When unrest brews and a major break from the past seems imminent, we’re prone to attributing it to major contemporaneous public figures. But history teaches they’re typically not causes but effects—symptoms of long-festering underlying conditions.
By the time they appear on stage, years of pent-up frustration have accumulated. Those experiencing only the detonation missed or flouted the warning sings. Level heads are needed to help us resist the temptation to obsess over the messenger and instead focus on the message.
So, yes, we should be alarmed that today’s hitmakers are swearing off what’s been considered an essential element of modern songwriting. But this storm has been gathering for years. We must avoid hating the songs playing and strive to question the rules of the musical game.
What should become of the bridge?
The Bridge Is Out
For generations, it’s been standard operating procedure to introduce, about two-thirds of the way through a song, a new part, commonly known as the bridge. The idea has been that the listener, by that point acquainted with the verse and chorus, needs something different to stave off monotony, cleanse the palate, and prepare the ear for the climax. In Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” it’s “Bring me down, can’t nothing…”; in Garth Brooks’ “Unanswered Prayers,” it’s “And as she walked away…”; in “We Are the World,” it’s “When you’re down and out…”
But so many of today’s popular and ubiquitous tunes—“Sorry” and “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber; “Hello” by Adele; “Piece by Piece” by Kelly Clarkson; “Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd; “Ex’s and Oh’s” by Elle King—all lack a true and proper bridge. Have we suddenly dispensed with ages of musical practice?
Actually, the bridge has been unsound for some time. A collapse was inevitable. The bridge’s first challenge is it’s generally a solution in search of a problem. Our attention spans are not so short that we must have an interlude in a four-minute track. Alternating verses and choruses worked just fine for “Satisfaction” and “I Can’t Help Myself.”
But the even bigger problem is that bridges are generally—there’s no graceful way around this—simply godawful. For decades, ghastly bridges have routinely undermined good songs.
Two of the great classic ballads, The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” and Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” have the most appalling bridges. They ham-handedly change keys, introduce clumsy melodies, and tread water lyrically. Punchy 1980s earworms, like The Outfield’s “Your Love” and Pete Townsend’s “Let My Love Open the Door,” have their hum-ability and sentimentality thieved by ill-fitting bridges. Otherwise top-notch, rocking songs by top-notch, rocking songwriters (take “The Waiting” by Tom Petty and “Flying Over Water” by Jason Isbell) suffer bouts of listlessness thanks to energy-depleting bridges.
Even path-breaking songs like Lauren Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” have completely unnecessary, rally-killing bridges—in fact, on the latter, Lou Reed nearly always excised the lousy bridge in live performances.
Alternatives to Torching the Bridge
So you can understand why the bridge is under siege. But bygone songwriters invented numerous workarounds, creative ways to briefly change up a song without torpedoing it—ways to replace the bridge, not just blow it up.
The most common alternative is the solo, when the singing gives way to an instrument that plays on top of an existing part of the song. Guitar solos are most prevalent: Chuck Berry playing over the 12-bar blues of “Johnny B. Goode” or the memorable dual-guitar solo at the end of “Hotel California” (played over the song’s verse). Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” has a strings solo, and The Doors “Light My Fire” has an organ solo.
Another well-known approach is the breakdown, when the chorus is sung over just the drums. Rachel Platten uses it in the new hit “Stand By You,” but it has a proud legacy, including “Cum on Feel the Noize” by Quiet Riot and “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi.
Another trick of the trade is the end-of-song key change. By nudging the final chorus a half or full step higher, the songwriter can exploit the catchiest part without making it sound repetitive. Examples include Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” and Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying.” Oh, and Bon Jovi uses this one, too (“Livin’ on a Prayer”).
One of the most interesting devices is replacing the bridge with an entirely new voice. Collaborations between R&B and hip-hop artists provide the best contemporary example. A singer proceeds through the standard verse-chorus form, then gives way to an MC, who raps a verse. Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “Crazy in Love” is the ultimate. But Gotye uses this cleverly in “Somebody That I Used to Know” when a woman’s voice appears toward the end to tell the other side of the break-up story. In The Beatles’ epic “A Day in the Life,” Paul’s perky vignette stands in for a bridge, breaking up John’s somber verses.
Some songs keep your interest by jettisoning the entire verse-chorus form, obviating the need for a diversionary bridge. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” add one new section after another. “Layla” has the famous extended piano coda. Much EDM is a long, gradual build-up that leads to one or more drops.
Genius Ways to Keep and Discard It
So there are lots of ways around the troubled bridge. But a gutsy songwriter could still give it a go. There are plenty of solid bridges that could serve as inspiration. James Brown took us to the bridge. Mumford and Sons’ “I Will Wait” and The Band’s “It Makes No Difference” perfectly set up powerful final choruses. In Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours,” the “Engine, engine, number nine…” bridge is both a breather and an accelerant. The bridges in Jeff Buckley’s “Unforgiven (Last Goodbye)” and Springsteen/Smith’s “Because the Night” are unexpected rushes of endorphins.
What’s so worrisome about today’s artists is that they seem to have recognized the bridge challenge, turned tail, and run. Instead of into-the-breaching it or using one of the many substitutes, they’re surrendering—simply plowing ahead with verses and choruses and then closing up the song’s shop.
Obviously, I’m ambivalent about the bridge itself. But I’m never ambivalent about gumption. Give it a whirl, try a surrogate, innovate, whatever. Just don’t watch the third strike.
We’ve seen bridge-aversion before. But it’s always come from those with preternatural originality and pluck. Robert Johnson didn’t have time for bridges! He was laying the foundation for the last century of American music. Buddy Holly was too busy helping create rock ‘n roll, and Dylan was too busy perfecting it. The Ramones, Green Day, and The Strokes couldn’t be bothered with bridges! They were way too busy revolting against arena rock, grunge, and Creed, respectively.
So, if you’re fundamentally and forever changing music for the better, you snub the bridge.
Bieber: You get no such pass.