A No. 1 Review – “Too Good At Goodbyes” by Sam Smith

e06b23fc67d038759ac107f1501fc998.1000x1000x1The perennially late series that looks at each (relatively) recent UK No. 1 in turn and asks what they say about us.

Seriously, I have to deal with Sam Smith again? I don’t have a lot to say about him, and what I do have to say is stuff I’ve said already. It doesn’t help that his new stuff was exactly the same as his old stuff, meaning that all my old complaints still apply. I might as well just copy and paste my old opinions and switch the names around. Hell, let’s do it:

“[For the past few years, we’ve been] in a transitory stage [of pop music that I’ve called] the Post-Club Age of Pop. For years, pop music had been dominated by club songs about sex-crazed drunks dancing, loving, drinking and shagging in clubs. Most people seem to be bored with this type of music now though (in particular reacting badly to the sexism and empty hedonism that the genre encapsulates) and a lot of pop song nowadays can be read as direct critiques and challenges of club music.” [See original]

“[The issue with the early days of Post-Club Pop is that its valorisation of meaningful statements has slammed right into the fact that the pop scene of the time was a breeding ground for hacks who flourished during a time when pop was at it’s most braindead, meaning that most of the people left in charge of producing Post Club music were artists not good enough to pull the genre off. The result was that] most artists [ended up] trying way too hard for their work to be respectable with their attempts serving only to ruin the material they have. Shawn Mendes want[ed] to sell the pain he[ wa]s in so much that he’[d] happily reach for any metaphor he can, resulting a clichéd 10-car pile-up of uninspired dreck; while Ed Sheeran want[ed] us to feel his love so much that he end[ed] up trampling all over his song with the grace of an elephant, turning what are supposed to be off-the-cuff remarks into a series of belaboured groans[. E]ven Zayn’s Pillow Talk, a song I pretty much like[d], suffer[ed] from Zayn wanting it to feel like a reinvention of the wheel when in reality it[ wa]s little more than a wheel with the word ‘WHEEL’ written on it.” [See original]

Sam Smith is pretty much the poster child of a modern artist who’s not deep enough for his aesthetic, forcing him to rely almost entirely upon hollow theatrics.

“He absolutely refuses to hit a single note and just wobbles through as many notes as he can, this being a single style only used by amateurs to hide the fact that they can’t fucking sing. [He] can’t hit a note and so just jibbers about, hitting every single other one instead in the hopes that a) they even out into the note he’s trying to sing, and b) that the mass-overload of notes distracts from the fact that he’s not hitting the one he’s supposed to. It’s the same problem that I have with […] X-Factor contestants[. G]ood singing is having the control and confidence to hit the right notes in the right way at the right time. [Sam Smith] can’t do that; he just sounds completely out of control.” [See original]

“What has always confused me about [him] is that I adore every collaboration he’s done (minus his duet with John Legend), yet I hate the work he does on his own. Admittedly, the only things he’s done outside of his own work are a series of collaborations with Disclosure and Naughty Boy but the point still stands: there’s something about his voice that’s astounding in others people’s tracks which is completely missing from his own.

That said, there is one Sam Smith song I unequivocally love: Money on my Mind. The reason I love it is the chorus: he delivers the line “I don’t have money on my mind” as some form of a bell-curved squawk, producing something truly original the likes of which I’ve never heard.

The question is thus what separates Disclosure, Naughty Boy and Money on my Mind from the rest of Sam Smith’s discography. The answer to that question is actually quite obvious once asked though, the previous songs being electronic dance numbers while Sam Smith himself usually writes soulful gospel-inspired ballads. And the problem is that careening multi-octave warbling placed over gospel music makes too much sense to me.

Thanks to the X-Factor [and the problems of the Post Club age in general], we’re regularly inundated with [songs which] mistakes cramming as many notes as possible over an orchestra for producing something with scale and emotion. The result is that this type of over-the-top singing has now become the standard for this type of music: if you have more than one violin being played in the background, then the singer’s going to be shouting 100 notes a minute at the top of their voice. As such, for all that Sam Smith is a very idiosyncratic singer in the grand scheme of things, he’s actually a pretty traditional singer for the genre in which he works.

Electronic music however is defined by its somewhat inhuman bleeps and bloops: it’s a genre built out of packaged beats and repeated chords. You rarely get people doing particularly inventive singing in these tracks: vocals are either very robotic or very direct. As such, put a Sam Smith vocal track over your electronic song and it suddenly stands out, his voice completely contrasting against what is traditional for its musical backing. The fact that his multi-tonal twaddling then mixes with the music, thus usually elevating it, is a bonus. Compared to these tracks, his other work just feels like him taking the easy route. Of course someone like him would have orchestral backing; of course someone with orchestral backing sings like that. Put next to his more idiosyncratic collaborations, his original tracks have no way of comparing because they’re just not as interesting to think about or listen to.

In many ways, the problems I have with Sam Smith’s songs in general are the problem I have with [Too Good At Goodbyes]: it’s a Sam Smith song and […] sounds like exactly what you would expect from [that fact]. What it doesn’t sound like is something which any originality, passion or thought gone into it: Sam Smith sings about the same things he always sings about, doing so against the same type of music he always makes[, placed in an artistic movement defined by people ruining their music by trying to look respectable rather than actually making anything meaningful.]” [See original]

In short, the problem with Sam Smith is that he wants to be an operatic singer of deep, passionate ballads when he’s infinitely better served by providing meaningfully warped takes on dance music. He’s enough of an artist to be able to provide a fascinatingly idiosyncratic version of something has relatively restrictive as Top 40 dance music. If you’re going to be a full-on balladeer though, you need to have enough personality and writing chops to be able to fill that space and do the genre more justice. Sam Smith doesn’t and from my perspective has spent his career running down the one road that serves him the least. Admittedly that road has given him more money than I’ll ever have, two hit albums and another UK No. 1, but you get my point.

Will that do? Good. Right, what’s next? Post Malone’s Rockstar? Am I going to have to get into modern rap music, soundcloud rap and viral pop marketing? Well, that’s certainly going to be something very different from our usual fare.

 

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A No. 1 Review – “Look What You Made Me Do” by Taylor Swift

taylor_swift_look_what_you_made_me_do_by_kallumlavigne-dbli5ts_grandeThe perennially late series that looks at each (relatively) recent UK No. 1 and asks what they say about us.

I am on record as absolutely adoring Taylor Swift. I spent the entirety of my review of Adele’s Hello arguing that Taylor Swift was better than her. One of my first ever professionally published pieces was a short story called The Month You Were in a Relationship with Taylor Swift. I have a half-finished chapter plan for the book on the album 1989 that I want to write and pitch to 33 1/3. Her work means a lot to me.

Of course, Taylor Swift is surprisingly contentious. (Of course she is; any artist doing anything even remotely worthwhile will attract a significant hatedom pretty much automatically. This doesn’t mean that artists who piss a lot of people off automatically become better ones; more that good art is usually about pissing off the right people.) I’ve dealt with the main critiques of her before. In order:

  1. She only writes about love.
  2. She’s only writes about her public life.
  3. She’s just silly pop for girls.
  4. She has no self-awareness.

Well:

  1. Pretty much everyone writes exclusively about love, particularly in the music world; it’d be harder to find a pop artist who doesn’t constantly discuss it.
  2. Artists regularly draw on their private lives to make their work. You have to draw upon your own experiences and what you know in order to be able to accurately capture it. All art is at least partly autobiographical.
  3. Yes she is. Stating that as a critique is just saying that media aimed at women and children isn’t as important as media aimed at grown men and thus shouldn’t be made. In which case, fuck you.
  4. Her entire persona is defined by a hyper-awareness of herself and her public image.

