Scared To Be Lonely might be 2017’s best Pop Record, because Dua Lipa’s Vocal beats Pop’s Image Problem
‘Sincerity’ is critical for most people when they describe what makes music good. Something about your favourite record feels ‘real’ and ‘genuine’. You believe that the sentiment in the lyrics is an ‘authentic’ expression of the singer’s emotional experience of the world. You value this because you want the power of the song to come from something real. You want to feel like someone else experiences the world the way you do, and has put your and their shared experiences into music that sounds beautiful.
Martin Garrix and Dua Lipa collaborated to make a truly great ‘pop’ record named Scared To Be Lonely. I think it is the best of 2017 so far. To get why it is a great pop record, we need to understand why so many people hate pop music.
Pop’s Image Problem
Pop music is the music that makes the most people in the world feel good at any time, but the genre has always been criticized by the accusation that it is ‘soulless’ and ‘empty’. Listeners do not believe that the messages are sincere. Some reasons are fair. Some are not. Here are the four most common ones:
What even is Pop
Pop music is simply the name for whatever is most popular at any moment in history, and so pop music has no core identity, or vital message, or recognizable sound. Pop music was once rag time. It was once big band jazz. Pop music sounded nothing like booming super-festival future bass five years ago. So pop gets a never-ending mountain of hate because it is always in flux. And if we consider pop music to be some thing, it is easy to think that this thing called the pop music industry machine cannibalizes other sonic movements as soon as they become vogue. A movement does not rise. Pop takes it, changes it, and amplifies it. For anyone who loved those movements before they were taken by the mainstream and big artists who never made that sound before then start to do so, pop is a ruinous influence. The initial value and meaning is destroyed by pop. So pop has no meaning of its own. It is not ‘authentic’, the argument goes.
Pop only cares about Money
Detractors of pop also say it is obsessed with commercial success. ‘It’s all about selling cheap nonsense to stupid people so the industry can cash in’. This is sometimes true, but often unfair. The reality is that all music movements are styling themselves to make money. Right from its first rise in the 1920s, blues music was designed to cater to audiences so it would sell. Even the genre that is most famous for its alleged authenticity, because it explores themes of suffering, has always been geared to be commercially viable. This is true of all music movements. Artists have to make money to continue to make music. Pop, blues, hip hop, RnB, soul, rock, techno, and the rest are all genres that we know because they are good at making us know them and buy them.
Someone made the point on a Vinyl Me Please podcast that ‘genre is a marketing tool, not a music tool.’ The point is that the idea of a genre is usually constructed by record labels, marketers and promoters to hook you on some kind of essence of a music movement, whether it is a rhythm or tempo or set of combined instruments or lyric theme. Then they can identify their artists as being contributors to that genre, and get you to to consider all those artists, because you have bought into the genre. And ALL genres change sound over time to suit commercial interests. Blues in the 80s can sound nothing like blues in the 30s, but music marketers have re-branded the genres and made sentimental associations between artists who sound nothing alike, to keep the value of all of those artists connected to one genre. And that’s why sometimes it is really to hard to tell what genre artists ‘belong in’. Often, songs could be soul or RnB, depending on the year, the listener, the sonic samples and the lyrics.
But a good description of pop is ‘whatever group of artists using similar conventions is making the most commercially profitable and widely listened-to music in any moment’. Bowing to what listeners want can force an artist to sacrifice what they really want to play or sing about. It makes sense that the most popular artists may be making the biggest sacrifices to audiences. So the argument runs that pop music probably has less sincerity in it than other genres. Artists are more likely to be making creative decisions to maximize their incomes than sincerely express themselves.
Pop says nothing to try to speak to everyone
This is definitely sometimes true. The most popular lyrics have always been written so that anyone can feel an empathetic connection to them. That does not mean that the lyrics say nothing. It usually means that the lyrics don’t say a whole lot. The more vague, unspecific and metaphorical the lyrical meaning, the more that anybody can find an interpretation that relates to their life in the song. This is not as true of many songs in other genres, like hip hop, where performers usually create deeply autobiographical, personal narratives, with specific references that are only really true of their lives, and those with lives very similar to them. Think Kendrick Lamar’s Duckworth, a deeply personal tale about his father, or The Blacker The Berry, which is about being black in America. I think anyone can enjoy these, but only black people can fully empathize with the experience of blackness express on The Blacker The Berry.
