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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Sweetness" and the power of "whoa"

The most powerful and catchiest vocal lines don't necessarily need words.

Sometimes you just wake up with a song in your head.

Actually, it usually isn't an entire song — though I have woken up with full tracks in my head before. That's a testament to my musical memory or just downright creepy, depending on who you ask (I default to the latter viewpoint). I've always said that it's more likely an excerpt from its intro, first verse, or chorus, usually including a witty line or a statement of the title.

What I heard in my head this morning... okay, early afternoon, mostly conformed with the above. Where it didn't was the "witty line" part. In fact, the lyric that stuck in my head wasn't much of one at all. It was simply:


That isn't even a lyric; it's just a vocable, stretched out over a six-note melodic figure. I was so taken aback by the fact that there wasn't even a lyric attached to it in my mind. Then I realized two things:

1) I'm a Coldplay fan, so of course I'd have a "whoa / ohh / ooh" line stuck in my head (see: "Viva la Vida," "The Scientist," "Hurts Like Heaven," "Amazing Day"...)

2) It kind of makes sense for that sort of line to stick with me, or with anyone. Your brain has to do far less work to remember a fragment like that than it does, say, a wordy chorus like that of Fall Out Boy's "Sugar, We're Goin Down," or a straight-up syllabic stream like the pattering poetic pinnacle that is Blackalicious' "Alphabet Aerobics." "Whoas" are like more forceful, more audible hums — people can hear them and instantly latch onto the tune, without any lyrical or linguistic barriers to processing its content. It's no wonder why people sing them en masse at sporting events or concerts, and it's similarly no wonder why someone might wake up with that in their head.

With the above in mind, it makes sense as to why I was wrong about what sorts of things get stuck in people's heads overnight. Chalk it up to my musical memory or creepy inner workings again, I guess. As for the particular "whoa" that was in my head, it took me a bit to realize that it came from the opening of Jimmy Eat World's "Sweetness," a song which would be nothing without those open vocables. Coming from the band's fourth album Bleed American, which also features the likes of "The Middle" and an underrated title track, "Sweetness" derives its power from its "whoa"s, but also it's got a whole lot of other elements that augment it.

When I hear the term "power pop," I hear "Sweetness." The opening seconds solidify that distinction: group founder and namesake Jim Adkins (who could totally be Jim Carrey's stunt double) opens the track with belting vocals ("If you're listening, whoa-ohh-ohh-oh-oh-ohh") before being joined by Tom Linton's massive distorted rhythm guitar, Rick Burch's bass, and thundering drums from Zach Lind's kit. Lind's snare drum could cut through diamond with its volume and sharpness. Also quite crisp is Adkins' lead guitar, backing his verse vocals in between the "whoa"s with open fourths and fifths that resemble a cross between the Edge's chiming tone and the opening of Shocking Blue's "Venus." The chiming side of Adkins' guitar also sits on top of the song's chorus, which helps that section feel even more massive.

As much as all those instruments do, though, I can't help myself but hear and sing along to all those "whoa"s above everything else. Even though they make up nearly half the track's lyrics, I don't get tired of them at any point over the song's three-minute, forty-second duration. I think that comes down to the fact that the line never immediately repeats the exact same way. In the verses, there's a slight change between the first and second "whoa" lines, then a very different third line, then a truncated version of that for the fourth. Though both the "whoa"s in the chorus are repetitions of the verse's first version, they're broken up by a longer vocal line that omits "whoa" altogether ("With a little sweet and simple numbing me," and later on "Sinking into sweet uncertainty" as well). The addition of backing vocals the second time through the form also helps the song avoid a feeling of too much repetition.

In those "whoa"-less moments, the listener can hone in on Jim Adkins' lyrical message a little bit more. "Sweetness" is not a typical emo breakup song (though the band definitely has those), but more of a post-breakup song, one where the light at the end of the tunnel is very close. Unlike, say, Dua Lipa's "We're Good," it's clear that this relationship was painful for Adkins' narrator, if not abusive. Between the "whoa"s, the verses reflect how the narrator felt he was being toyed with ("String from your tether unwinds") to the point that his partner's words of affection "[lost] their meaning" (whoa, whoa-ohh). The chorus celebrates his breaking — or "spinning" — free from that bind and drama. He feels ready to face the "sweet uncertainty" of his future now that he is regaining control over his life.

After two verses and choruses, the song's form is broken up by a bridge that features — get this — "ooh"s instead of "whoa"s. ...Okay, who am I kidding, it's basically the same thing and has the same effect, though it sounds different enough to help it feel a bit more distinct. This "ooh" line stays the same throughout the sixteen-measure bridge, during which it repeats eight times, but it feels fresh because of two factors: the different new chord progression behind it, and the high piano notes and backing vocal line that, mirroring the verses' form, come in halfway through the bridge.

The third and final verse also sounds fresher because it follows the bridge. Additionally, it helps its own cause by keeping the distorted guitar throughout and dropping the vocal harmonies, which instead wait until the final chorus to return. That chorus brings everything together, adding the piano from the bridge and also finally giving us a title statement: "And the sweetness will not be concerned with me." Adkins' narrator is letting the world know that he's free and over with everything that was holding him back in his relationship. Honestly, though, all the "whoa"s and "ooh"s kind of made that clear already. Even though they aren't words in themselves, they can be just as powerful, if not more so, because they lack the semantic restrictions that lyrics do. In "Sweetness," they represent unadulterated freedom and relief, and in singing along and getting it stuck in our head, we celebrate those feelings with the song's narrator. Yes, we're listening, Jim, so let's "sing it back, whoa-ohh-ohh-ohh-ohh."

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