Music education always & always looking forward.

Not a Beat Wasted: Cross-Rhythm in Sonic Youth's "What a Waste"

3 against 4 instrumental breaks (with a Hallelujah chorus).


Sonic Youth is one of my absolute favorite bands. While I didn't spend my entire adolescence obsessing over them, in 2006 (when Rather Ripped came out), I embarked on a massive research project that was halfway devoted to the band. (Erik Satie was the other half. One day I'll enumerate the chapters of this, my undergrad thesis, which is sitting in the basement of the library at the University of Central Florida and garnering the attention of many a would-be hipster-ish cultural theorist.) 

Rolling Stone and other critical outlets believed that "Incinerate" was the best track off of this particular album, but "What a Waste" caught my attention immediately. This was mostly because of its bridge melody, which reminded me of the "Gloria" section of many Christmas carols I had sung or played handbells on. Sonic Youth, to me, embodies the whole spirit of the merging between "high" and "low" art, connecting the most prestigious aspects of the art world (and a young Coco Hayley Gordon Moore screaming on the band's cover of Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano") with the most accessible commercial art. I really believe that if Thurston Moore had not convinced Kurt Cobain to talk record executives, about as many people would be familiar with Nirvana as are familiar with a band like Half Japanese. And though I'm firmly #TeamKim, I am so grateful to Sonic Youth for everything they've given to our culture.

Intro: Massively influential, Sonic Youth may very well be the first genuine alternative rock band, fusing influences of punk rock, avant-garde, high art, exploring the possibilities of the guitar through alternative tunings and various other techniques, and playing decidedly non-blues based rock music. The band put out 15 albums during a span of 1980-2009 before taking an indefinite hiatus in 2011. Their most significant release was 1988's Daydream Nation, which appears on the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry. “What a Waste” appears on the band's 2006 album Rather Ripped, which, like most of Sonic Youth's oeuvre, was extremely well received by critics.

Analysis: The song, played at a fast tempo and in 4/4 time and sung by bassist and sometimes vocalist Kim Gordon, makes use of straightforward rhythmic patterns until the instrumental break following the second repetition of the chorus. Here, following a descending melodic sequence played by the guitar, the rhythmic pattern emulates 7/8 time (first heard sans vocal at 1:33 in the above video recording and again at 2:37); however, this short section of the instrumental break still fits within the confines of 4/4 time signature (over the course of three measures), creating a cross-rhythmic conflict rather than an actual exercise in changing meter.

Considerations for Teaching: This song contains no inappropriate material or language. While many songs by Sonic Youth do cover offensive or dark subject matter and last up to seven or eight minutes, this song is effective in its rhythmic patterns and its brevity and serves as an appropriate listening example in a classroom.


*BONUS Fangirl Goodies: At the height of my obsession with the band and their weird tandem relationship to fin de siecle Parisian music, they appeared on my all-time favorite show -- Gilmore Girls. And they played THIS SONG. I'll never forget the amount of screaming that took place in my apartment that day. 

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