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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Tiny Dancer" ever so slowly builds to something magical

Some pop songs could be cut short and still feel somewhat satisfying. "Tiny Dancer," simply put, is not one of those songs.

Today was another football Saturday in Berkeley, and the music I heard and saw being marched granted me a wealth of inspiration.

The Cal Band's show today was particularly special, because it was Alumni Band Day. Every year, typically at the second home game, the Alumni Band joins the current marching band, both while playing in the stands and for their halftime show. These shows tend to be based in artists or music from a prior generation, and today's theme was no different: the music of Sir Elton John. Among the four tracks that made up the halftime show was "Tiny Dancer," which I couldn't pass up the opportunity to write about.

Considering its length and form, "Tiny Dancer" is an anti-pop song pop song — not only is it six and a quarter minutes long, but it takes nearly three minutes to reach the song's first chorus. The thing is, it never feels like that wait for the chorus is too long, or that the song drags on. I'd watched David Bennett's video on the structure of "Tiny Dancer" multiple times, but what he said really didn't hit home for me until I heard the band play a quite abbreviated version of the track for their halftime show. I don't blame the band at all for doing what they did; of course they'd try to fit as much into their show as they could, because that's what people respond to; and of course they included one of Sir Elton John's most enduring tracks. (They also sounded great, as always.) It just happened to be that their abbreviated version of "Tiny Dancer" within their show (half of the first verse and straight to the chorus) made me appreciate the full version of the track even more. There's just something about its slow-paced journey that makes its chorus all the more explosive when it arrives.

"Tiny Dancer" opens with an autobiographical verse about writer Bernie Taupin's first wife, Maxine Feibelman. A "blue-jean baby" and "LA lady," as well as a "ballerina" in her youth ("you must've seen her) she "sewed patches on Elton's jackets and jeans," truly making her a "seamstress for the band." Elton John's piano and voice carry this first verse entirely on their own, save for the pedal steel guitar that comes in at the end. I find this small, intimate opening so fitting, considering both the lyrical content and the way the track expands in scope and sound later. In order for that expansion to feel more impactful, the track has to start quite small. The second verse is when the song really begins to open up, with the drum ushering in a backing filled with all sorts of guitar layers, including the aforementioned pedal steel in the right ear, a clean electric guitar in the left, and a very prominent bass guitar straight down the middle. The lyrics also get broader in their scope, seemingly presenting a microcosm of 1970s Los Angeles: there are "Jesus freaks out in the street / Handing tickets out for God," which Feibelman's character just laughs about, and then John's "piano man" performs while she sings along.

By this point we've heard two minutes of the song, and all we've gotten is two verses. Yet it's been a satisfying listen, because even though the form repeated between the verses, the additions in instrumentation and the expansion of the narrative have more than mitigated the potential monotony of repeating such a long structure. In fact, that repetition just makes the change into the pre-chorus all the more impactful.

"Tiny Dancer"'s pre-chorus is easily its most unique section, and it's also its most important. While it's not the section to which people sing along at the top of their lungs, it propels the song into that section through the newfound energy it brings. Its shift to the parallel minor key and its staccato chord stabs both set it apart from the preceding material and create intrigue as to how the track will move forward beyond it. As if it couldn't get any more dramatic, John slightly slows down the song as he sings, "softly... slowly..." further highlighting the lyrics while also adding just a bit more tension before...

"Hold me closer, tiny dancer": what an explosion of a chorus. Between the shift back to C Major and Elton John's repeated high note, the chorus' brightness is unparalleled not just in the song, but across the whole of Madman Across the Water and maybe even his entire catalog. Lyrically, the section ties together the verses and the pre-chorus, as the narrator asks the object of his affection to come closer as they lie together. There isn't anything to read into here — you just experience this song by letting it wash over you, maybe inciting you to sing along with it. Clearly, those two and a half minutes were worth it.

The song largely repeats form following the first chorus, with the first verse being repeated, then the pre-chorus and chorus. Here, too, it doesn't feel like it's dragging on, because we're only hearing everything for a second time. Now we know what we'll be hearing, so we embrace it and sing along even more loudly than the first time around. That's the magic of "Tiny Dancer": it manages to captivate you for so long by building slowly and never overly repeating anything. I can't say it's a blueprint for pop by any means, because it's hard to pull off such a build-up, but perhaps today's writers and producers could take a listen or two and realize that their standard formulas and mantras aren't the end-all and be-all of popular song.

...Actually, on second thought, "Tiny Dancer" does sort of fit one mantra: "don't bore us, get to the chorus." It takes its sweet time getting to the chorus, but the journey on which leads the listener en route to the chorus is anything but boring.


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