoon hustle was powered by scrapyard brass, its groove a tantalising half-step too long. It made no sense… but I was mesmerised. That extra moment jutted out and snagged me like a splinter. Why did it sound all wrong?
Other pre-adolescent favourites had a similar jarring quality: the Mars suite from Holst; Mission: Impossible; Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’. What initially seemed awkward was slowly reshaping me. Now, decades later, I find myself distrusting symmetry; I think, dance, breathe in odd numbers, askew from the endlessly recycled permeations of 4/4. Take me clubbing and I feel like I’m trying to put on a glove that has one finger too few. Not only is my DNA clustered in fives and sevens, but I yearn for these parts to be diced, stretched, folded into origami cranes and arranged in seemingly random sequences. I crave impossible complexity, music that resists comprehension, so as to relive the thrill of infant bafflement. Not knowing when the next beat will fall can be overwhelming – it locks you into the moment, focuses awareness on the now and forces immersion. It’s easier to lose yourself in a maze than on a straight road.
That said, I don’t really hate the subject at hand. To do so would be to hate Can, James Brown, the Ramones, AC/DC and countless others whose existence is proof of the power of the quadrilateral stomp – it would be to hate music itself. But don’t you weary of 4/4’s increasingly creaky ubiquity? Don’t you unleash a desiccating sigh when the latest highly hyped pop product/beat sculptor/Brooklyn faux-primitivist arrives recycling the same predictable plod, its blank inevitability echoing the linear drudgery of labour? Music is surely an escape from servitude, not a continuation.
The number four has dominated pop so completely for so long that it now appears natural, its appeal spoken of in evolutionary biological terms that reference heartbeats or our gait across the plains in pursuit of a baluchitherium. Yet many non-Western traditional forms are not based on fours – the compound meters of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the ragas of India, the polyrhythms of Africa and South-East Asia. Inherent simplicity is cited as a reason for 4/4’s stranglehold, but this is an argument perpetually eating its own arse. Four-beat cycles do indeed seem the most ‘normal’ – because their simplicity is familiarity in disguise, mere cultural conditioning. Had the waltz won the popular battle, I would be railing against 3/4. In the parallel universe where math-jazz guru Don Ellis is Emperor, this piece is entitled ‘Why I Hate 27/16’. The beat itself is almost irrelevant – it’s the wearisome tyranny that chafes.
‘Odd’ meters are nothing new. Stravinsky perfected irregular rhythms in 1913 (just as Kool & the Gang perfected 4/4 in 1972), and his mastery arguably remained unchallenged until Messiaen or Ruins or Meshuggah. But his descendants – prog, tech-metal, breakcore, math, etc. – remain niche aberrations within a stultifying paradigm. It’s not about demanding onanistic virtuoso complexity in pop, but more rhythmic diversity, greater imaginative freedom, plenty of opportunities to shake our tailfeathers in a lopsided fashion to an 11-beat Britney. Music can inspire action, define reality, shape time itself – so what a waste to reaffirm the norm, over and over again. More liberating by far to cast aside our conditioning, transcend the trudge and dance to disorienting beats.
(originally published in Plan B magazine)