Feeling depressed, under appreciated, insecure? You might have a #1 song in your hands.
How selling dark thoughts became a great trick to chart songs.
« Wish we could turn back time
To the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but
Now we’re stressed out » — twenty one pilots
Do you find yourself in popular songs? That’s usually the goal of efficient songwriting. Most charting hits have features in common: their lyrics are generally relatable, conversational, or there to be borrowed. In recent #1 “Shape of You”, Ed Sheeran’s line I’m in love with the shape of you is relatable, The club isn’t the best place to find a lover so the bar is where I go is conversational, Your love was handmade for somebody like me is there to be borrowed. Although there is no perfect rule in lyrics crafting, great popular songwriting can be seen as a white tee-shirt: it has to look fine on everyone the same way, and be easy to wear and match with anything, regardless of the style or the shape of the user. Hit lyrics routinely say things you tell yourself or a significant other, or things you wish you could say/could have said/would love to hear said about you.
Don’t you find yourself in I’m in love with your body?
Mental health issues are rising in the Occidental world — most surveys and studies by specialists or web-observers would tell you so. Pick your reason to feel bad: incapacity to fit expectations of an exhausting unequal society? inability to foresee hope in a future announcing more violence, more terrorism and more environmental crisis? instability caused by a lack of likes on an Instagram selfie with a cute cat? Everyone entitled to experience the concept of moods can now qualify as having mental health issues. And in an overly emotive, constantly exposed to sensationalism world, you might spend a lot of time in the waiting room before you get a cure. This low self-esteem generation is somewhere between more subject to depression, and more subject to have the ability to voice their depression. And where there’s a voice, music provides moods, background noise — and words.
Economic anxiety 😟… Feeling stressed out 😫… Crushed by society 😵… Not exactly topics you’d expect to reach Top 10, right? On 5x platinum single “Stressed Out”, not only Ohio band twenty one pilots provides the words to match with the emotions of their fanbase, but they’re hitting the target: the market of Generation Anx, looking for lyrics to borrow, translating their gloomy moods. The topic helped them reach #2 on the Billboard. When twenty one pilots mentions how insecure they feel, when Alessia Cara would rather be home than dancing at a party where she‘s uncomfortable, or when nobody is texting Rihanna in a crisis, it provokes an echo inside some listeners’ hearts saying “hey! this is about me!”. Confidence-lacking hits contrast with dream-selling records, because they’re not showing what you can’t have, but what you already are. They’re the mirror reflecting your twisted vision of yourself. In this mirror, nothing is fixed, nothing is forgotten. But you are not alone not being perfect, because we all experience low-self esteem moments — today more than ever. Songwriters address their songs to those who empty beers at the Sadness Bar, because everybody purchase beverages there at some point 🍻.
« Tears are easier to put up with than joy. Joy is destructive: it makes others uncomfortable. “Weep and you weep alone” — what a lie that is! Weep and you will find a million crocodiles to weep with you. The world is forever weeping. » — Henry Miller (Sexus)
If Flo Rida & T-Pain had a song named “Low” out these days, I’m pretty sure it would chart higher if the song was about how they feel low (and not just about how low booties go).
Emperor Joseph’s death was accompanied by a Beethoven cantata centuries before grocery store rides to purchase Arizona tea had a vaporwave soundtrack. There has always been a room for the expression of melancholia in every genre of music — from Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon” to Alice Deejay’s “Better Off Alone”. But in popular music, sadness was mostly experienced through the lens of love and death. Adele or Sinead O’Connor are brought to dark moods because of ending relationships, Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth mourn Paul Walker and anyone who ever had the misfortune to die. If a lot of 90’s indie music introduced colder sounds and darker topics into the mainstream (and sold millions of albums and show tickets), not many singles charted very high. The 90’s sad boys biggest generational hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, only peaked at #6 in January 1992. Neither Björk nor Portishead ever charted a Top 50, and Radiohead’s biggest hit, “Creep”, only peaked at #34. The very intimate feeling of being left-out in a rapid world wasn’t much of a charting magnet yet.
Even if many songs throughout the XXth century touching on teenage angst or mental issues were hits (Sum 41’s “Welcome To My Life”, The Cranberries’s “Zombie”, …), they weren’t a central topic for pop stars. The real sad song was often addressed to album listeners or dedicated fans, never the main argument to reach mainstream. Most people look out for fun and light in music — it’s not a surprise that Elton John’s “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” was a bigger success than “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself”. Superstars of the 80’s or the 90’s such as Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson were focusing most of their songs on love and positive messages, and their image on their amazing talents and how flawless and stylish they were. Incomparable with how many of our current stars can be associated with more complex topics. Halsey has words on bipolarity, Lana Del Rey on depression and suicide, Sia or Lorde on insecurities, Zayn Malik on anxiety… In the 00’s, Eminem and Amy Winehouse were pretty lonely carrying the torch of harder topics in mainstream hits.
