Let’s make this abundantly clear up top: Transposing anything to the whole-tone scale is a recipe for disaster. The basic premise of the whole-tone scale is to create atonality, as all of a note’s nearest neighbors are removed. There is no feeling of movement when all tones are an equal distance apart. This sounds incredibly theoretical and confusing, so it’s best to see it in action with something we all know and love, or perhaps all know and hate. So how about Santana’s 1999 collaboration with Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas, “Smooth,” from the unendingly successful album Supernatural?
Let’s don’t forget about it: “Smooth” is a song that has been lampooned endlessly, and though its abject goofiness warrants it, the shift to a whole-tone scale is a deliberate and willful destruction. Because so many notes are now shifted, no two parts go together, giving it the feel of a CD of spooky sounds playing on a cracked speaker outside a dilapidated haunted house.
There’s Santana’s guitar, which is akin to a Guitar Center on a Saturday afternoon—everyone’s soloing, but no one is hitting the right notes. The keyboard sounds like several cats are being thrown at it and gripping the keys for dear life. Rob Thomas sounds like a slightly worse Rob Thomas. But it’s in the second verse when everything takes a turn for the even worse. Santana’s guitar drops out and Thomas’ voice lowers to a deeply sinister growl, sounding like the whole thing exists in the uncanny valley. But it’s really worth sticking through, if only for Thomas’ little “nah” that occurs at 2:53. It’s pitch-shifted and soulless, the sound of a man wishing to be removed from the hellscape in which he’s been placed. But it’s there that he resides, aching and lonesome, surrounded by atonal noises for eternity. He’s stuck in the rhythm of the radio, and it’s there he shall stay.