Honestly, the whole Taylor Swift hatedom just strikes me as an echo-chamber of macho posturing: young girls shouldn’t have media for themselves because what am I meant to get out of it, and female artists shouldn’t be talking about romance because romance irks me, and if they do end up talking about romance and break ups, the least they could do is paint themselves as the bad one because how could the man be entirely in the wrong? Yuck.

So what’s the argument in favor of Taylor Swift? Well, there’s the fact that, when she’s on top of her game, she’s capable of producing material that’s genuinely at the forefront of modern media. Over the course of Red and 1989, Taylor Swift perfected a completely new way of doing romance stories for the modern age. You see, the modern age of neoliberalism hasn’t been great for romance. The more that society has segmented and become work focused, the less that society has had communal spaces in which people can actually meet and form relationships. Capitalist Realism has slowly eroded people into feeling an overall sense of resignedness at the world, a feeling they’ve made bearable through the embrace of various disassociated forms of irony which in turn has made of a lot of society very jaded and cynical. And these two facets are almost fatal for romance which requires a lot of face-to-face contact and a certain amount of unironic openness to work. So how you reinvent romance for this type of day?

1989 is pretty much the most complete answer to this question we’ve had so far. The thing that’s underappreciated about Taylor Swift is that there’s usually multiple narrative levels going on at the same time in her work. Take Style for example, in which Taylor Swift discusses a current relationship in the past tense and in a way which is based entirely on service level imagery from the fifties. The effect of these framings is that the song’s central relationship feels very dated and fictional, like an old film that Taylor Swift just so happens to be living. This sense of fakeness isn’t a barrier to the relationship though but instead becomes it’s defining attribute: the relationship is romantic because it feels like it’s a movie from decades ago. Relationships in classic movies are perfect, meaningful and grand, unlike the real world and modern romance which is increasingly falling apart. By presenting the relationship in this song as a classic movie relationship, Swift is thus able to revel in the romance inherent in its imagery while positioning these images in a way that makes them palatable for a jaded audience. It uses cynicism as a vessel in which romanticism can be housed. And the album is full of stuff like this. The influence of 1989 can still be felt to this day. The recent careers of Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX and Poppy owe a lot to how Swift used retro-electronica to create stuff that speaks to the modern day. There’s bits of it in Dua Lipa and Calvin Harris’ One Kiss too, as well as acts like The Chainsmokers and more. I genuinely don’t think it would be underselling it to describe 1989 as one of the defining pop albums of the late 2010s.

I’m not going to claim that Reputation, Taylor’s 2017 album, is even close to 19891989 is a rather experimental album for Taylor Swift but it’s hard to actually recognise that fact given how effortless all of the tracks pull their experiments off. Reputation meanwhile sounds very much like a bunch of stylistic experiments, some of which work and some of which don’t. For every Don’t Blame Me, there’s an Endgame.

If Reputation is an experiment though, what is it experimenting in? Well, having proved that Taylor Swift could take the narrative techniques and styles that she developed in her country work and apply them to 80’s electronic music in order make something geuninely new and original, Reputation is an experiment in seeing if she could do the same for 00’s electronic music. This would be genuinely useful: I’ve talked quite a bit about how modern club and trap songs just don’t sound romantic despite mostly being silly love songs, so getting someone like Taylor Swift to find ways of taking contemporary sounds and imbuing them with an actual sense of emotion and poetry could’ve really bumped the industry up a notch. OK, so she didn’t really pull it off (being beaten on these stakes by artists like Clean Bandit and Dua Lipa) but it’s better to try and fail than not try at all.

As such, most of Reputation is dedicated to taking Taylor Swift’s songwriting mainstays and redoing them with her new, more aggressively modern sound. The main thing that this sound allows her to do is attack her usual narratives with a new sense of directness. Don’t Blame Me, for example, allows her to use a drug metaphor to describe a relationship. The metaphor of romance as a drug addiction summarises Taylor’s schizoid relationship with romance perfectly: when you’re in it, it’s the greatest thing in the world, but when you’re out of it, it feels like you’re dying. She couldn’t have used it in Red though because it’d have been way too adult and she couldn’t use it in 1989 because it’d have been too dour for the album’s nostalgic tone; it’s only in the context of Reputation that the most fitting metaphor of Swift’s worldview could possibly work. Meanwhile, Delicate is a take on the traditional Swiftian romantic ballad whose harsh instrumentation forces Taylor to abandon any pretense of poetry and just straightforwardly describe her emotional insecurities, making for the honest sounding and personal song she’s ever written.

And, last but not least, while her love songs become more direct and her sad songs become more honest, her “Being a celebrity is hard but I’m a badass bitch” songs are finally unleashed to become as ludicrous as they possibly can. Which brings us to Look What You Made Me Do in which Taylor looks at the more demonised parts of her public persona and decides that if she can’t control her reputation, she can at least enjoy playing the fuck out of her stereotype. “I’m sorry, Taylor can’t come to the phone at the moment. Why? Because she’s dead(Oh!)” is a line that comes directly out of a B-movie action flick, and when approached with the same level of semi-ironic appreciation of the simultaneously cool and crap that B-movies require, this song really clicks into place and reveals itself to be a lot of fun.

This is an aesthetic that Taylor Swift has never been able to really do correctly before. Her previous styles have always required Swift to be extremely sincere, particularly during her teenage-girl-writing-acoustic-country-love-songs days where a certain sense of over-earnestness would’ve been a pre-requisite part of her whole persona. Even when she’s been silly in the past (and she’s purposely silly far more than she gets credit for), we’ve still had to read that silliness as inherently sincere. The main characters in Stay Stay Stay, for example, are two very silly people whose relationship is defined by an aggressively and self-consciously kooky aesthetic, but at no point are we asked to read them as anything but two people who are genuinely in love. Even during 1989, she was never able to get away from this. Blank Space is pretty much Look What You Made Me Do in all but style, yet still features an extremely developed persona that blurs the lines between Taylor as a person and Taylor as a persona. The directness of Taylor Swift’s new sound allows her to throw this away and just fully embrace a certain level of shallowness, creating what is essentially her first out-and-out comedy single. She’s free to wear her public persona like a Halloween costume to an extent never seen before. And so she goes around, camping it up because she can. It’s very much a song that revels in it’s own existence.

This said, we’re getting close to the point where Taylor Swift’s singles work like Ed Sheeran songs. Basically, the main way of enjoying this song is deciding that Taylor Swift (the person) camping it up while playing Taylor Swift (the persona) is a fun thing to listen to based purely on that idea’s own merits. The only real way of liking it is actively deciding to. The result is the same form of hollowness that defines Ed Sheeran: there’s a lot of noise revolving an empty hole. Then again, the entire song is about enjoying the liberties provided by the embrace of that hole. It doesn’t entirely defend the song, but it shows a surprising amount of self-awareness for a track that’s about someone who completely lacks it.

So is Look What You Made Me Do Taylor Swift’s greatest hour? Nope, not at all. But is it an obscene amount of fun which represents the extreme side of Swift’s continued evolution as an artist? Oh hell yes. That said, I will admit that it is a song which will pretty much work for one central audience: Taylor Swift fans who will like most things she does. Good thing I’m one of them.

A No. 1 Review(s) – “I’m the One”; “Despactio (Remix)”; “Wild Thoughts”; “Feels”; & “New Rules”

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These are a lot of songs that I’m covering at once. For the full list, the UK No. 1s covered here are:

  • “I’m the One” by DJ Khaled feat. Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne
  • “Despacito (Remix)” by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber
  • “Wild Thoughts” by DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna and Bryson Tiller
  • “Feels” by Calvin Harris feat. Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry and Big Sean
  • “New Rules” by Dua Lipa

In my defence, I haven’t lumped these together because I’m way behind schedule and one big post is easier to write than five medium posts (well, not entirely because of that); I’ve lumped them together because these songs all share a lot of elements, approaches and techniques. Certainly the fact that Despacito constantly switched with most of these songs for the No. 1 slot on a regular basis shows the extent to which these types of tracks were somewhat interchangeable – people would usually be listening to them all at the same time but would sometimes listen to Despacito more and sometimes listen to I’m the One. In short, when taken as a whole, these songs seem to have a certain shared aesthetic that a lot of separate artists arrived at just in time for it to be taken up en-masse by a mainstream audience who were really into it. So what is that aesthetic and what is that audience? Let’s go through each similarity in turn and answer these questions at the end, yeah?