Arguably the biggest male artist of his generation, Drake sings about cleansin’ his soul of addiction on “Passionfruit”, and opened a door for more emotional raps and more broken soul confessions. After all, his own mentor once shared on a song: “I Feel Like Dying”.
« Everyone I know goes away
In the end » — Johnny Cash
« Push me to the edge
All my friends are dead » — Lil Uzi Vert
In 2002, covering a Nine Inch Nails song, Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” brought critics together and souls to their knees. The Rick Rubin produced song earned great critical reception and love from fans all over the world, but didn’t even make it into the top 100. The song deals with heroin-addiction, depression, suicidal tendencies, the feeling of getting older. In “Hurt”, Cash sadly remarks: Everyone I know goes away in the end.
Fast forward: fifteen years later. In 2017, Lil Uzi Vert, rap star on the rise, fresh off his first #1 ever as a feature on Migos’ “Bad and Bougie”, confesses about his life as opener of The Weeknd’s tour. His heartbroken party-ready auto-tuned Song, “XO TOUR Llif3”, peaked at #8. The main line of the hook? Push me to the edge, all my friends are dead.
10 years after Britney Spears’s very public burn-out we’re not afraid to hear this kind of truth anymore — actually, we like it.
In the past five years, the successes of Eminem’s “The Monster”, Future’s career, and basically any twenty one pilots song ever, showed that the depression pandora’s box is open for the mainstream. Alongside the many official declarations of Kid Cudi, Selena Gomez or Zayn Malik on the bad they felt, pop artists showed how vulnerable they were, and this trick was proven to be a successful one. Our love for Clark Kents is starting to overcome our love for Supermen.
After all, you can’t hate on someone’s pain. Depression is sex-less, age-less, race-less: everyone can relate. It doesn’t even matter if any of those confessions are true and these artists are really suffering, or if every single one of Lil Uzi Vert’s friends is actually dead. What matters is interaction and giving something to the fans to make them feel closer from their idols — and lyrics to go with Instagram captions (or terrible tattoos).
Perhaps the most frank incursion of inner-sadness songs in the mainstream came from the electronic music world. There’s a very strong and efficient formula mixing club rhythms and sad stories. In 2009, Italian DJ’s Crookers helped sky-rocketing Kid Cudi’s “Day ’N’ Nite” #3 — a song about solitude and walking your troubles away at night. Would Asaf Avidan’s “One Day / Reckoning Song” about regrets or Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers” about following a dark doom have been the European smashing hits they were without the 4 to the floor arrangements by remixers Wankelmut or The Magician? Turning the darkest thoughts into dance-floor killers was incarnated in the greatest of ways in summer 2016 by Mike Posner & Seeb. How could a song about feeling so depressed about your life that you feel obligated to drug yourself to look cool in the eyes of the others resonate in fans? Dancing while you weep is a market spot where a lot of Occidental buyers find themselves. The impossible irony turned Posner’s folk ballad into a Top 5 charting song. If I was a hip remixer, I would definitely put an EDM twist on Beck’s 1994 top 10 hit “Loser”.
Don’t you find yourself in I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?
Is Rihanna really not getting any text when in a crisis? Is there really nobody praying for Kendrick Lamar? Or are they just here to provide to right words for their followers to borrow? In the social media age, what matters is to make the user react and/or relate (and then, to purchase). With the despairing crying face (😫) being the most tweeted emoji in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom in 2016, tapping into this very specific incapable-of-anything emotion makes the mission almost impossible to fail. Belgian artist Stromae is excellent in the niche of making people dance while they weep. His biggest hit, cumulating over 400 million YouTube views, “Papaoutai”, deals with the topic of his deceased father on an infectious afro-electronic beat. Whether Stromae talks about cancer or Sia is selling cheap thrills, they do know that they’re reaching a dry land in the pop field, and that’s where they’ll find the people. We’re no longer looking for perfect superstars: we want to be able to afford their cracks because they remind us of ours.
For a while now, leaning towards depression has been a conscious evolution in music-making. Minor chords, slower tempos, colder sounds. What will be the next song to reach #1 with a low-self esteem/twisted-mind hit, after Eminem & Rihanna’s “Monster” in 2013? In an unreleased Kanye West song that I love, “I Feel Like That”, the superstar Kardashian husband opens up about his own mental issues over a Hudson Mohawke beat. West asks,
« Do you experience nervousness or shakiness inside, faintness and dizziness? (…) Feeling afraid in open spaces or in public? Thoughts of ending your life? Feeling that most people could not be trusted? Poor appetite, heart or chest pains?
I feel like that, all the time. »
To me, every single line of this song has an incredible hit potential. Why? Because…
Don’t you find yourself in I feel like that?
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