Block B’s most recent hit, “Jackpot,” floored us with its complex style and disorienting tempo. We needed help. So we took the song to a DePaul University music theory class led by composer, Jeff Kowalkowski, and asked them to break it down for us. Here’s some of what they said.
A Stylistic Medley
“Jackpot” is maybe best characterized as a stylistic medley. Aside from the typical American pop music influence, “Jackpot” also draws heavily from Vaudeville and theatrical music (hence the video’s circus theme). There’s also a clear jazz inspiration in the horns in the chorus, a ballad section, and a soft piano arrangement that all come together to create a collage of sound. Block B incorporates all of these sounds while still maintaining a traditional pop music structure. This is a pop song, after all. What we find impressive is that the stylistic shifts, and the massive tempo changes that go along with it, do not disrupt the progression of the music, but carry it.
A Change in Tempo
Different genres of music rely on different tempos - so in order for Block B to appeal to so many kinds of music, they’re forced to make use of many tempos. Aware of the potential for disorientation, they pair the arrangement of “Jackpot” with a wild circus of a music video that could be disorienting in its own right. What we see with our eyes matches what we hear. That’s an important recognition on the part of Block B, and one that encourages the audience to explore the music instead of cover their ears. On first listen, the frequent tempo changes in “Jackpot” can be extremely disorienting (take a quick listen to the shifts between 1:40 and 2:40 for a good example). But that’s because we’re not used to hearing it.
American pop music is built on patterns and the successful reproduction of the patterns that work (a.k.a., make money). Block B, on the other hand, has delivered something acoustically fresh, something sonically intriguing. This song has flavor. Sometimes pop music needs to be shaken up a bit. Sometimes we need a bull in the china shop. What really sets “Jackpot” apart is that Block B alters the tempo within the chorus. That’s something American pop doesn’t do. Like, ever. The genius of the song is that Block B disorients on purpose, then controls that disorientation to produce a complex sound that most of us haven’t heard before. Block B manages to create something original in a genre hounded by copycats. Let’s explore.
To build anticipation before the chorus, Block B removes instruments and slows the tempo slightly. In that void is where the tension builds until we’re ready to be smacked in the face with the “shout chorus,” as Kowalkowski describes it, borrowing an apt phrase from jazz. It’s a climax full of loud instruments and big ranges. And just when our ears can’t take any more, Block B makes the bold decision to slow down, dropping instruments again and raising the simple la-la-la vocals to prominence. This remarkable move (again, within the chorus) actually gives the listener a break while still being surprisingly catchy. The video mimics the song perfectly here, turning to black and white with slower camera pans and zooms. It’s disorientation, for effect.
As a last exercise, we asked the music theory students to play DJ for a moment, and imagine “Jackpot” on American radio--how would they lead-in to a song like this? How would they transition away? For a lead-in, the suggestion was to use a crossover artist, someone like G-Dragon who is already collaborating with western pop artists on transnational beats. But the students were clear that airing “Jackpot” on the radio would be taking a risk. For a fresh, but potentially disorienting song like like this one, American ears would need to be coddled afterwards with a sure hit. Something easy that everyone knows.
For our part, we’re ready for more groups who are willing the break the rules.