Back to da Club

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Probably the major thing which links these songs together is their genre: they’re all dance music tracks. With their techno bleeps and bloops and tendency to be made by superstar producers with superstar guest artists, they’re also very obviously club hits. This makes sense: summer is the time of longer days and pleasant weather, making it the time of year where most people are going to be outside, meeting friends, drinking drinks and dancing about. There’s a reason DJ Khalid releases his work in the summer and Sam Smith releases his work in the winter.

Of course, club music has been forced to grow up over the past few years. Music used to predominately be about going to the club, drinking drinks and fucking women because you were rich and sexy, blah blah blah. The main issue with the genre is that it was ultimately tautological: the reasons why these types of artist were rich and sexy in their songs was because their lyrics said they were, rendering the tracks horribly hollow. This made it a very good genre for baseless power fantasies but it also made it very polarising – the tautilogical nature of club music made it very difficult to interact with, meaning that you had to either completely succumb to it or reject it entirely. This mode of listening became more and more unsustainable as time when on though. The 2000s (which was really the time of club music) were a relatively stable period in Britain, allowing for a time where somewhat shallow songs about how great everything is were basically alright. But then the Financial Crash happened, followed by a decade of increasingly hostile austerity, followed by multiple fissures revealed in Western society, leading to a time where people mindlessly celebrating drinking just felt out of touch with reality. The result has been a return to more sensitive, acoustic material like that of Charlie Puth or Ed Sheeran, or a move to more intellectual and grounded techno dance music like Clean Bandit or (to a lesser extent) The Chainsmokers.

Of course, people still like to dance and the place that people dance most is in the club. As such, it’s not really accurate to say that club music isn’t made anymore, it’s just that the specifics of how club music works has changed. For example, the vast majority of Club Music wasn’t just music listened to in a club, it was also music set in a club about being in a club. Even something like Pitbull’s Give Me Everything, which was nominally a love song (at least according to the chorus), was about someone in a club asking someone else to dance with them in a club because it’d complete the club experience. Club Music was all about the immediate moment and setting that it was listened in. The result, combined with the club as a primary setting, was that the club became a very utopian place where you lost yourself in the moment. It was a refuge from the real world: real life concerns didn’t come into play there.

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This doesn’t really happen anymore. Wild Thoughts doesn’t feature people dancing at a club, it features two people meeting up, getting wasted and fucking. Feels is a song about someone who has a crush on someone else and is willing to show commitment because that seems to be what they want. Despactio is… well, that’s 100% a club song about people in a club leering at women in a club, but we’ll get to the lyrics of that one in time.

What seems to have changed is how insecure the world has become. Between ISIS, Brexit, North Korea, the rise of the Alt-Right, Russian hacks and a thousand other things, we’ve reached a point in our history where we genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen over the next few decades. On a more domestic level, between a crumbling house market, a floundering economy, zero hour contracts, increased competition from overseas and a thousand other things, it’s become almost impossibly hard to find a sense of security in the modern world. Jobs are no longer lifelong things, homes are no longer affordable, our economy would die tomorrow and the internet’s going to steal our identities and give them to Russian Nazis. What the fuck are we meant to do?

This means that the major fantasy of the 2010s is not losing yourself in the moment but finding a form of stability. Feels which is about finding a girl and wanting to build something permanent with her. On the flipside, Wild Thoughts presents it’s disco dancing, heavy drinking, sex-obsessed narrator as a desperate alcoholic who is entirely out of control of her life. Even I’m the One (possibly the closest to a club song we’re going to cover here) isn’t about men going into the club and attracting women through fame and money, it’s about men who are so rich and famous that they all can pretty much guarantee that they’ll be able to find at least one person to whom they’re “the one” – i.e. the person they’ll love for all eternity. We don’t want to be rich to afford hollow markers of wealth anymore, we want to rich so that we know we can pay the bills this month and know that our partners won’t leave us.

Another thing rendered unsustainable nowadays is Club Music’s horrid sexism. As with most art forms in Western Society, Club Music had a tendency to be filled with men, and because Club Music was defined as a series of shallow power-trips surrounding sex and booze, it had a tendency to mention women purely to have them be featureless sex objects that the singers could definitely bang. We appear to have reached something of a tipping point in regards to sexual assault nowadays though with a lot of high profile cases of sexual assault allegations finally being taken seriously by the world at large. As mindless, trophy-obsessed hedonism has fell out of favour, so have sexist idiots groping people to prove how manly they are. And so you get Feels where Pharrell tries to attract a girl by promising to be more sensitive and respectful to her over a longer term than any of her other shallower suitors would be. Or we get New Rules where Dua Lipa tells her female audience to stop sleeping with shallow assholes that they know aren’t good enough for them.

(I’m the One is fucking horrid in this regard. You can’t win them all.)

So this is where we’re at: more sustainable songs providing a fantasy of reliability in an unsustainable world. They’re at least better than what they replaced.

And while we’re on about clubs:

Superstar DJs & Justin Bieber

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Out of the five songs here, three of them are headlined by superstar DJs: DJ Khalid heads the first two while Calvin Harris heads the third.

DJs as pop stars with their own hits have been a common part of the pop scene for a long, long time. The club scene is dominated by DJs anyway, so the more that the club scene became a central part of pop music in general, the more the idea of a superstar DJ became a natural extension of what had gone before. But as most of the genre was escapist and electronic based, the superstar DJ became a figure who was a bit aloof and full of themselves. A lot of Superstar DJs spent their songs acting like they were the super-rich demigods that club music revolved around, while their actual jobs mostly consisted of pressing play on their computers and getting other people to sing their songs for them. There was of course more to their jobs than that, but the idea of their fame and success coming effotlessly out of little work was part of the overall fantasy: club music was about enjoying the music while it was there, not the process of building it up from scratch.

Things have changed though. This can be seen in Calvin Harris, one of the prime figures of the club music genre who appeared in both videos for the song Feels playing the song on a series of instruments. Instead of playing a few piano chords and jumping around, he now actually appears in his videos to prove that he’s now actually writing and playing his music. In short, he’s foregrounding his role as a musician now. Calvin Harris isn’t the guy who throws together some big names and adds some electro-beats to the background; he works on his songs, writes them himself, plays them himself, collaborates with his friends to get a finished product, and then releases it. In short, we’ve moved on from the idea that club music is just bleeps and bloops made by superstars to provide power fantasies within a club setting; our music has to stand on it’s own as music now, to the point where the people who manufacture our summer dance hits have to prove they have greater intentions.

In contrast, we have DJ Khalid, a fascinating character in that no-one quite knows what he does or why he’s here. He’s a fat, tired-looking beardy guy who, as far as anyone can tell, is basically a middleman who introduces pop musicians, gets them to make songs for him and then releases them under his own name, usually after adding him shouting “DJ KHALID!” to the start. Even when he does appear in his tracks, he’s nearly always a backing singer who shouts random phrases in support of the main singer. The result is a figure who’s obviously central to his work but who doesn’t actually seem to do anything in it; he’s a media personality sans the personality.

Which is an interesting way for club music to go. In the old days, club music was very much owned by the DJ who made it with the guest singers being exactly that: guests in someone else’s music. When Sia appeared in Titanium, her performance was very much Sia appearing in a David Guetta song. But Wild Thoughts feels much more like a Rihanna and Bryan Tiller song with DJ Khalid just being the loud guy who got them together.

