Music education always & always looking forward.

Bubblegum Gymnopedie: Classical Samples in Janet Jackson's "Someone to Call My Lover"

One of the most fascinating & underappreciated use of samples, ever.


Janet Jackson was one of the most formative pop musicians in my life.  Full stop.  It was because of the album Rhythm Nation I first heard the words "bigotry" and "prejudice" as a child and although I started to lose interest in her as a teenager, looking back I can trace a straight line from her most notable albums to all of my musical tastes in the future.

It took me far too long to realize that "Someone to Call My Lover" made use of the most famous tune by another one of the most influential musicians of my life: Erik Satie.  For me, Satie represents a great bridging of the gap between popular and classical music, so much so that I wrote half of my undergrad thesis on the Strange Mr. Satie.  The concept of bridging "high" and "low" music & art (a la Bernard Gendron) is exemplified by Satie more so than any musician in classical canon.

And although Janet was formative in terms of me renting the short film Rhythm Nation from Blockbuster as a kid (and attempting to recreate all of those iconic dance routines) and Satie was formative in my library basement-ridden late undergrad days, the merging of the two artists more or less represents my entire musical world-view.  

Intro: One of the most commercially viable and honored female pop stars in America, Janet Jackson has released 11 albums which have sold more than 140 million copies around the world. Her 1989 album Rhythm Nation became the first album to feature seven top five singles, a feat that no one, not even her famous brother, has matched. She also holds the record for most consecutive top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 by a female artist, at 18. These achievements are accompanied by her 20 Grammy nominations and six Grammy wins. "Someone to Call My Lover" was the second single from her 2001 album All for You and reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and #1 on the Billboard dance club songs chart. In the spring of 2019, Janet Jackson will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Spoiler Alert: This song samples Erik Satie’s melody from his Gymnopedie no. 1.

Analysis: In addition to the song’s heavy use of a sample from America's "Ventura Highway", the song makes use of an arrangement of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie no. 1" — but with one major difference: the "Gymnopedie" main melody is played over the chorus in 4/4 instead of its original 3/4. By borrowing from Satie's most famous "Gymnopedie" melody and rearranging its meter, Jackson's song demonstrates a continual use for classical melodies. The "Gymnopedie" melody first appears during the song's first chorus (at :41 in the video recording above).  Jackson herself had loved Satie's tune in her childhood, not knowing who composed it or where it came from.

Satie himself might have approved of this particular use, as he got his start playing at Le Chat Noir in fin de siecle Paris, the equivalent of a nightclub at the time, and the "Gymnopedies" mostly gained the respect of the academic musical world after they were arranged for orchestra by Satie's contemporary Claude Debussy. Although his "Gymnopedies" were not conceived of as such, Satie later believed in creating "furniture music" (musique d'ameublement), or music to serve the purpose of sitting in a room without being obviously noticed.  It makes sense that his most famous work would sampled and used in other media without being overtly noticed.

Considerations for Teaching: The song's lyrics make no inappropriate references and its bubblegum nature makes for an excellent classroom listening example.

Additional Resources: Here’s a great interview with Jimmy Jam from 2011, talking about working with The Queen.

If you really want to further your Janet study, my pal Marc did a season of his podcast Discography on Miss Jackson’s career for Consequence of Sound. You should listen to it, starting with the first episode here.

Updated for new information and very lightly for content on January 29th, 2019.

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