Anatomy of the Hit: “Señorita” by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello

Anatomy of the Hit: “Señorita” by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello

Stuck for the perfect playlist? You could do a lot worse than take inspiration from the 44th President of the United States. The Obamas’ August 2019 summer selection includes this steamy Latin groove from the possibly-not-dating Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello.

It’s a classic tale of love at first sight, set on a Miami beach. The summer rain clears, the lovers dance through the night on the sand, and as the sun rises, they repair to the hotel room and… ooh, la la la.

 

 

INTRO – 8 bars [0:00-0:16]

The very first thing we hear is the chorus melody, picked out on staccato electric guitar, and backed only with acoustic guitar chords, high-octave electric bass and finger snaps. This is a classic pop technique – give us an instrumental chorus up front, and then when the vocal comes in, the tune feels like an old friend. The high bassline dances with both guitarists, alternately grooving with Shawn’s acoustic fingerstyle barre chords, then playing a countermelody to Watt’s high-register electric lead part. It’s an intoxicating mix, setting up the song’s rhythmic feel without the need for any extra percussion.

CAMILA’S CHORUS – 8 bars [0:16-0:32]

(Camila) I love it when you call me señorita
I wish I could pretend I didn’t need ya
But every touch is ooh la la la / It’s true, la la la
Ooh, I should be running / Ooh, you keep me coming for you

Just to make doubly sure that melody takes root in our brain, the songwriters take us straight from a chorus-like intro into a sung chorus. Camila is working much higher in her alto range here – almost a whole octave higher than 2017’s sultry multi-platinum hit “Havana,” leaving room for the unison parallel octaves ahead (when she and Shawn will be calling each other Señorita for some reason).

The arrangement in this first mini-chorus is identical to the intro, with the addition of a beautiful high shimmering spread chord, highlighting the 8-bar loop that will be our companion for the next three minutes.

VERSE 1 – 16 bars [0:32-1:05]

(Shawn) Land in Miami / The air was hot from summer rain
Sweat dripping off me / Before I even knew her name, la la la
It felt like ooh la la la / Yeah, no

(Shawn & Shawn) Sapphire and moonlight / We danced for hours in the sand
Tequila sunrise / Her body fit right in my hands, la la la
It felt like ooh la la la, yeah

Shawn begins the story, and the accompaniment is the same simple guitar group we heard on the intro, with the bassist still staying away from the deep end. There’s a cheeky allusion to the chorus with those “la la la” lines, but here they’re sung on a note of E, tracking the top of the dreamlike Fmaj7 chord, and lending wistfulness to the character’s reminiscences.

Shawn harmonizes with himself in the second half as the narrative picks up pace. The “tequila sunrise” brings its own flautist, who plays a sweet two-beat phrase, drenched with reverb, as the dawn breaks over the Atlantic.

DOUBLE CHORUS – 16 bars [1:05-1:39]

(Together) I love it when you call me señorita
I wish I could pretend I didn’t need you
But every touch is ooh la la la / It’s true, la la la
Ooh, I should be running

Ooh, you know I love it when you call me señorita
I wish it wasn’t so damn hard to leave you
But every touch is ooh la la la / It’s true, la la la
Ooh, I should be running / Ooh, you keep me coming for ya

The low bass and kick drum crash in here for the first time, but the arrangement still resists the temptation to add more percussion (although they do allow a discreet flamenco-style castanet flourish just before the downbeat). Shawn and Camila break into parallel octaves, plus an extra harmony vocal from Shawn on the repeat.

Because the chord loop is unchanging, the instrumentation needs to provide a lot of the extra interest, and pretty much every eight-bar section brings in something new. That vocal harmony is joined by a snare drum and handclap doubling the finger-snaps, with hi-hats picking out eight to the bar and moving the groove along. This does a great job of turning up the heat on the characters’ relationship, and helps to tell the story of the all-night dance moves gathering steam…

VERSE 2 – 12 bars [1:38-2:03]

(Camila) Locked in the hotel / There’s just some things that never change
You say we’re just friends / But friends don’t know the way you taste, la la la
‘Cause you know it’s been a long time coming, don’t you let me fall, uhhhh

(Together) Ooh, when your lips undress me / Hooked on your tongue
Ooh love, your kiss is deadly / Don’t stop!

Camila’s verse brings a scene change, moving from beach-at-dawn to darkened hotel room. We hear the chords once through for eight bars as before, until the action picks up even more, with the “lips undress me” section, which, at four bars, is the song’s only departure from the chord loop. The harmonies become more angular and the phrases are closer together – the verse melody is all but abandoned for four whole bars. Shortening a verse is often a great way to get to the chorus sooner, and in this section it really builds the sense of the lovers’ urgency. The powerful “don’t stop!” ending gives the next chorus a more explicit meaning than the playfulness we heard in the intro.

DOUBLE CHORUS – 16 bars [2:03-2:36]

All the energy, all the time. On a casual listen, it seems like this is the same as the previous double chorus, but vigilant ears will find some subtle extras. New percussion includes cabasa and clave, and the voices not only add some cool improv phrases, but also deepen the vocal harmony texture in the second half.

BRIDGE and OUTRO – 15 bars [2:35-3:11]

(Together) All along I’ve been coming for you / And I hope it meant something to you / Call my name, I’ll be coming for you / Coming for you, coming for you, coming for you For you (ooh, she loves it when I come) / For you/Ooh, I should be running / Ooh, you keep me coming for you

I can’t decide if this is a chorus variation or a bridge section. I’m going with bridge, because it’s an all-new melody, and a variation on the lyric idea. It’s unexpected, for sure, to place a bridge just before an outro, but remember our guy and girl are locked in a hotel room, so perhaps they need to make an unorthodox escape.

The outro drops back to the understated feel of the intro, with only the final vocal improvs giving us a hint of the events that transpired on this hot Miami night. On that final abrupt line, “Coming for ya,” the reverb cuts off completely, dropping us back into harsh reality, and reminding us that the good times are over.

Now, I’m not saying that playlist was a political statement, but…

Dr Joe Bennett is a musicologist, and a VP at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He blogs about popular music analysis at joebennett.net.

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