That said though, there’s never quite the feeling that the guest stars truly own the work either. Take Justin Beiber who appears in two out of the five songs. The last time we talked exclusively about him, we were discussing how his work had made a sudden bump up in quality. He hasn’t made any bumps since then though and has pretty much been costing on Sorry, Love Yourself and What Do You Mean? for over a year now. Despite appearing in two tracks that hit No. 1 this summer, he’s not actually the main person behind any of them: in Despatico (Remix), he’s quite obviously a guest singer who’s been grafted onto the song at a later date to increase English/American interest, and in I’m the One, he’s one of multiple ones, taking the central position as the guy who sings the chorus but still sharing the spotlight with seemingly anyone else who happened to walk past the music studio. The result is, much like DJ Khalid, a person who’s a central presence in their songs but also somewhat removed from them. He’s irreducible from his work, yet can’t be said to truly own it.

It used to be that the biggest pop stars were the largest individuals making the most dynamic statements: think David Bowie, Prince, Madonna or Lady Gaga. But here we have an entire summer full of hits from some of the biggest names in pop and rap, and they’re all pretty much playing second and third fiddle to Superstar DJs who are themselves becoming increasingly liminal to their own work. There is a sense that the summer No. 1s were dominated by authourless songs: five songs, none of which (outside of Dua Lipa) can truly be said to belong to any one auteur vision.

Which is a movement away from producers and stars and towards the texts themselves.  Pop stars nowadays are basically names which can be used for marketing purposes, drawing us towards songs that we then judge based on their own textures and feelings. So what was the texture and feeling was so popular this year?

The Exotic

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In a nutshell, it seems that exotic and foreign textures were in vogue in 2017. Wild Thoughts features Spanish guitar and Caribbean beats, while Despacito (Remix) is an actual foreign-language song with Justin Beiber added to it. Even when the music itself is a bit more traditionally Western, the videos of all these songs are focused on foreign locales: both videos for Feels are set on stages made to look like beaches, while the video for New Rules is set in a hotel room and by a pool.

Again, part of this is just that they were released in the summer and so are at least partly designed to be either listened to while on holiday or to relate to people in the holiday mood.

There is the temptation to contextualise this in relation to Brexit: the idea that as soon as Britain voted to stay out of the European Union, we suddenly started buying European-influenced tracks as a sign of buyer’s remorse. Hell, I contextualised Pillow Talk as a response to Brexit, and that was released several months before the vote. But I can’t come up with a reading like that here without feeling like I’m stretching.

Firstly, foreign language hits are not actually that rare. Je T’aime… Mon Non Plus by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Rock Me Amadeus by Falco, The Ketchup Song by Las Ketchup, Gangnam Style by Psy – pretty much all time periods (Labour or Conservative, in the EU or out) have European hits associated with them. And the ones that do get popular are rarely in-depth interactions with the countries-of-origin as much as they’re exotic flavored confirmations of that country’s main stereotype: everything in France is sexy, everything in Japan is silly, etc.

So you’ll get Wild Thoughts which uses foreign guitars and beats to… liven up what is otherwise another unhappy song about drinking and sex. The New Rules video is set in a hotel, because… of the video’s release date rather than anything to do with the song. Even Despactio (Remix), the actual foreign language hit of the year, doesn’t really have anything to do with it’s country of origin for the average British listener. Do most people in Britain actually know what the lyrics are on about in this song? Presumably not. And I don’t think it’s too much of a coincidence that the only foreign language hit in the UK for a while features additional vocals by one of the most popular English-speaking singers going at the moment. And given how Justin Bieber went to the Anne Frank museum and signed the visitors book by hoping that she’d have been a Bieleber, I doubt he truly cares that much about the history and geography. Any interactions with foreign countries managed through these songs are going to be very surface level.

I recently attended a seminar by film scholar Neil Archer in which he talked about the British Holiday Movie, a subsection of British Comedy films in which recognisable characters (usually from a popular sitcom of the time) go to a foreign location and cause havoc. He argued that most of these movies were just the standard jokes and plots of the British sitcom transferred to a foreign location which reduce that location to a series of icons at best and a backdrop at worst. Which belies a fundamental truth about British Holiday Movies: they are in no way about the places they’re set in but are instead about defining a particular version of Britishness against a more foreign background, picking and choosing what bits of foreign culture they want based on their own needs. And this is basically what I’m seeing here: now that the club’s gone out of vogue as a place to dance and escape, we’ve decided to go to more foreign locations to do that instead. It just so happens that we’ve also recently decided to cut ourselves off from certain foreign locations. Because we’re not interested in those locations, not really; we just visit every now and then when the office’s got dull.

Conclusion

This all leaves us with a bit of a sticky wicket, conclusion-wise. There is the feeling, 3000 words on, that these songs really don’t mean much. They were exotic party songs released at during the summer where everyone was at exotic parties, featuring enough big names to be guarantee popularity while never having to rely on any one artist’s personality to any great extent. We’ve moved on from Club Music but are still to really move onto anything in particular. There’s no big artistic movements, no real smash hits, no monstrously huge personalities: just a couple of relatively interchangeable tunes with their eyes aimed more at the calendar than anything else. Don’t get me wrong, they all sound good and I’d more happily listen to everything here than pretty much anything 2016 shat out. Dua Lipa in a particular is a singer I’ve grown to really quite like over this year; expect her to appear frequently in my Best Of lists. Pop music still does feel a bit aimless though; it’s getting better but not quite going anywhere.

Well, except for one women. Pop music does have one massive personality left making giant, controversial statements of intent in 2017. And I better get to her pretty Swiftly.

A No. 1 Review – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Artists for Grenfell

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We’re going a bit out of order here. After Clean Bandit’s Symphony, the next No. 1 was I’m the One by DJ Khalid, Justin Beiber and friends. After that was Despactio (Remix) by Louis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and (again) Justin Beiber. Then we got Bridge Over Troubled Water, then we got (again) Despactio, then Wild Thoughts by (again) DJ Khalid, then (again) Despactio (again). Thus was pretty much Summer 2017 according to the Pop Charts, with Calvin Harris and Taylor Swift appearing at the end to move us into the autumnal months.

Because I’m the OneDespactio and Wild Thoughts are so closely related to each other by time, personnel and style, I’m going to review them all in one big post which attempts to cover Pop Music in Summer ’17 in general. Which then leaves Bridge Over Troubled Water as the odd-one-out: it really doesn’t belong to the same psychogeographic space as the other tracks around it (whatever that might be) but is instead a product of the state of politics in 2017 post-Brexit Britain, particularly the 2017 general election and the Grenfell Tragedy. So instead let this be one of our regular “What is the state of British society today” posts (a semi-sequel to last year’s Brexit blog) where we try to find out what British society was at the time when DJ Khalid and Justin Beiber ruled the airwaves.

To understand the current moment though requires you to understand recent British history. Of course, any attempt to describe and understand recent British history is going to be futile – we’re much too close to the events, we don’t know how any of these moments are going to end, and as a card-carrying Corbynite, any history I’m going to give is going to be ridiculously biased. But let’s do it anyway, because we’re on the internet and don’t have to worry about actually being right! (In your face, academia!)

(And my apologies to any British readers for whom I’m about to recount the past few years of your life; weirdly for a blog about the UK charts, the vast majority of my audience is American, meaning I should probably go into detail.)

Seen as I’ve already mentioned him, let’s start with Corbyn. After a dismal defeat in the 2015 British elections, the then-leader of the Labour party – Ed Milliband – left and Labour had to find itself a new leader. The proposed candidates were the usual type of center-left politicians cut from the same type of cloth as Milliband was, causing an election where the choice was between a gaggle of almost indistinguishable people who were identical to the last leader. It was barely inspiring. That was until Jeremy Corbyn got added to the ballot, put there basically as a protest vote by Labour MPs who were tired of how homogeneous the party had become and were interested in livening things up. Corbyn was properly left-wing to the point of identifying as a socialist, something no-one had done in decades. He was never meant to win – not even Corbyn himself expected to – but he’d at least liven things up and remind the party that maybe there were more approaches to take than a center-left one. It was ridiculous gambit, but hopefully worthwhile.

