Wednesday, June 4, 2014

How Taylor Swift Became Ke$ha Became Sia In Three Song Degrees of Separation

Here's the pop song mashup novel I've concocted in my head. It's the five-year tale of a fun-lovin' party gal. It starts with "22" by Taylor Swift. A year later, it's become "Tik Tok" by Ke$ha. Four years after that, it's "Chandelier" by Sia.

"Chandelier" is a hauntingly sad song. It might be the most hauntingly catchy upbeat pop song since fun.'s "Some Nights." "Semi-Charmed Life" by Third-Eye Blind also falls into this category, as does "Bad Romance" by Lady GaGa, just to name a few. Personally, few things are as compelling to me as a musical artist who wants to take you to a dark place through a catchy hook.

My love of this genre goes at least as far back as the Violent Femmes, probably to Andrew Gold's "Lonely Boy." The genre goes beyond that to, predictably, "Billy Don't Be a Hero" and "Leader of the Pack." We humans have always liked our darker moments to have a nice hook.

It's not just music. One of the most awesome short poems in the history of the universe is Margaret Atwood's "You Fit Into Me":
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye 
a fish hook
an open eye
(For those who don't catch the double-meaning here, the first "hook into an eye" is a reference to screen doors of yore, how they would latch with what is called a hook and eye. She then mutates that image of two people connected by a strong attachment into something altogether more macabre. And I love it.)While Sia's newest pop sensation -- and for all her social oddities, she's become a pop song generator of the highest caliber -- is not a terribly complicated song, I promise you that most listeners will fail to see it as the heartbreaking cautionary tale is was clearly intended to be, just as most people in the '90s mistook "Under the Bridge" as a last chance romantic slow-dance at prom.

In my imaginary pop song trilogy of one young woman's descent, what begins as that sort of naive desperate and confused mix bag yearning for independence that is "22" in Part One, becomes someone who has begun to lose her bearings but still be too carefree to see it in "Tik Tok." What was originally "a perfect night" has become a regular thing, where waking up the next morning in a strange house is neither unusual or all that troubling. In fact, waking up somewhere else and not quite knowing how you got there has become a goal. But it's still fun.

By "Chandelier," the protagonist is partying out of a desperate need to ignore or escape what is supposed to be her life.

Party girls don't get hurt.
Throw the drinks back 'til you lose count.
Live like tomorrow doesn't exist.
In the morning, gotta run (because) here comes the shame.
Keep my glass full til morning light,
'cuz I'm just holding on for tonight.
I'm holding on for dear life.

It's a simple song and quite repetitive. But stuck in that minor chord, and with a voice exploding in plaintive desperation, it is a brilliant cautionary tale pop song for a generation that romanticizes the notion of a party life that could possibly exist sans consequences or risks. Even if a young woman manages to survive a wild night without some dude attempting to take advantage of her with or without her highly inebriated consent, she must still survive the battle going on in her own head, a battle that will inevitably have fallen soldiers if it involves night after night of drinking in desperate abandon.

This is the story of how a Taylor Swift becomes a Ke$ha, who (if she's lucky) becomes a Sia, a brilliantly-talented songwriter whose demons are so powerful they can no longer even be bottled, whose issues keep her from being able to face the audience ala Stu Sutcliffe. (Some might believe this is a publicity stunt, but seeing how Sia is 38 and was doing quite well with her songwriting lately, I just don't buy that.)

Of course the songs aren't about them, the performers. Of course Taylor Swift and Ke$ha and Sia aren't the same people in different moments on some "Back to the Future" timeline. Of course not. But... I'd still love for someone to expertly mash up these songs. It would make for a compelling story.


Robert Berman said...

The popularity of clubbing songs in the last ten years leaves me confused. There have always been hit songs encouraging people to dance: Johann Strauss' waltzes, Pinetop Smith's boogie woogie, Chubby Checker's twist, Little Eva's Locomotion, Chic's "Good Times," Gloria Estefan's Conga, etc. People like dancing; I get it.

But it seems like there used to be more pop songs about other topics. I read a blog which recently wrapped up a survey of every single #1 single since charts began back in the 1940s, and I was struck by the lack of lyrical diversity of the last ten years. Not just dumb lyrics; those have always been around. But there used to be songs about more different things, not just fifty variations on "I like me dancing" or "I like watching you dance."

I love fun.'s "Some Nights" album musically, but can't they find another theme for any of their songs? "22" is the only song on Swift's "Red" album that isn't about her ex-boyfriends, and it's about clubbing. OK, I'm turning into a "kids these days..." rant, so I'll stop. Maybe pop in The Joshua Tree or something. I'm pretty sure Beck's new "Morning Phase" album has no clubbing songs, but then again I can't translate any of his slurred lyrics.

Billy said...

Interesting that you'd highlight "Some Nights." Did you mean "We Are Young?" The latter is about clubbing and partying, sorta, but the former is about Nate Ruess being a hair's breadth away from quitting the music business during the making of this album. Their message and sound aren't quite as broad or daring on "Some Nights" as it is on "Aim & Ignite," and much more pop-friendly than Ruess' work on The Format.

I can't help fretting that your observation is the consequence of the increasing irrelevance of rock on the charts. Country music has lyrically become a meta-mockery of itself, and pop can't get past dancing, either vertically or horizontally, because nowadays the only way to move units is to get kids on that dance flo' or bumpin' fuzzies.

I'm probably giving Sia too much credit here, but I also read into her song as sort of subversively supporting your argument. Grow up, music lovers, and realize there's more out there than getting wasted and listening to the ear-numbing monotony of the current pop world.