Above the Below and Below the Upper: Musical Turbulence and Jo Dee Messina’s “I’m Alright”

In which the vi – V/vi chord progression makes all the difference.

Jo_Dee_Messina_I'm_Alright

To my dear reader,

When I hear happy songs, I usually automatically dislike them. I don’t mean all positive songs, but rather songs with a central message of “I am happy.” This is because they’re usually so vapid – as if the singer is so simple-minded that they don’t worry about anything. Occasionally, however, I’m in a good enough mood to purposefully listen to a song about being happy, and one such song is Jo Dee Messina’s “I’m Alright.” There are several reasons why I like this particular upbeat song, including Messina’s clear, coherent lyrics, charmingly off-handed vocal delivery, and agonizing/glorious 90’s music video, but one specific reason is the harmonic language of the song’s chorus.

The chorus is made of two parallel musical and lyrical phrases. The first phrase, with the lyrics “I’m all, I’m all, I’m alright/It’s a beautiful day, not a cloud in sight/So I guess I’m doing alright,” uses the following chord progression:

I – IV – I – V – I – IV – I6/4 – V – I

This progression is unexceptional in the context of popular music. It is, however, a musically complete phrase, meaning that the chorus could have ended there. Instead, the chorus continues, with the lyrics “I’m all, I’m all, I’m alright/Got a good ol’ friend here with me tonight/So I guess I’m doing alright,” with the following chord progression:

vi – V/vi – IV – I – I – IV – I6/4 – V – I

Although not dazzling in most contexts, it is a surprise amid a song with such predictable harmonic language. The vi – V/vi progression – a somewhat dramatic one used not just once in the song, but in every chorus – lends a tiny but persistent bit of musical drama to the seemingly topical message. This is what I like so much about the song; although it’s basically saying “I am happy,” this repeated musical turbulence, alongside the lyrical references to financial difficulties and the uncontrollable passing of time, legitimizes the song’s message for me. Messina isn’t blissfully ignorant; she is actively deciding to be happy in spite of her circumstances.

There are rare few moments in my life when I’m not worrying about something. As of the week of this blog post, I’ve had to drop out of a pianist gig because my piano skills were insufficient, I was rejected from a music teaching assistantship, and I was foolish enough to put a bell pepper in some tomato soup I made, making the soup taste mostly like bell peppers… which is just… the worst.

But also, is it really? I still have another freelance project (this one for composing, which is my forte anyway), I’ll be able to earn money teaching and writing music this summer rather than spending it on the assistanceship, and I drowned that soup in almond cream, turning it into a tasty make-shift bisque. Add on all the other things to be grateful for (that my recent teeth extractions went flawlessly, that I don’t have chlamydia, etc.) and it’s a damn good life. As with the musical turbulence in “I’m Alright,” these persistent bits of drama ultimately legitimize the fact that things have turned out pretty well.

Plus, with those shades she’s wearing in this video, how can it not be a good life?

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert

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