Corbyn won the leadership vote by a landslide. It was staggering. For decades, Britain had been run as a neoliberal state running via centralist principles with the major political debate being whether you wanted your neoliberalism center-left flavoured or center-right flavoured. Everyone in power had agreed to this and wanted it kept in place: the politicians, the bankers, the newspapers, etc. So to have Jeremy Corbyn, an unrepentant socialist, become the leader of opposition was unthinkable. There was an actual opposition in opposition? The world had gone mad.

And the Corbyn craze wouldn’t stop growing. An entire organisation called Momentum sprung up to boister him. Labour membership numbers kept on increasing. There was a leadership challenge that Corbyn won with an increased majority. An entire opposition culture was building around him. It wasn’t the fact that Corbyn was there and voicing oppositional worldviews, it was that if you agreed with him, you could now go out and find groups of other people who did too. After Occupy Wall Street and this, the alternative to neoliberalism was beginning to get organised again.

These groups were then particularly emboldened by the 2017 General Election. Conservative leader David Cameron started the Brexit vote as a way of shutting up his more rebellious backbenchers who were clamoring for it, assuming that only a minority of the country would actually vote for it. He was proved wrong and stepped down from the job as a result. His replacement, Teresa May, was then left with having to actually deliver Brexit and, aware that she’d be pissing off a great proportion of the population whether her Brexit worked or not, decided to call for a snap election, expecting Corbyn’s large hatedom (he’s as hated as he is loved) to result in her winning by a large majority that she could then use to shut up any nay-sayers. This plan was as bad for her as Brexit was for Cameron. The Conservatives pulled off one of the worst election campaigns in modern history: May didn’t make any public appearances for the first few weeks and the party were slow to announce any policies; then the policies they did announce were reviled and almost instantly revoked; and the scant events that May did eventually appear at included such inspiring images as her talking to about 20 people in an empty aircraft hanger. Even though they ultimately stayed in power, they didn’t even win enough votes to gain a majority while Labour saw their vote-share sky rocket. The Tories were looking increasingly small and ineffective while Labour was only becoming more bold and capable. Labour had the infrastructure, the figurehead and the people required to kick the Tories while they were down; meanwhile the Tories hadn’t looked more kickable in decades. The opposition were fighting against the rulers and increasingly showing that they could win.

With the increase in Corbynism also came an increase in class consciousness. I don’t think that Corbyn can actually be attributed to the return of class consciousness. Neoliberal politics has historically been resistant to the idea that class still exists within it, mostly because it primarily sells itself through a narrative in which the market makes a level playing field where the only barrier to success is how hard you’re willing to work, something that doesn’t necessarily sit well with class narratives where certain subsections of people get head starts towards success due to their parents. The idea of classnessless particularly took hold during the days of New Labour, whose image of providing a classless society meshed well with their want to be seen as a genuinely progressive, forward thinking movement. But as the promises of New Labour got squandered and people got sick of Tory-imposed neoliberal austerity, the utopia of classnessless fell out of vogue and people have got back to complaining en-masse about the unfair nature of society. The first person to actually capitalise on this was probably Nigel Farage, the man whose retro appeals to the alienated poor make him essentially the right-wing Corbyn (or make Corybn the left-wing Farage). But Corbyn has took advantage of this return to class issues and in turn advanced them greatly by making them acceptably mainstream (at least to a certain subsection of people).

All of these facets came to a head with the Grenfell Tragedy. On 14th June 2017, a few weeks after the 2017 election, the Grenfell Towers (a 24-storey tower block of public housing flats located in West London) caught on fire, killing over 70 people. Residents had been trying to get their landlord company – KCTMO, a government outsourced ‘tenant management organisation‘ – to improve the fire safety conditions of the flats for years and received little more than legal demands that they stop. Instead KCTMO spent a lot of money covering the tower block is cladding, placating the demands of the richer people in the local area who wanted it to be turned into less of eye-sore while also making the property a more attractive proposition for new residents. This cladding was a non-fireproofed version bought and used because it was relatively cheap, despite the fact that it failed all safety tests and probably should’ve been illegal to buy in the UK. Then, when a fridge-freezer on the fourth floor caught fire, this cladding was what allowed it to spread so quickly up the entire block. Meanwhile, all the recent refurbishments to the tower block that KCTMO had done only worked to restrict fire exits and make it more difficult for a) people to get out of the block and b) the emergency services to get in.

Everything about the disaster shows exactly where KCTMO’s (and the entire housing industries’) priorities lay. Every improvement to the tower block done by KCTMO wasn’t done to improve the lives of the people living in it but was done either to placate the wealthier (and thus more influential) people who lived around the flats or to bring more people into them, increasing the worth of the company’s assets and thus the company’s incomes. Anyone who was actually living in the blocks weren’t cared about: they were already paying KCTMO their monthly amount of money so there wasn’t anything to be gained out of improving their experience. Their lives were only deemed worth helping if it would simultaneously open up new income streams. In the landlord’s eyes, their clients were nothing more than capital, only worth investing in if they were to receive a sizable return.

And, of course, the tower block residents were predominately poor: they were the people without the sustainable or reliable income to not require government assistance to acquire accommodation. Even then, the government fobbed them off into council housing where the landlord duties were outsourced to another company. They were the powerless being acted upon by institutions who didn’t care for them, priced out of having a say in their nearby surroundings and thrown into situations which ultimately led to their endangerment and death. Which is how the neoliberal housing market, combined with austerity, was always going to end up. If neoliberalism is the reduction of everything into the market, as David Harvey would argue, then it is also concerned with the reduction of the worker into capital, as Marx would argue. From the perspective of KCTMO, their tenants were indistinguishable things which produced a certain amount of money each month. If improving their lives would cost more money than their worth, then their lives wouldn’t be improved. If stopping them from dying was more expensive than not stopping them from dying, then they were allowed to die.

So far, so Marxist polemic. But surprisingly, this is exactly the way that the tragedy was framed by large sections of the media. Interviews with residents showed long-standing resentments between the rich and poor; the fact that the victims were poor and that there was a large amount of wealth inequality in the area were repeatably discussed in the media as potential causes of the tragedy; and members of the opposition’s shadow cabinet claimed that the residents were ‘murdered by political decisions’, by which they meant Conservative neoliberal policy. The tragedy got discussed primarily through the theme of class consciousness with the dominant message being that the Grenfell victims were poor people failed by an austerity government and left to die due to neoliberal market forces.

At a time when class consciousness was on the rise and the Tory’s election campaign had shown them to be nowhere near as infallible as they had previously presented themselves, the aftermath of the Grenfell Tragedy became a moment where people started seething with rage again at a right-wing establishment made of incompetent sociopaths running a failing system that killed people based on wealth. This wasn’t even the leftward outsider’s view, this became the argument through which the entire event was framed. There was no getting around it: neoliberalism was killing people and the Tory party – as the main representatives of modern neoliberal policies now that the opposition party was becoming increasingly socialist – had to be shouted into making penance for the pain they had wrought.

And tying into this in it’s own small way is A Bridge Over Troubled Water by Artists for Grenfell. At this point, 2000 words in, I should probably explain what our primary text is. A Bridge Over Troubled Water is a charity record produced by Simon Cowell to raise money with which to support the victims of the Grenfell Tregedy. It’s a cover of the Simon and Garfunkle song A Bridge Over Troubled Water done in the style of other charity singles such as We Are The World or Do They Know It’s Christmas?, wherein a bunch of celebrities have been brought into a room and a different person sings each line. Behind this has been laid a choir, A Bridge Over You style.