Compare that to some of the biggest pop songs of 2017:
’Cause I’m all that you want, boy
All that you can have, boy
Got me spread like a buffet
Bon appétit, baby
Who’s gonna walk you
Through the dark side of the morning?
Who’s gonna rock you
When the sun won’t let you sleep?
Anyone can sing themselves into these lyrics. Anyone can link some private memory to these ideas. And so, some argue, these lyrics are not meaningful. The singer does not seem sincere, because it does not feel like they are revealing anything unique or particularly true of themselves.
Many many many vocals on the most popular songs also seem very insincere. Singers imitate the most popular vocalists of the day, and try to sound as groovy and sexy as possible, while singing about themes that are inappropriate for those moods, like existential angst. It’s not easy to believe in because I don’t think many people express grief or confusion in their most fuck-ready voice. And it’s hard to tell one singer from another when thousands sound exactly like Selena Gomez.
Pop is just dance music
True. The most popular music has always been the records that people love to go out and dance to. Even Adele’s misery is automatically re-purposed for club bangers. So if we believe that the highest purpose of pop music is to say things that make people dance, then why would we believe you are being sincere when you sing about anything that is not ‘shake shake, shake shake, shake it’?
Dua Lipa pierces through the Shmuck
When Scared To Be Lonely first played on my radio show, there were five or six DJs and presenters in and around the studio. Usually we chat and show each other memes on our phones when the mics are off. But Dua Lipa’s vocals quietened us almost immediately and, when she launched into that howling crescendo hook, we all looked up at each other and freaked out. We hear a lot of good, forgettable pop songs. This one hit us differently.
The lyrics were beautiful, but general and fairly generic to human experience. Garrix’s production was epic, but not wildly much better than many future bass-heavy tracks that had come out in that time.
It was Lipa’s vocal. Her voice sounded tortured. It had angst in it, and frustration and regret and melancholy and all the moods that her words suggested she should be feeling. It felt like she was experiencing that sense of futility, that maybe she and her lover’s romance was only important because they were both scared to be lonely. Her voice sounded like it was going to rip in the chorus. She sounded like she is suffering. Her wild howl carried the record through the fakeness.
Because it is a pop song. It’s music video has hundreds of millions of views. It has a huge drop so it can be played in the clubs. It has a formulaic lyric structure and content that is accessible to anyone. Six writers put the lyrics together. Lipa is not given songwriting credit. She may empathize with the lyrics, but they are not her words on an experience she has had. Yet, the way she embodies the lyrics transcends the fact that she did not create the whole song. Sure, it is not authentic in that she did not make the entire record. Sometimes an actor takes and enacts a script so well that you are enthralled by the character and forget for a moment that the movie is not real and the protagonist is just someone pretending. Singing is the same. You believe that the character the vocalist creates on the song is real. Sometimes singers are like method actors. Lipa may really be channeling a moment of relationship heartbreak that is perfectly described in Scared To Be Lonely. But even in hip hop, some artists are just really good at convincing you that they are sincere, like those who aren’t gangster at all, even though they rap about gang life. Adele may have never fallen out of love. How can we really tell? Nina Simone sounds like she is in physical pain on every recording, but could she possibly have been feeling such torture every single night she sang?
Most of the best songs ever, in all genres, are not written by the artist who sings the most famous versions of those songs. But all of the best songs make you feel like this vocalist is there experiencing the meaning the way you are. Few pop songs truly take you to profound and personal emotional place, partly because of how pop music is made and partly because of pop’s image problem. The greatest pop songs do though. They feel real, and so you feel more of your reality when you commune with them. Dua Lipa does that for me and many others on Scared To Be Lonely. I have not yet heard another pop song in 2017 which does that.