One of the most popular aspects of Netflixs incredibly popular fantasy series The Witcher is its viral hit song, Toss a Coin to Your Witcher. Sung by a troubadour named Jaskier in the shows second episode, the song has been earworming its way through the zeitgeist, expanding well beyond the reach of the show since it debuted on December 20.
Last week, after a strangely long delay, the song finally became available on Spotify and other streaming services, where it quickly drew attention for its catchy chorus and quirky lyrics all over again.
Even though its mostly a piece of lyrical nonsense based on the events of the shows second episode, Toss a Coin to Your Witcher has amassed legions of fans. In the month since it premiered, in fact, no fewer than four versions of it three different metal covers of the song, as well as the original soundtrack version have all charted in the UK. On YouTube, where all current uploads of the soundtrack are unofficial, the four most-watched versions of the song have a combined view count of more than 40 million.
If youve heard Toss a Coin to Your Witcher, youll know that its something of a many-headed hydra. The song has aspects of medieval instrumentation and classical song structure, as you might expect for a song appearing in a medieval fantasy show. But its also replete with pop movement and rhythm, and even has a dollop of musical theater stylization.
One reason for this jumble of influences is that the songs composers, Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, wanted to reflect the fusion of genres and aesthetic influences that comprise The Witcher itself. The show is based on a popular book series that later inspired a hit fantasy video game series, so its got a distinctive, game-influenced aesthetic but its also channeling everything from the epic feel of Game of Thrones to the tongue-in-cheek musical parody Galavant.
I confess that upon first hearing Toss a Coin to Your Witcher, I really, really didnt understand the appeal. In fact, I was jarred by the songs many discordant elements. So I decided to talk it over with Charlie Harding, a musicologist and co-host of Voxs Switched on Pop podcast, to get a sense of why so many people were so infatuated with this strange tune. And through our discussion, I realized that the parts of the song I was most baffled by actually were the key to its appeal.
At a glance, Toss a Coin is trying to have its cake and eat it: that is, it wants to be both an earnest song that fits diegetically within its weird fictional universe and a catchy meta-pop song. Its presentation is deeply earnest and straightforward, with actor Joey Batey singing along to an orchestral accompaniment that gets more and more sweepingly dramatic.
But its also replete with syncopation: Its words land on the off-beats, and it uses rhythms that didnt really exist in the historical medieval culture its attempting to channel. And in keeping with the scores of video games, where big, synthesized drum sections are a common feature, it also has a percussion-heavy backing track. Its the kind of thing you might expect to hear in a fantasy game soundtrack right when the fighting gets good but that isnt exactly what you might expect to hear from a song set within that game universes story.
Not only that, but the lyrics are deliberately tongue-in-cheek, with lines like he cant be bleat (a goat-related pun) and he thrust every elf far back on the shelf, a meta-joke that completely breaks the fourth wall.
Theres something almost like [an] uncanny valley in the way that [the song] borrows so fluidly between different styles that we expect to exist in very different media, like video games, musical pop, Renaissance music, all blurred together, Harding said. He pointed out that Batey also uses a style of singing thats closer to musical theater than to a folk/troubadour sound, which further creates a sense of disconnect between the songs many different elements.
Compare all this to a song like Game of Thrones The Rains of Castamere, which keeps to a clear folk aesthetic, both lyrically and musically: Its simple, using few instruments, with a naturalistic singer and a song that feels very balladic. The official soundtrack version of Rains of Castamere was also recorded by the well-known indie rock band the National, whose gritty folk influences naturally complement Game of Thrones aesthetic. So between the band and the show itself, there was an established milieu for how to hear the song. With a more hybrid-genre show like Witcher, that milieu doesnt quite exist.
Harding explains that these discordant elements are part of Toss a Coins basic appeal. I think its drawing on people who love video game scores and anybody thats played [something] like Diablo or World of Warcraft: Kings, he told me. The backing tracks of those games are all pseudo-medieval but are also very much contemporary music. ... And that sound has become the sound of any sort of video game music.
Harding told me the popularity of Toss a Coin to Your Witcher actually illustrates a larger point about pop culture which is that what we think of as pop music is in fact much, much larger than just whats topping Billboard at any given moment.
A lot of people will say all pop music sounds the same, and that usually whats happening on the Billboard [charts] will be the dominant sound currently, that sound would be trap music, he told me. But I actually believe that what is in the popular zeitgeist at any given moment is much broader, and includes whats happening in film scores, whats happening in video game music, whats happening with musicals.
We are comfortable with very different kinds of music given the context and space in which theyre played, Harding added. By experimenting with the boundaries between various musical genres and aesthetics, he explained, Toss a Coin to Your Witcher plays with the idea that were all comfortable with radically different musical styles given different contexts.
By playing with the context of all these different musical genres, and combining them with a catchy hook, Harding said, Toss a Coin ultimately becomes something you might stream in the background of your day.
The success of Toss a Coin also owes a lot to a genre you might not expect: musical theater. In fact, Toss a Coin is perhaps best thought of as a musical theater number because like many musicals, The Witcher employs a conceit in which the time period of its setting and the style of the production itself dont need to align.
Like when you listen to Grease, Harding noted. Grease is also not 1950s music.
Every musical has its own aesthetic rules that it needs to adhere to, and then it uses allusions to other styles to evoke another period, he explained. Like Phantom of the Opera evokes a baroque quality, even though it is thoroughly a contemporary 80s musical.
Toss a Coin also predominantly uses a traditional harmonic chord progression from the world of classical music. At the songs climax, around the words a friend of humanity, the song shifts to what musicians call a perfect cadence. Thats when a cadential chord progression emphasizes its crucial dominant chord a chord built from the fifth note in a typical scale before resolving to its home chord, or tonic chord. It sounds like this:
When we hear a dominant chord played in this context, our ears naturally want that chord to resolve back to the tonic chord, which is the root chord of the key. The power of the dominant chord and our need for it to resolve creates a progression of buildup, tension, and release.
When that cadence happens in a song thats written in a minor key, like Toss a Coin to Your Witcher, the effect is one of incredibly dramatic suspense. (In fact, such chords are often called suspended chords if they dont immediately get resolved.) Toss a Coin to Your Witcher all but overemphasizes its dominant chord. The result is a sound that not only creates high drama for the listener but also recalls the idea of a more classical structure. It adds a sense of tradition and even loftiness to the whole song, in keeping with the musical theater vibe.
And most importantly, Harding told me, that extra drama gives listeners the freedom to be sentimental a freedom pop music often denies them. It has this very revelrous sort of quality to it, he said. And I think that is the magical thing that musicals still allow for. In pop music, sentimentality is so scorned. Musicals, however, allow for embracing heightened emotions: They give you permission to wave your fist in the air.
So the next time you listen to Toss a Coin to Your Witcher, and you feel like joining the heightened revelry, you can participate with full awareness of what the song gets right and how the joy you get from hitting replay is really about so much more than just a catchy hook.
The rest is here:
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