If neoliberalism is about individualism and opposed to collectivism, then this song is firmly on the side of collectivism. It brings a large group of people together to sing one unified anthem, this anthem being about support, care and working together. The choir then gives it a home-spun angle; a communal hymn sung by the people for the people in favor of the poor affected by the Grenfell disaster and against the rich who caused it.

These types of charity song are usually considered to be awful, condescending crap. Usually, this is because the songs are horribly colonial. According to Do They Know It’s Christmas, the main issue with poverty in Africa is that there’s less people in the world to celebrate Christmas – i.e. there’s less people to celebrate a western holiday primarily through the form of capitalist consumption. Or how about We Are The World, in which a bunch of Americans proclaim how much the world needs Americans’ help (something they rarely give without a little, shall we say, ideological realignment required of the helped party). The actual people being helped by these songs usually end up getting erased within them, mostly because everyone wants to be seen helping poverty but no-one wants to actually look at it for too long. At least Bridge Over Troubled Water fights against this: it’s not about one bunch of people helping another bunch while completely ignoring their beliefs and customs, it’s a bunch of people showing genuine support for the song’s nominal subjects.

No, the real issue is that Simon Cowell is not an example of “the people”. He’s a multi-millionaire whose style combines an aggressive populism with a complete dismissal of the idea that art actually means anything. In the most recent years, he’s main output has been focused on shows like The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, programmes which ruthlessly take advantage of the idea that a song doesn’t have to be meaningful as long as it’s packaged in a way that gives it a external narrative. The X-Factor is a show in which a series of completely interchangeable people sings a random medley of nothings, but because we’ve watched them be cut down from thousands to one, we feel like we’re actually watching something happening around a song with some internal importance to it. The result is a music competition where the music is the single least important thing about it; it’s a hollow programme, completely and utterly. And it’s cultural dominance made it the main cause of the very movements in pop music that this blog was started as a reaction against: the way that pop music is now almost entirely immaterial, disconnected from everything but it’s own image, performed by a bunch of interchangeable no-ones singing about nothing to an audience increasingly demanding more, etc, etc.

In short, having a parade of rich people sing about how much they’re going to help the victims of Grenfell when the whole event was caused by society constantly prioritizing the rich over the poor feels like a bunch of butchers singing about how much they’re going to help the lambs after their traumatizing trip to the slaughter house. The style of the song and its good chart performance shows the type of collectivist approach which is increasingly challenging the neoliberal status quo, but it’s being spearheaded by the one person who’s done the most to make pop music useless at doing things like “talking about working class existence” and is being supported by people who have no business being here. I mean, Simon Cowell lived in the Grenfell area: he’s one of the rich people the council were trying to attract and placate when they put the fatal cladding up. Get rid of the celebrities and release a cover of the song performed by the choir: we don’t need the rich to tell us where our sympathies should lie anymore.

The victims of Grenfell still need help; the Conservatives actual support for them as been less than stellar. Support the Justice4Grenfell group or any other charity dedicated to helping them. Join your local groups like the Grenfell Action Group to try to stop things like this happening again. Critique the political ideologies which led to the fire and demand more from your elected representatives. Hell, demand that they and their system be replaced if you think it’s too corrupt to be worth it. The opposition is getting organised and, like everywhere else, the fight’s getting heated. People are punching up again, which means others are going to try to punch down.

Thus was Britain in the summer of 2017.

Updates and Stuff

qragybnI don’t usually do update posts like this, but I’ve got a few things on the go at the moment and thought you’d like to know.

Firstly, a few updates on the main focus of the blog: the No. 1 reviews. I’m horribly behind with these, I know, but actually quite like that fact: I’m finding that the few months of historisation they’ve been given by my tardiness are making it easier to contextualise the pieces and thus figure out how to read them, resulting in posts that I feel are a bit meatier (I hope). I’m still working to get them posted as soon as I can though, with the post for A Bridge Over Troubled Water being almost done and the first sections of a big post covering I’m the OneDespactio (Remix) and Wild Thoughts in one being well under way. Watch this space.

In the meantime, a friend Dan and I have started a sort-of sister blog to this one: FNORD. It’s a TV and Film blog where we’ll be putting our thoughts on anything with visuals attached to them. The plan is for the blog to post once a week with the two of us alternating each post. We’ve kicked it off with a double-bill of posts on the infamously strange Twin Peaks S03E08: I have a post talking about how the structure of Twin Peaks allows Episode 8 to use it’s surrealism the same way The West Wing used dialogue, while Dan has a more easily summarisable post discussing the themes of good, evil, screams and silence in the episode. Next week will begin my episode-by-episode marathon of Mr Robot which gets weird and revolutionary really quickly, and then we’ll go from there. Join us; if you like the themes of this blog, that blog will take them and run.

While we’re here, may I suggest that everyone reading this goes out and gives Major Parkinson’s new album Blackbox a go; it got released a few days ago and is beautiful, like a baroque opera being played by a rock band.

Right then, back to writing. Hopefully you like the work and don’t mind the schedule slip. Take care.

A No. 1 Review – “Symphony” by Clean Bandit feat. Zara Larsson

I’m way behind on my attempt to review every UK No. 1 of this year. Let’s pretend this song is still immediately relevant to the charts, yeah?

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I’ve historically been a bit conflicted with Clean Bandit. They’re certainly the best instrumentalists working in mainstream pop at the moment; their songs sound sublime and are musically so far ahead of their contemporaries that it’s almost embarrassing.

The issue is that they keep collaborating with their contemporaries despite them never quite seeming to gel. Place one of Bandit’s precise, complicated instrumentals next to an over-singer like Louisa Johnson and you get a track with no room to breathe, forcing their less ostentatious sound into the background and allowing the song to be dominated by it’s worst element. Similarly, place it next to a wholly uncomplicated artist like Jess Glynne and you get music which is entirely unsupported by its lyrics, resulting in something unsatifyingly meaningless. Too far to either end of the spectrum and you get stuff that doesn’t work: there’s a specific vocal style that serves Clean Bandit well, but it’s so percise that no-one quite seems to know what it is yet.

They’re getting better though. You’d think that Rockabye, the song they did with Anne-Marie and Sean Paul, would end up criminally overloaded given that it features not one but two guest artists, yet it’s actually quite controlled. The thing that makes it work is that there’s an in-song reason for one performer to overpower the rest. The entire track is about the hard work but ultimate self-sufficiency of Anne-Marie’s single mother character, providing a surprisingly deep portrait of how single mothers need more support but are still strong on their own. To reflect this, every single element of the song other than Anne-Marie takes a supportive role to her vocals, from Sean Paul making singular utterances which highlight the important parts of Anne-Marie’s story to music which largely keeps itself out of the way unless needed. Everyone’s working together to highlight and bolster one element.

The fact that this is rare for a Clean Bandit song says something about the band which I haven’t quite said yet. Because I usually prefer the instrumentation to the lyrics in any Clean Bandit song, I have a tendency to argue that Clean Bandit is a great bunch of musicians being underserved by guest artists who don’t get what they’re doing. This perspective implies that Clean Bandit don’t have any control over their guest artists though, which is almost definitely wrong: while I don’t know exactly how they write their tracks, I doubt that they just record the music, send it to the record label and then leave it to everyone else to add some vocals on top of it. Which means that if Clean Bandit have a major flaw, it’s that they don’t write their intricate music to play to the strengths of their collaborators. If you’re going to keep using guest vocalists, you might as well start adjusting your sound for each one. Clean Bandit have never really done this, and so are as much to blame for their songs never quite coalescing as everyone else.

Meanwhile, Rockabye has everyone on the same page and working together to produce a singular effect, everyone being given well-defined roles which feed into the song’s central point. This is what truly separates Rockabye from the rest of Clean Bandit’s discography: the feeling that the music and the vocals are actually working with and off each other as opposed to being merely played over each other in the final dub.

