I don’t really know what I think about this song. On one hand, it’s a man talking about the pressures of finding a place in life and how uncomfortable those pressures can be; it talks about how dull life is and how pain can be escaped through art; it talks about fatherhood and being a son – it talks about a lot of things which are interesting and done well. Yet on the other hand, it’s a self-indulgent piece of fluff which doesn’t justify itself in the slightest and is based around one of the hokiest framing devices I’ve heard in years. So yeah: I’m conflicted.
As such, let’s do some weird things with structure. Firstly, I’m going to go all What Do You Mean? on this and produce an argument that this song is a brilliant, powerful piece of art that should be praised to the high heavens. I’m then going to produce a second argument saying that it’s a piece of ephemeral junk. I’m then going to do what I usually do when I don’t have a real argument and contextualise the song within the pop world as a whole. Then I’ll see if we have a conclusion to make or if we’re all as clueless as when we began.
I: The Argument For
So what is this song about? In a nutshell: Parenthood, and how your reactions to it can change as you grow. As a kid, the lead singer was told by his parents that one day he’ll have to become a parent, otherwise his life will be unfulfilling (“Once I was eleven years old, my daddy told me / Go get yourself a wife or you’ll be lonely”). He went through a rebellious phase (“smoking herb and drinking burning liquor”) but broke out of that cycle through music. He found a wife and started a family (“my woman bought children for me”), started talking to his dad more (“I made a man so happy when I wrote a letter once”) and ends the song hoping that his children will continue to love him as he ages. This is pop on a grand scope: taking a large subject and providing an overview of the artist’s entire life so as to discuss it.
What really makes the lyrics interesting though is that there’s always a sense of defeat to them. If the main reason to get a family is to not be “lonely”, then this is shown to not truly work because loneliness seems to perminate very thought the lead singer has. He produces music to escape loneliness, yet it only makes him feel more lonely because he can’t form the words to make his true self come through; he has a wife and kids but is still worried that they won’t visit him when he’s 60; and though this song is very much about the singer’s relationship to fatherhood, his relationship with his father seems highly strained: he mentions only writing a letter to him “once” and then immediately reveals his father to be dead without any ceremony whatsoever. Indeed, the singer seems to be dismissive of his childhood as whole: his relationship with his parents seems strained, and he hated where he grew up so much that he started taking solace in drugs before becoming a writer purely to escape it. He hates the world he grew up in and is entirely resentful about the way it gave him one path without any hope of taking another.
He doesn’t mind his life too much though. He has a family who he seems to genuinely love; his relationship with his father was strained but not without good points (the aforementioned letter, etc); and the idea that his family will stick around and always love him is kept as a genuine possibility. No matter how bad things get, there’s always the chance of them improving. That’s one of the main messages I get from this song: the world always progresses and, while it never becomes perfect, it usually gets better. Life is horrible and unfulfilling, societal structures don’t work, and true happiness is impossible; yet we still continue and there is still happiness to be found, somewhere.
These lyrics have deep things to say and says them quite intelligently. Certainly it’s one of the densest and meatiest songs to play on the radio in years.
II: The Argument Against
It’s just a shame that this is all delivered through one of the hokiest framing devices I’ve heard in years. The story is structured via a device wherein the artist either revisits past times of their life (“When I was seven years old”) or thinks forwards to their future (“When I’m sixty years old”). This is admittedly the device which gifts the song its sense of progression and scale, but it’s also the device which slightly ruins it for me. My main problem is that the years visited seem to have been picked arbitrarily. The song visits the lead singer when he was 7, 11, 20, 30, 60 – there’s no pattern here, other than “this number’s bigger than the last one”. Revisiting your life at periodic intervals (10, 20, 30, 40, etc) and seeing how you’ve changed between them: that’d be fair enough. A random overview of your life as a whole which doesn’t tie anything down to a specific age: that’d be fair too. But what this song does just doesn’t work for me. Your mother told to you get a wife once in her life over 20 years ago and you remember this event to the year; then your dad told you to do the same thing exactly once in his life and you remember that to the year too? The whole thing feels like a construction, but it feels like a construction with no structure or integrity to it. It takes me completely out of the song itself.
But then again, maybe his mother did tell him only once to get a wife and maybe that event did happen when he was seven – this song does seem to be primarily autobiographical after all. Maybe that justifies the device. Only: I’m not convinced how justified an autobiographical song of this type is for this singer right now. The entire middle section of this song is him talking about his artistic process and what it’s been like producing his discography. The only problem is: who cares? Who cares what it was like writing his previous works? Who cares about how his songs fit in with his childhood? Who cares about his basic backstory? Had most of the British public even heard of Lukas Graham before this song, because I hadn’t. Maybe it makes more sense in Denmark where Lukas Graham has a pre-existing following, but within a British context, this song is like an actor starring in a biopic of themselves before they’ve become famous. It also hurts the “universal wisdom” tone that the song’s going for considering how most people aren’t musicians or writers; plus it’s the one element of the song that moves away from the family theme. The autobiographical details and the bits about being a songwriter don’t entirely fit with everything around them; they denature the song in several fundamental ways.
