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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Comments (27)
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  • Ifabunmi says:

    Please change your article to read Afro-Brazilian, rather than Afro-Cuban. I am 1000% sure Samba is from Brazil and not Cuba.

    Have a great day!

  • Jonah says:

    The initial parenthetical statement uses offensive alt-right terms (soy faces) and detracts from what could have been an insightful article.

    Take care and be kind to each other.

  • Bronqueado says:

    The author has unwittingly offended over 212 million Brazilians and countless fans of Bossa Nova around the world by referring to this uniquely Brazilian music genre as “Afro/Cuban”. Please right this wrong in your article!

  • Gigi DSouza says:

    Hey assholes. Pronounce Ipanema correct. It is never to be pronounced as Ipaneema.

  • Anne Brace says:

    Fun article. Small correction, Samba is not Afro-Cuban. It’s Afro-Brazilian.

  • Garry Franks says:

    There is also the thought provoking short story by haruki murakami which turns her into a woman of metaphysical longing

  • Gabriel says:

    Samba “Afro-Cuban”? And in the next sentence you mention Rio de Janeiro, you guys think that’s in Cuba? Hooonestly….

  • Lola says:

    Pronunciation of Joao Gilberto – Stan Getz introducing Joao Gilberto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6OL-eM1faE

  • Gerson M Valle says:

    But Tom Jobim had a great admiration also to Claude Debussy and Heitor Villa-Lobos, from where he had the influance of his harmony, besides jazz.

  • Ron Todd says:

    The singer gets almost no credit. Has she performed elsewhere? Does she have an album? How can I find her work?

    Wonders, Ron

  • Scotty Wright says:

    Agreed. Such editorial asides are completely off-topic and unnecessary. It was an effort to concentrate on Adam Neely’s excellent presentation, without wondering “will Neely bonk out, and start ragging on Asians, in the middle of his harmonic analysis?”

    You do Adam Neely and Open Culture.com a grave disservice with such a comment.

    ‘Open Culture’, indeed…

  • Scotty Wright says:

    Please: name-calling is not called for. Yes, hearing Ipanema mispronounced is annoying, but when words enter the lexicon of another culture, modification occurs, such as BraZil instead of Brasil, Rome instead of Roma, Paris instead of ‘Pa-ree’.
    A bit of patience is needed, not insults.

  • Jean Maby says:

    That’s a huge correction, not a small one. To call samba Cuban shows an astonishing depth of stupidity: this is THE music of Brazil.

  • Jean Maby says:

    Actually Brasil is pronounced as BraZil, except you have to sort of swallow the “il” – the last L is hardly there.

  • George says:

    It’s almost Bra-zee-oo…

  • John says:

    Seeings??? That’s not correct English – are you really a Writer!!! You mean Seen as I think.

  • Roger in DHS says:

    Wow, I am surprised they omitted Walter Wanderley from the article.

  • A Einstoss says:

    I viewed a live interview with Jobim when he said he
    Lived near Ipanema beach and would watch women walk by Is that goo enough?

  • Karen Backstein says:

    That is not a “small” error. It is crucial and deeply insulting to Brazilians.

  • Dr Detroit says:

    I guess that depends where in Brazil/Brazil you are from! It is a huge country with numerous different cultures who will have different linguistic takes on bastardised Portuguese!

  • Kevin Patterson says:

    Martina DaSilva, and yes, she’s incredible.

  • Winslow says:

    The girl that sings it the video. Is there a full version of her singing it?

  • Winslow says:

    Thank you!

  • Winslow says:

    I wish they had done an entire interrupted version for YouTube. It’s very dreamy.

  • Jennifer says:

    Hello how’s your day s going as u may no I would like to learn as much off all that is there my mind likes to learn as much as it may so if u may please do respond how I may 👍. Thank u

  • To Lola: says:

    Rather rude and harsh to call people out on their failure to correctly pronounce words that are of a language other than their first language. At least they tried.

  • Daria says:

    Jao Gilberto’s wife’s name is Astrud, sounds like Astrood, not Astrid. Astrud was actually more famous than her husband, so calling it this way seemed kind of dumb, she was probably chosen for her clout as much as for her ability to singe in English. She was a guest star, and nothing less.

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