And while Symphony – Clean Bandit’s latest No. 1 recorded with Zara Larsson – never quite reaches the heights of Rockabye, the interplay between Clean Bandit and Zara Larsson is there, working off each other to produce some really quite interesting effects and some very solid storytelling.

The song is about a lonely person who’s developed a crush on someone, the song serving to express their desire to date. It starts off by setting the scene: the narrator talks about how she was tired of “solo singing on [her] own” and talks about how her crush helped to imagine an unlonely life. This is communicated through a very sparce opening where the only instruments are a piano playing single notes in a very separated plinky-plonk fashion, over which is laid the narrator’s voice and an awful lot of echo, making it feel like the narrator is singing to herself in a large, empty room. Then the pre-chorus kicks in and the lyrics move to present tense. The single notes become chords which speed and build up, leading to a sense of forward momentum. This is where the singer and her crush come together, where everything fits into one…

Except it’s not. The music drops out of the chorus and we’re left with the singer largely singing to herself while the piano music flits between the pauses. And so a tension is created: the singer and her crush haven’t got together. And you feel that tension: the music built you up and has left you hanging. You feel in limbo. An effect is made, and it’s a palpable one.

With this framework, the song has now set up what the rest of it has to do: keep building up the instrumental passages until they eventually reach a crescendo, resolving the songs tensions and allowing its characters to finally come together. And so it starts doing that, introducing new instruments to the mix constantly and using the ebbs-and-flows created by it’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure to maintain its sense of tension while constantly moving towards an increasingly inevitable finale. While the finale feels inevitable though, it never feels certain. The first musical fake-out has taught us that the crescendo promised by the song is not guaranteed. And of course, despite the ending being inevitable, the song never actually features the singer and her crush getting together. As such, we’re left with a tumultuous snapshot of a relationship-to-be, preserved in amber and carrying all the nerves, joys and fears that developing a new crush tends to bring. It’s effective and beautiful; compare it to the relatively aimless Rather Be and you’ll see that Clean Bandit’s abilities as storytellers have improved greatly.

And the real joy of it is the way that the lyrics use a symphony metaphor in which the singer’s “solo-singing” merges with her crushes melodies and tunes in order to form a full symphony, this being exactly what the music does. The music explains the lyrics and the lyrics explain the music: everything fits and feeds into each other. There’s no difference between vocals, instruments and melody here, they all fit together into one text.

This might seem like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill – a song has matching music and lyrics, big whoop – but a lot of pop music nowadays shows nothing even close to the fundamentals being displayed here. As I’ve said before, despite me being a very harsh critic of modern pop music, it’s really has to do very little for me to like it. In a world where something as confused as One Dance can be No. 1 for 15 weeks and Ed Sheeran is somehow an apparently acceptable songwriter, a song as proficient as this is frankly exemplary.

Clean Bandit have always tried very hard to be as good as they can and now their efforts are finally playing dues, fulfilling at least some of the potential evident in their earlier works. It’s not quite Rockabye but that’s mostly because using some interesting narrative structures to liven up a bog-standard love song isn’t as half as interesting as using interesting narrative structures to illuminate a very specific tale of single-motherhood in the modern age. What it is though is very good. As their worst, Clean Bandit are one of the most interesting bands going; based on the strengths of these two songs, you could plausibly argue that Clean Bandit are currently the best pop groups in the charts right now.

A No. 1 Review – “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles (plus other Post-1D Songs by former 1D artists)

Oh crap, I’m way behind schedule again. Time to rush through as many songs as I can again…

Introduction

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Sign of the Times is surprisingly hard to write about. It’s a very good song, but it’s good in ways that are pretty obvious. I could talk about how the song’s young tiredness fits into the current social climate but that’s already well worn ground; the song’s basically Closeronly you don’t have to say “it’s supposed to be bad” to justify it. It doesn’t help that this aspect is so foregrounded by Sign of the Times that analysing it feels like little more than pointing at the lines and going “What this says”. I could go What Do You Mean on it instead and make up a deliberately over-the-top reading which situates it within a context it’s obviously never meant to be read in, but that’s funner to do with basically adequate material that I’m desperately trying to find something interesting to say about. To do that with a song that’s already good feels like a disservice.

Luckily, there is one context in which discussing the strengths of Sign of the Times seems useful. Last year, we had the great dissolution (sorta) of One Direction. The first person to split from the group and start a solo career was Zayn, and his arrival as a solo artist was heralded (by his production team) as a brave new frontier in which the rulebook would be rewritten and a new form of pop would come to be. Of course, this was somewhat exaggerated. After one mildly interesting single, Zayn quickly settled down into a series of uninteresting shlock, none of which I can remember the names of. This culminated in a Fifty-Shades-Soundtrack duet with Taylor Swift, a song which is stunningly empty to the point of barely constituting an example of sound. To put it politely, he’s been underwhelming. The world doesn’t need a post-One-Direction Zayn.

Yet Harry Styles has been able to carve an actual space within the pop sphere in which he’s managing to do something. And say, isn’t there another One Direction member currently trying to break as a solo act as well? The blonde one… Apparently he’s called Niall? Yeah, his song hasn’t had half the impact of Harry Styles. And what about the other one: the one whose entire act has become him threatening to get naked on the internet? Where did they go wrong and where did Harry go right?

Well, that’ll be our question then. Four One Direction members making solo careers, three of whom don’t feel like they matter at all, one of whom actually managed to make something that felt important. How did Harry manage it when his mates didn’t? Let’s wildly speculate, shall we?

SEX

If you compare the works of the three relatively unimportant ones, you’ll find a shared subject which Harry avoided: sex.

I’ve talked about sex and boy bands before. In short, most boy bands are so aggressively chaste as to be impossible to read as anything but sexual, becoming a series of teases revolving a very well defined sex-shaped hole. Because this sex is defined through it’s absence, the act of projecting sexual desires onto a boy band (as all boy band audiences do, what with them being teenage girls and that) becomes a subversive and secretive act. This is then backed up by songs which focus on secrets, intimate moments and things that only the boy band and its audience members share, creating the sensation that the boy band and each individual fan has a genuine, deep connection which is unique to them. (The fact that each relationship can’t be truly unique doesn’t matter, all that matters is what the audience feels.) Because we usually define “adult” as “not for children” and define “children” as “innocent” or “non-sexual”, former Boy Band members thus have an easy way of redefining themselves as “adult” artists: they merely take the implicit sexual nature of their songs and make it explicit. Wham bam, thank you mam: they’re now people who talk about “adult” (and thus more “serious”) topics, allowing them to attract a wider, more adult audience without alienating their previous fans or without even fundamentally changing their act that much.

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Thus we had Zayn’s first song, Pillow Talk, in which the standard boyband/One Direction tropes got openly recontextualised with a sexual veneer. In it, Zayn and the listener are lovers who, for some reason, have their relationship largely frowned on by everyone around them. Their refusal to bow to societal pressures and end the relationship means that they are now pitted against the world and Zayn sees this as an all out battle, wanting sex so loud that it’ll “piss off all the neighbours” with their bed being both their “paradise and [their] war zone”. Embedded in all this is the same type of relationship that’s present in all One Direction’s music – a marginalised one in which sex is a subversive act – but the relationship is played in a much angrier way which allows these subtexts to bubble to the fore. It is also a straight rejection of the “secret” element of boy band music: Zayn is tired of having quiet sex under the covers and wants to celebrate his relationship in as violent and direct a way as possible. As such, he does, singing a boy band song with the sexual elements foregrounded in the mix. The anger in this song does at least give it an entirely different feel to boy band music, even if the mechanics under the hood are pretty much the same, and there is something satisfyingly violent about how confrontative the song actually is. You can see why it’s the second-most successful song we’ll talk about.

