Beginning an analysis of Malibu by Kim Petras

A short case study in phonotactics, musical harmony and figurative speech

5 min readMar 18, 2022

“Malibu” is a bubblegum pop disco funk song performed by German singer-songwriter Kim Petras, and co-written and produced by Aaron Joseph, Allan Grigg (KoOoLkOjAk), Jon Castelli, Kim Petras, Lukasz Gottwald (Dr Luke), Sophia Black and Vaughn Oliver. It was released as a single on May 7, 2020 on the Amigo Republic label.

All your kisses taste like Malibu

The refrain’s sibilant assonances progress systematically and sequentially from /s/ through /st/ to /stl/. In English, the climactic cluster /stl/ is not permitted as an onset, nor does it exist in Indo-European. However, it is present in Latin, where it has been said to be an intercalation of /t/ into the cleavage between the two consonants of /sl/, both a ‘necessary consequence’ and ‘natural result of the effort to pronounce sl- by a tongue undisciplined to the mechanics of the movement’ in which, ‘in changing from the s to the l position, performs the difficult feat of instantaneously and completely reversing its shape.’ (Phelps, J., Indo-European Initial sl, 1937)

This insertion creates the /st-/ onset related to standing and stiffness from the /sl-/ of the slightly sleazy slippery slope where ‘solid meets liquid’ (Williams. C., Sl- is for Sleaze, 2017), as at the Mediterranean coast where Phelps speculates that migratory northern Indo-Europeans mixed with autochthonous southerly ‘sea-folk’ and adopted some of their speech patterns.

The /t/ in /stl/ end combinations is often silent (castle, bristle, bustle, nestle, rustle, whistle, wrestle, thistle, epistle, bristle, gristle, jostle, apostle, hustle), but always heard in words such as priestly and ghastly, and adverbs such as firstly, justly, lastly, and vastly, where the /-ly/ ending is added to an adjective ending in /-st/. In this song the /t/ is justly heard.

Finally the sequence is broken by /km/, another unusual onset cluster, in English only found in borrowed words such as Khmer. However, the combination is found in the elisions of rapid speech, for example it can be heard in the /km/ of ‘come on,’ where the short o vowel sound of come is barely audible or silent, and it is also found across word boundaries such as ‘like Malibu.’ Here it is followed by an open-mouthed, full-throated and climactic /a/ vowel held over six beats and nearly two bars, before the quick closure of the phrase with a final flick of a liquid /l/ and syncopated plosive /b/ before the next bar’s downbeat.

If ‘mental ears’ (Prynne, J.H., Mental Ears and Poetic Work, 2010) can pick up subliminal ur-meanings from the sounds in individual words, they should also pick them up from the auditory stream of sounds across trans-word boundaries, as here: the hissing attention-seeking provocation of the duplicated /s/ in the word kiss is followed by the teasing stop-start of the /st/ across the boundary of the pluralising /-es/ ending and the /t-/ onset of taste, then the forbidden onset /stl/ which is however known, necessary and natural to the salty sea-folk of Malibu and those they mix with, until an /o/ sounds voicelessly in the /km/ formed between the velar ending of like and the bilabial beginning of Malibu.

The opening, transitional and ending chord sequences in Malibu

The rules of harmony in music are like the rules of phonotactics in linguistics, identifying the units to be combined and their permitted combinations.

The verse and chorus are essentially built on two chords of four and three notes which together exhaust the gamut of the scale, repeatedly oscillating over a single root in the bass, in the key of G in the opening section and a whole tone higher in A at the end. The B natural of the melody is a major third in the opening key of G, but in the context of the Fmaj7 of the first sung phrase (‘Tell me how do I get over you,’ ending with you on B natural) it is an augmented 4th, giving the phrase a distinctively salacious Lydian tonality, which ‘seemed so abominable to Plato, that he did not want to accept it in any way in his Republic as lascivious and spoiling of the minds of men and of women alike.’ (Cinthio, G., Dialogo Secondo della vita civil, 2nd ed., 1580, p.36)

But it’s the transitional modulation which is of special interest in the middle section of the song, where the unusual apical insertion of the /t/ into the /stl/ cluster has its harmonic counterpart in the ambiguously rootless introduction to the middle section before the new root of A kicks in with the vocals in the bass, confirming the modulation which then carries through the final verse and chorus to the end.

The middle section begins with A7sus4 (or, in the context of the previous key of G, is the ambiguous cluster G6?) partially resolving to Fmaj7, which in the verse and chorus had itself been the suspended chord resolving to G. But the next A7sus4 in the middle section resolves into an A major chord which crucially still contains the D as a suspended fourth, creating a dissonant intercalated harmony with the C# and E. It’s not that the combination is exactly forbidden, but the unusual dissonance shimmers and quivers in the sparkly close-harmony vocalising.

In the end, the thing I initially set out to write about turns out to be the least interesting of all: the literal and figurative uses of the word Malibu.

According to Wikipedia, the beachside Californian city of Malibu is named for the Ventureño Chumash settlement of Humaliwo, which translates to “The Surf Sounds Loudly.” Malibu is also a coconut flavoured liqueur, a type of Chevrolet car, a type of surfboard, a yacht, the name of a racehorse… not all of which you might want a kiss to taste of. So how might all the kisses Kim Petras sings about plausibly taste like Malibu?

If a person has been drinking Malibu coconut liqueur, to kiss them would be to literally share that flavour, though it would be a sad affair indeed for all this person’s kisses to taste of Malibu over anything but the most fleeting of encounters.

Figuratively speaking, if either the Malibu drink or the place (or the car, surfboard or racehorse for that matter) is associated with a certain feeling, of freedom, enjoyment or ecstasy for example, then the taste of Malibu is a metaphor for the act of experiencing whatever that feeling itself may be.

Which of these is intended? It could be either or both, or other.

And so we have found the same disruptive orientation in three different aspects of this song which starts in one key and transitions midway to vibrate at a higher frequency: a forbidden consonant cluster, a dissonant tone cluster, and an enigmatic sensual description which can be read in different ways, all of them in ‘an unfixed relationship to the present conditions’ (Green, K.M, The Essential I/Eye in We, 2015) and working against the fixed strictures and structures that seek to govern and discipline them.

Bottom line: good song, well made!