Why “The Girl from Ipanema”‘ Is a Richer & Weirder Song Than You Ever Realized

Say what you want about YouTube’s negative effects (endless soy faces, influencers, its devious and fascist-leaning algorithms) but it has offered to creators a space in which to indulge. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve been a fan of Adam Neely’s work. A jazz musician and a former student at both the Berklee College of Music and the Manhattan School of Music, his YouTube channel is a must for those with an interest in the how and why of music theory. If not for Neely’s talent and YouTube’s platform we wouldn’t have the above: a 30 minute (!) exploration of the bossa nova standard, “The Girl from Ipanema.” And it is worth every single minute. (Even the composer Antonio Carlos Jobim himself could not have convinced traditional television execs to give him that long an indulgence.)

Seeings we haven’t featured Neely on Open Culture before, let this be a great introduction, because this is one of his better videos. (Being stuck inside with no jazz venues has given him more time to create content, no doubt). It also helps that the subject matter just happens to be one of the most covered standards in pop history.

Its legacy is one of lounge lizards and kitsch. Neely shows it being used as a punchline in The Blues Brothers and as mood music in V for Vendetta. I remember it being hummed by two pepperpots (Graham Chapman and John Cleese) in a Monty Python skit (about 3:20 in). And Neely gives us the “tl;dw” (“too long, didn’t watch”) summary up front: the song’s history concerns blues music, American cultural hegemony, and the influence of the Berklee College’s “The Real Book.” There’s also loads of music theory thrown in too, so it helps to know just a little going in.

Neely first peels back decades of elevator music covers to get to the birth of the song, and its multiple parents: the Afro-Brazilian music called Samba, the hip nightclubs of Rio de Janeiro during the 1950s, the hit film Black Orpheus which brought both samba and bossa nova (the “new wave”) to an international audience, Jobim and other musicians interest in American blues and jazz chords, and American interest from musicians like Stan Getz. All this is a back and forth circuit of influences that result in this song, which borrows its structure from Tin Pan Alley composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and inserts a sad, self-pitying B section after two A section lyrics about a young woman passing by on a beach (lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes, who also wrote the screenplay to Black Orpheus).

The key in which you play the song also reveals the cultural divide. Play it in F and you are taking sides with the Americans; play it in Db and you are keeping it real, Brazilian style. Neely breaks apart the melody and the chord sequences, pointing out its repetition (which makes it so catchy) but also its ambiguity, which explains endless YouTube videos of musicians getting the chord sequence wrong. And, what exactly *is* the true chord sequence? And how is it a riff on, of all things, Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train”? Neely also shows the progression of various covers of the song, and what’s been added and what’s been deleted. Leaving things out, as he illustrates with a clip from Leonard Bernstein’s 1973 Harvard lectures, is what gives art its magic.

There’s so much more to this 30 minute clip, but you really should watch the whole thing (and then hit subscribe to his channel). This essay is exactly what YouTube does best, and Neely is the best of teachers, a smart, self-deprecating guy who mixes intellect with humor. Plus, you’ll be humming the song for the rest of the day, just a bit more aware of the reason behind the ear worm.

Related Content:

“The Girl from Ipanema” Turns 50; Hear Its Bossa Nova Sound Covered by Sinatra, Krall, Metheny & Others

David Sedaris Creates a List of His 10 Favorite Jazz Tracks: Stream Them Online

Remembering the “Father of Bossa Nova” João Gilberto (RIP) with Four Classic Live Performances: “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Corcovado” & More

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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