Plus, considering how the main character’s supposed to be a writer, it’s just not that well written. The second verse rhymes “me” with itself twice, and the syntax is ridiculous. I mean, what’s up with the sentence “My woman brought children for me”. A) Your woman? Your? As in, “your” property? Fuck you. B) Does your wife not get a name? Is that how much you care for her? She’s literally just a gender to you? A collection of reproductive parts? Fuck you. C) “Brought”? Like: she picked them up from the store? Went into the streets and caught them with a big net? Played a flute and enticed them back? How disconnected from humanity do you have to be before you start thinking of your wife as “The Woman” and of childbirth as an economic transaction? Is that the beauty of family to you? God, you do have issues.
(And no, I’m not going to be lenient because Lukas Graham is a Danish band. If you’re going to write a song in English, write it in English. I’d be just as angry at an English band who wrote a song in broken French. a-ha were able to use their less-than-perfect grasp of English syntax to their benefit; so can Lukas Graham.)
III: The Arguments Around It
Thus is my problem: this is an utterly fascinating song which has a scope far beyond what you usually get in pop music, hindered by fundamental flaws which stop it fully ringing true. It’s simultaneously brilliantly written and terribly written. I still don’t know what to think of it.
What does it say about the pop charts overall though?
Firstly it should be noticed just how dour and angry UK No. 1’s have become. These things always work via cycles – songs which get big in the winter are more likely to be sadder and introspective than those which get released in the summer – but even if you compare last year’s early No. 1s to this year’s, you’ll see just how much the music world has changed beneath our feet within the last 12 months. This time last year, the No. 1s were Uptown Funk and Jess Glynne (both of which are just standard dance songs with a nominally artistic veneer), Love Me Like You Do and See You Again (which are movie tie-ins), plus the last of the club hits. Then Sam Smith and Little Mix appeared and suddenly the charts became men moaning about being alone while women shouted about sex. This period then led to the first No. 1s of 2016: Stitches (a man moaning about his loneliness), Pillow Talk (an angry destruction of boy band music) and this (a man moaning about his loneliness and restrictive societal structures). If you look at enough songs from the past years, you’ll have seen this trend coming a long way off, but mid-last year was the time that these stopped being the oncoming trend and just became the de-facto norm.
Indeed, a lot of my discussions of the Post-Club Age of Music recently have been concerned with the fact that no-one’s actually known what the future of pop will sound like for years now. The future of pop music seems to be defining itself though; the Post-Club genre is finally gaining it’s definitive sound. Indeed, it’s gained two: one per gender. If you’re a man, then you sing about being lost and weak next to either sparse synthesizer accompaniment or a classical piano/acoustic guitar (see: See You Again, Stitches, Justin Beiber, Sam Smith, Locked Away, etc). Meanwhile, if you’re a woman, you shout about how much you like sex next to an over-the-top pop arrangement (see: Little Mix, Style, Saxophone, Grace, Carley Rae Jepsen, etc). There are still exceptions and oddities but they’re increasingly becoming singularities fighting against the dominant trend. In Post-Club terms, the Reconstructionists have won.
You’d think that I’d be happy about this. Reconstructionist works are typically feminist, down-to-Earth, and at least try to be more intelligent and thought-provoking than the usual fodder. I should be happy as Larry. Yet increasingly I’m finding myself coming up against reconstructionist works which do everything that I like in a way that I’m unable to enjoy. And I think the main problem is that they’re just trying to be too damn respectable.
Punk; rap; grunge; metal: they’re very subversive genres and they’re all over-the-top and bat-shit crazy. They don’t want to be respectable; they want to be wild. This want enbues the genres with a sense of excitement and energy. Yet most Post-Club tracks are either dour men whining against non-existent backing tracks or are women doing exactly the same shtick men have been doing for decades. They’re subversive but they’re also deeply boring. They’re a revolution that’s been workshopped and polished down for mass consumption; a revolt that’s trying not to alienate the people it’s revolting against. And I suppose that’s a valid technique – if you want to change the world, you have to convince your opponents to join your side – but the result is that the entire Post-Club genre has become one of edgy musical pieces which are entirely lacking in edge. Little Mix and Carly Rae Jepsen are fun enough to get me on-board; Taylor Swift’s work is pure art; Fleur East’s a madwoman (more of her in another post) – other than that, the genre is just mush which sounds much less interesting than it actually is. Everything’s on the radio is just deeply unsatisfying, still.
And maybe that’s the problem with 7 Years: yeah, it’s fascinating and different in comparison to the other pop songs around it, but musically it’s still just fucking bland. The only thing that makes it audibly distinct from anything around it is the “when I was [blank] years old” structure which frankly just makes the song sound gimmicky. It’s a song which deserves respect but is difficult to truly get behind.
IV: The Argument Concluded
So what’s my conclusion? Well, I just don’t think I like this song. I respect what it’s doing, somewhat, and think it’s well written, mostly, but I just don’t like it. Maybe this will be the FiveFourSeconds of 2016: a song that’s fascinating and does everything I want pop music to do but that I don’t actually enjoy listening to. Or maybe it’s the Rather Be of 2016; a song with genuine talent and positive intent which is unfortunately hindered by several core elements. Yeah, it’s alright. Except for the bits where it isn’t.
2,000 words later, that’s all that can be really said about it.