• This article explores the sometimes tricky question of tonality in pop and rock songs by positing three tonal scenarios: 1) songs with a fragile tonic, in which the tonic chord is present but its hierarchical status is weakened, either by relegating the tonic to a more unstable chord in first or second inversion or by positioning the tonic mid-phrase rather than at structural points of departure or arrival; 2) songs with an emergent tonic, in which the tonic chord is initially absent yet deliberately saved for a triumphant arrival later in the song, usually at the onset of the chorus; and 3) songs with an absent tonic, an extreme case in which the promised tonic chord never actually materializes. In each of these scenarios, the composer’s toying with tonality and listeners’ expectations may be considered hermeneutically as a means of enriching the song’s overall message. Close analyses of songs with fragile, emergent, and absent tonics are offered, drawing representative examples from a wide range of styles and genres across the past fifty years of popular music, including 1960s Motown, 1970s soul, 1980s synthpop, 1990s alternative rock, and recent U.S. and U.K. #1 hits.