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
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.
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
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?
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.
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.