Switched on Pop’s Charlie Harding explains why The Witcher’s hit song can’t be bleat.
One of the most popular aspects of Netflix’s incredibly popular fantasy series The Witcher is its viral hit song, “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.” Sung by a troubadour named Jaskier in the show’s second episode, the song has been earworming its way through the zeitgeist, expanding well beyond the reach of the show since it debuted on December 20.
Last week, after a strangely long delay, the song finally became available on Spotify and other streaming services, where it quickly drew attention for its catchy chorus and quirky lyrics all over again.
Even though it’s mostly a piece of lyrical nonsense based on the events of the show’s second episode, “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” has amassed legions of fans. In the month since it premiered, in fact, no fewer than four versions of it — three different “metal” covers of the song, as well as the original soundtrack version — have all charted in the UK. On YouTube, where all current uploads of the soundtrack are unofficial, the four most-watched versions of the song have a combined view count of more than 40 million.
If you’ve heard “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher,” you’ll know that it’s something of a many-headed hydra. The song has aspects of medieval instrumentation and classical song structure, as you might expect for a song appearing in a medieval fantasy show. But it’s also replete with pop movement and rhythm, and even has a dollop of musical theater stylization.
One reason for this jumble of influences is that the song’s composers, Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, wanted to reflect the fusion of genres and aesthetic influences that comprise The Witcher itself. The show is based on a popular book series that later inspired a hit fantasy video game series, so it’s got a distinctive, game-influenced aesthetic — but it’s also channeling everything from the epic feel of Game of Thrones to the tongue-in-cheek musical parody Galavant.
I confess that upon first hearing “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher,” I really, really didn’t understand the appeal. In fact, I was jarred by the song’s many discordant elements. So I decided to talk it over with Charlie Harding, a musicologist and co-host of Vox’s Switched on Pop podcast, to get a sense of why so many people were so infatuated with this strange tune. And through our discussion, I realized that the parts of the song I was most baffled by actually were the key to its appeal.
The hybrid elements of “Toss a Coin” are crucial to its success
At a glance, “Toss a Coin” is trying to have its cake and eat it: that is, it wants to be both an earnest song that fits diegetically within its weird fictional universe and a catchy meta-pop song. Its presentation is deeply earnest and straightforward, with actor Joey Batey singing along to an orchestral accompaniment that gets more and more sweepingly dramatic.
But it’s also replete with syncopation: Its words land on the off-beats, and it uses rhythms that didn’t really exist in the historical medieval culture it’s attempting to channel. And in keeping with the scores of video games, where big, synthesized drum sections are a common feature, it also has a percussion-heavy backing track. It’s the kind of thing you might expect to hear in a fantasy game soundtrack right when the fighting gets good — but that isn’t exactly what you might expect to hear from a song set within that game universe’s story.
Not only that, but the lyrics are deliberately tongue-in-cheek, with lines like “he can’t be bleat” (a goat-related pun) and “he thrust every elf far back on the shelf,” a meta-joke that completely breaks the fourth wall.
“There’s something almost like [an] uncanny valley in the way that [the song] borrows so fluidly between different styles that we expect to exist in very different media, like video games, musical pop, Renaissance music, all blurred together,” Harding said. He pointed out that Batey also uses a style of singing that’s closer to musical theater than to a folk/troubadour sound, which further creates a sense of disconnect between the song’s many different elements.
Compare all this to a song like Game of Thrones’ “The Rains of Castamere,” which keeps to a clear folk aesthetic, both lyrically and musically: It’s simple, using few instruments, with a naturalistic singer and a song that feels very balladic. The official soundtrack version of “Rains of Castamere” was also recorded by the well-known indie rock band the National, whose gritty folk influences naturally complement Game of Thrones’ aesthetic. So between the band and the show itself, there was an established milieu for how to “hear” the song. With a more hybrid-genre show like Witcher, that milieu doesn’t quite exist.
Harding explains that these discordant elements are part of “Toss a Coin’s” basic appeal. “I think it’s drawing on people who love video game scores and anybody that’s played [something] like Diablo or World of Warcraft: Kings,” he told me. “The backing tracks of those games are all pseudo-medieval but are also very much contemporary music. … And that sound has become the sound of any sort of video game music.”
Harding told me the popularity of “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” actually illustrates a larger point about pop culture — which is that what we think of as “pop music” is in fact much, much larger than just what’s topping Billboard at any given moment.
“A lot of people will say all pop music sounds the same, and that usually what’s happening on the Billboard [charts] will be the dominant sound — currently, that sound would be trap music,” he told me. “But I actually believe that what is in the popular zeitgeist at any given moment is much broader, and includes what’s happening in film scores, what’s happening in video game music, what’s happening with musicals.”
“We are comfortable with very different kinds of music given the context and space in which they’re played,” Harding added. By experimenting with the boundaries between various musical genres and aesthetics, he explained, “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” plays with the idea that we’re all comfortable with radically different musical styles given different contexts.
By playing with the context of all these different musical genres, and combining them with a catchy hook, Harding said, “Toss a Coin” ultimately becomes something you might stream in the background of your day.
“Toss a Coin” fuses traditional classical and musical theater structure to give you an extra emotional punch that the average pop song denies you
The success of “Toss a Coin” also owes a lot to a genre you might not expect: musical theater. In fact, “Toss a Coin” is perhaps best thought of as a musical theater number — because like many musicals, The Witcher employs a conceit in which the time period of its setting and the style of the production itself don’t need to align.
“Like when you listen to Grease,” Harding noted. “Grease is also not 1950s music.”
“Every musical has its own aesthetic rules that it needs to adhere to, and then it uses allusions to other styles to evoke another period,” he explained. “Like Phantom of the Opera evokes a baroque quality, even though it is thoroughly a contemporary ’80s musical.”
“Toss a Coin” also predominantly uses a traditional harmonic chord progression from the world of classical music. At the song’s climax, around the words “a friend of humanity,” the song shifts to what musicians call a perfect cadence. That’s when a cadential chord progression emphasizes its crucial dominant chord — a chord built from the fifth note in a typical scale — before resolving to its “home” chord, or tonic chord. It sounds like this:
When we hear a dominant chord played in this context, our ears naturally want that chord to resolve back to the tonic chord, which is the “root” chord of the key. The power of the dominant chord and our need for it to resolve creates a progression of buildup, tension, and release.
When that cadence happens in a song that’s written in a minor key, like “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher,” the effect is one of incredibly dramatic suspense. (In fact, such chords are often called suspended chords if they don’t immediately get resolved.) “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” all but overemphasizes its dominant chord. The result is a sound that not only creates high drama for the listener but also recalls the idea of a more classical structure. It adds a sense of tradition and even loftiness to the whole song, in keeping with the musical theater vibe.
And most importantly, Harding told me, that extra drama gives listeners the freedom to be sentimental — a freedom pop music often denies them. “It has this very revelrous sort of quality to it,” he said. “And I think that is the magical thing that musicals still allow for. In pop music, sentimentality is so scorned.” Musicals, however, allow for embracing heightened emotions: They give you “permission to wave your fist in the air.”
So the next time you listen to “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher,” and you feel like joining the heightened revelry, you can participate with full awareness of what the song gets right — and how the joy you get from hitting replay is really about so much more than just a catchy hook.