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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Papercut": when I realized there was more to electronic music

Zedd's serene house-pop production featuring Troye Sivan was the first track of its kind that impressed me with the greater story it told.

I took a little time on the Friday of my spring break to make a quick trip around my high school and my old workplace, saying hi to the few people I recognized who were there.

I expected a wave of nostalgia to wash over me, what with how much time I spent there and how involved I was... but there was nothing of the sort. As I noted on Snapchat that day, my memories of those places — especially high school, nearly four years out (holy cow, it's been that long?) — "have started to either fade or meld into some indiscriminate blob of conscience..."

What I do remember, though, was what music impacted me during my middle-teenage years. I was a couple years removed from my electronic music epiphany, and I was starting to tire of the festival-ready anthems that first drew me in. I was looking for something more contemplative, something more meaningful. I found that and then some in Zedd's "Papercut," featuring Troye Sivan. It's a calmer and longer track (nearly 7.5 minutes) that contemplates the healing of emotional wounds through chord changes that I feel deeper than most for its genre and Sivan's smooth vocals. Go ahead and listen to it in full right now.

One common thread throughout Zedd's production (and productive) career is his understanding of the emotive power of the piano. Using it to start "Papercut" introduces the track on a somber and pensive note that permeates its entire length, even when its electronic elements soon take center stage. The piano introduces the instrumental melody and chords that define the first half of the track.

I mentioned the chords earlier because I really feel the changes in the final two measures; they're resolute and form a consonant emotional tandem with Troye Sivan's sigh-like vocals. However, for the first half it's the two melodies — one from the piano and lead synth, the other from Sivan — that stick with me. Both are somewhat restrained in their range and make the most out of the space between notes, while following the chords' pattern of three similar phrases and then something different for bars seven and eight.

Sivan's melody accents his lyrics, which capture the scene after an argument between a couple that got out of hand. The opening lines — "Now we're staring at the ceiling / You're so pretty when you're mad" — evoke a pristinely clear image that serves as the backdrop for the rest of the narrative. Both parties are "too proud to say [they're] sorry," but they also know their love for each other will prevail. Like the titular paper cut, their spat stings in the moment, but they know it'll heal with time and not stick with them as a sour memory.

Diving into the lyrics makes me wonder if the change in chord progression halfway through the piece is a representation of Sivan's narrator moving on or coming to terms with the argument that occurred. After a long lead-in, filled with NASA launch audio and Zedd's characteristic marching snare drum, the drop is a beautiful release, with the more uplifting chords (inspired by Silverchair and Queen, per Zedd) presenting a different lens through which to hear the chorus lyrics. Whereas before the drop, the chorus sounded like it was sung with the hope of the quarrel being a paper cut, it now sounds as if both parties know time will indeed heal the wound.

"Papercut" was a track I played a lot during my time in high school. Between its musical setting and the story its lyrics tell, it had a lot of what I was looking for while I was having trouble coming to terms with some of my own behaviors and the many arguments I got into. Listening to it again now makes me think back to those times more than visiting my old stomping grounds, with a mix of pain and gratitude as I remember how much I've grown as a person since.

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