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Niall’s song – Slow Hands – similarly ramps up the sex quota. Niall is in a club and flirts with a woman, looking forward to having sex with her. He mentions “sweat dripping down our dirty laundry”, tells us that “I want you bad”, and the phrase “slow hands” effectively makes you imagine hands carefully running over skin and being all sexy-like. But ultimately it’s a standard boy band narrative coated in a sexier lexis. Admittedly, there are a few cute attempts to do a few things differently: the lines “We should take this back to my place / That’s what she said right to my face” are, according to Liam, supposed to be a great reversal of social roles – “Usually that’s what the guy would say, but we flipped it that the girl would say that, and that’s what she said right to my face“. Alas, the song fails to carry on the reversal any longer than the first two lines; the entire rest of the song is the male main character carrying on as male main characters in these types of song do. And while the song is more rugged and gritty than was usual for One Direction, they still fit in exactly with the “Man talks about sex while playing acoustic guitar” trend that’s been common in the charts lately, and was still outdone by Zayn’s much more radically different techno direction. The result is a song that thinks it’s doing something new and radical, without realising that it’s doing the exact same thing as everyone else is. If it is new and radical, then it is in comparison to One Direction songs, which isn’t exactly a hard baseline to surpass.

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And then we get to Liam, the guy who literally promised to strip naked online if his fans got his song to No. 1. The song’s called “Strip That Down”. It has Liam naked on the cover. It’s about Liam meeting a woman and wanting to “strip that down” and “hit the ground”. In the chorus, he talks about how he was in “1D” but now is “free” to be the party boy that he used to be before his 1D days. It’s just so… blatant in its intentions, and its intentions are just to shout SEX and PARTY really loudly. Its intentions are so obviously bullshit too: it’s the fourth most talented member of One Direction and (co-writer) Ed Sheeran pretending to be out-of-control, sex-crazed partiers, an act which fits both of them so badly that it just becomes funny after a while. I like to compare this song to a goat. Goats are my favourite animals because they’re goofy, scruffy buggers who nevertheless love themselves. The discrepancy between how they look and how they act is obvious, yet they don’t care. And I love them because I’d love to have their self-confidence in the face of such obvious inadequacy. Strip That Down is a goat of a song. It’s incredibly easy to like, but that’s not the same as saying it actually works.

The issue with all of these songs is all that they have one basic flaw which, while not making them strictly unenjoyable, certainly stops them from being undeniably “good”. Strip That Down is way too unjustifiably over-earnest; Slow Hands is trying to be interesting but picks the least interesting ways of doing it; and Zayn’s attempt to mix sex and violence doesn’t quite work because the music itself doesn’t really sound like either. And sex forms part of all of their flaws: Strip That Down uses sex as part of it’s OTT hedonism which gets too broadly played to feel genuine, while Slow Hands and Pillow Talk use sex to be edgy while missing that fact that everyone else is talking about it too. There’s a sense here that sex is ultimately being used by them as a crutch; they want to produce something “adult”, default to discussing sex as pop music’s single “adult” topic, and then see where they should go from there. The results are rarely bad but none are the mature smash that they think they’re being.

For adult versions of pop songs, they feel very immature.

Closer

So how does Sign of the Times work?

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Firstly, it must be noted how close to the traditional boy band formula this song sticks. Harry Style speaks directly to the audience and the constant use of “We” puts Harry and the audience in a close relationship with other. He doubles down on this by defining their relationship in relation to the world around them, separating them from the rest of the world in the same way that Zayn’s Pillow Talk does. Whereas Pillow Talk purposely separates its characters from the rest of society to defy it though, Sign of the Times represents two people who feel separated from the world around them and wish to escape it. “Just stop your crying / It’s a sign of the times / We gotta get away from here / We gotta get away from here”.

Both Sign of the Times and Pillow Talk talk about environments in which their protagonists are united together but separated from the world around them. The various political readings of this in the current British contexts are plentiful and obvious. Given how opinions towards Brexit were very split in terms of age groups with the youth generally being more pro-EU and the old generally being more anti-EU, the idea of two young people set against a world dominated by older ideologies can be easily read as a potential youth reaction to the whole result of the vote. The implication drawn from this reading is that the world this generation wants to live in has been taken away from them. Harry Style’s reaction is to run away to somewhere more accepting; Zayn’s is to more aggressively impose his ideology, Brexit vote or not. [1]

At it’s core though, Harry’s approach is no different from anyone else in One Direction’s: simply wed the traditional structures of boy band music to a more “adult” topic and watch the money pour in. The difference is that the rest of One Direction’s adult topic is “sex” while Harry’s adult topic is “politics”. [2] It’s a more mature conception of what being adult entails, defining the difference between childhood and adulthood not as “sexless/sex-filled” but as “free from the world’s issues/having to deal with the world’s issues”. This sense of maturity is also filtered through the song’s lush instrumentation, referring back to the love/power ballads of the 20th century rather than the post-club tracks of now. The result is a song that sounds old, merging with the lyrics to provide the song with a genuine world-weariness that fits it perfectly.

The irony is that Harry’s song is actually very childlike in the way it tackles it’s mature topic. Harry still defines himself and the listener as young people put against an adult world. Given that Harry defines childhood as “being free from the issues of the world” and being an adult as “having to deal with them”, the song thus becomes about a desire to run away from the issues of the world and back into the world of childhood. Sign of the Times basically desires for the pre-Brexit world where Harry Styles and his 1D friends could sing happy-go-lucky pop tunes together as opposed to having to constantly justify themselves alone in an increasingly fractured landscape. In many ways, Sign of the Times is nostalgic for a world which didn’t need Sign in the Times.

Conclusions

Ultimately, Harry’s song is just the most respectable out of the bunch. It sounds older, more mature and thus its points come over as more considered and considerable. Young people can listen to it and see their issues at the world reflected; more aged people can listen to it and relate to the tiredness of it. It’s a rebellion that the Radio Two audience can enjoy. Multiple audiences get joined together and so the song gains more sales and positive reviews than the ones which are directly focused on one audience and that one only.

I have critiqued this sense of respectability before, discussing it in the post where I argued that Adele and Taylor Swift have the same act but that Adele’s is unfairly considered better purely because it’s more like operatic and adult while Swift is just silly pop for teenage girls. In that post, I argued that that position misunderstands what pop music historically is for, and has sexist/classist/ageist overtones. Here, respectability means that out of Sign of the Times and Pillow Talk, both of which explore antagonistic youth perspectives against the dominant culture, the one that’s most successful is the one which actually never directly attacks that dominant culture in any way. Like most of post-club music, Sign of the Times comes off as a rebellion workshopped to the point of ineffectiveness. As such, by the aesthetic standards of this blog, this means that Zayn’s Pillow Talk has to actually be considered the more worthy song of the two, if only because this blog is of the opinion that directly fighting against certain sections of modern society is preferable to hiding from the world within nostalgia. “Most worthy” and “the best done” don’t have to be synonyms.

That said, it is pretty much undeniable that Sign of the Times is just the better written song which achieves much more within it’s own remits. It is the one with the most layers that does the most stuff, wrapped within music which genuinely packs an emotional punch. Sign of the Times is the best of the One Direction songs because it’s a mature piece of music which a bigger proportion of the population can identify with, while everyone else in the band is producing more adolescent works aimed at kids. Sex sells; sometimes quality sells better.

 



Footnotes:

[1] I know that Pillow Talk was released about half a year before the Brexit vote, but it’s surprisingly easier to contextualise post-Brexit than it was pre-it. The debate had been going on for months when it was initially released; it just seems that Zayn tied into a series of ideas drawn from the society having the debate which have happened to become more relevant the further on we’ve got.

[2] Zayn’s position is most accurately “Sex is politics”, though the politics is filtered through the sex rather than the other way around, the sexual elements being the ones which get foregrounded.