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What Makes You Beautiful

by One Direction

A device used repeatedly in this song is that of differing note-durations, and the staccato/legato contrast this generates. The opening guitar riff’s black silences start the ball rolling, setting the tone for the whole of the first verse (complete with stuttering deliveries of “do-o-oor” and “enou-ou-ough”), but the pre-chorus at 0:23 then smooths things out with more legato guitar, bass and vocal lines. A similar contrast exists between the first and second halves of the chorus, providing a definite energy step-up in the arrangement without the need to add anything much to the already packed-out instrumental texture — and also allowing the return of the clipped durations at 1:00 to flag the hook of the word “beautiful”.

The illusion of the mob-chanted middle section also bears closer examination, because I think it’s been done rather well. Clearly the increased delay/reverb return levels and the layering of multiple vocal passes are both important parts of the equation, but I suspect that the degree of both has been moderated to keep some of the subjective ‘rowdiness’ intact despite the tightness of the timing. (Only unceasing vigilance can protect future generations against the reincarnation of Def Leppard!) The key ingredient for me, though, is the kick sound, which swaps its front-end punch and mid-range definition for a rumbling, low-octave sustain tail — very similar to the sound that might come through the audience mics of an arena gig. The claps have a role to play too, not least by presenting a very wide stereo image, thereby supporting the impression of an enormous crowd surrounding a centrally-located stage.

There’s something strangely dated about the sound of this track, for me, almost as if it’s late-90s vintage or thereabouts – like some kind of cross between Hanson and Busted. I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s the source of this impression. Maybe it’s the prominent use of brighter reverb and pads? Or the combination of those particular guitar sounds with the smoothly multitracked vocals and pop-style snare/clap backbeat? The ‘Auto-Tune set to stun’ vocal processing is probably part of it too, and I wonder if the choices of high harmony during the final choruses might be partly responsible as well.