The secret importance of the lyrics in 2012’s biggest pop hits
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Much of the music writing that’s been scribbled out in the last decade boils down to one long discussion about the effect technology has had on how songs are disseminated, heard, and perceived by the public. Conventional wisdom says that the Internet is 1) good, because it’s made recorded music more accessible to more people than at any point in human history; and 2) terrible, because this accessibility has eroded the social bonds that music once fostered in culture. No matter what you believe, the consensus seems to be that technology is now more important than the actual songs, as far as explaining what is and isn’t popular.
The “technology is bad” argument has been seriously undermined so far in 2012, as pop music is again uniting us. Quick: Name the most popular song in the country right now. Even if you don’t follow the pop charts, there’s a good chance you’re aware of Carly Rae Jepsen’s undisputed summer of ’12 smash “Call Me Maybe”—if not the actual song, then one of the dozens of parody versions working their way through email chains and Twitter feeds. You’ll also get credit for mentioning Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” which held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for two months before “Call Me Maybe” unseated it. You could even mention yet another ubiquitous former No. 1 single, Fun’s “We Are Young,” which remains entrenched in the Top 10 not far from Jepsen and Gotye.
Typically, you’re lucky to have one song that enters the pop-culture bloodstream and infects a wide swath of listeners, as Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” did in 2011. But in 2012, we’ve already had three of them, and the year is barely half over. And not surprisingly, the conversation about why this is the case has centered on the Internet. Chris Molanphy of the Village Voice recently likened “We Are Young” to Nevermind in his essential pop-chart column, 100 & Single, writing that it signals “the dawn of a new pop era.” The basis for Molanphy’s pronouncement wasn’t musical, but technological: “We Are Young” hit No. 1 the same week Billboard incorporated song-streaming data into its rankings for the first time.
Fun would have had a No. 1 record either way, though the change made the triumph of “We Are Young” more decisive. It also hastened the rise of another dominant web hit, “Somebody That I Used To Know,” which was first released way back in July 2011, and caught on after the song’s video became a viral sensation. Then there’s “Call Me Maybe,” which first exploded late last year after Justin Bieber recommended the song to his corps of 22 million followers. Before that, Jepsen was a struggling singer-songwriter from British Columbia best known for finishing third on Canadian Idol five years ago. “Call Me Maybe” got an even bigger boost in February when Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Ashley Tisdale playfully lip-synched to the song in a video posted on YouTube, inspiring a slew of copycats.
Streaming services and YouTube—these are the ways an increasing number of listeners are discovering and sharing new music. Without question, these avenues paved the way for the biggest pop hits of 2012 (so far) to take over as quickly and completely as they have. But even if technology covers the “how” in this equation, it doesn’t give us the “why.”
“Somebody That I Used To Know” is the biggest viral hit of all time, crossing over from the top of the YouTube charts to the top of the Billboard charts like nothing before it. It’s also not the kind of song that typically ends up taking over the online jukebox. YouTube is usually a venue for freakishly talented tweens playing impassioned versions of Edwin McCain songs (like pre-fame Bieber) or “so bad it’s good” novelty tunes (like Karmin or grand dame of viral music Rebecca Black). “Somebody” no doubt was aided by its eye-popping video, but a song doesn’t leave this kind of footprint without people responding to what they’re hearing, over and over again, for many months.
“Somebody That I Used To Know”—as well as “Call Me Maybe” and “We Are Young”—are, in spite of the thoroughly 21st-century manner with which they became hits, relatively straightforward pop singles rooted in lyrical concepts straight out of the book of unkillable songwriting tropes. “We Are Young” is the “let’s shout about how being young is awesome in a huge chorus” song: It’s the Raspberries’ “Go All The Way,” Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night,” Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage.” “Somebody That I Used To Know” is the “I hate you, but I still wanna hump you a little” song: Johnny and June Carter Cash’s “Jackson,” Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” Positive K’s “I Got A Man.” “Call Me Maybe” is the “I’m going to talk about trying to pick somebody up” song: The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” Van Halen’s “Jump.” Setting aside the technology conversation as well as the music—surprise, they’re all catchy!—Fun, Gotye, and Jepsen scored with clear, simple narratives that were connecting with pop listeners back when your grandparents were doing teenage things in the backseat of battleship-sized Buicks.
We’re taught that lyrics aren’t important in pop music; caring about the words is supposed to be the domain of fuddy-duddy rock critics and perplexed parents worried that “in and out” means in and out! But songs that tell a story have always had a place in pop. The ’60s and ’70s were a golden age for this kind of hit: In songs like Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle,” Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” and Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” the lyrics are at least as important (and arguably more so) as the music.
This tradition was carried on in ’80s and ’90s rap, and it’s never left country music. Eric Church’s No. 1 country hit “Springsteen” is an easy-to-follow tale about a guy looking back on his adolescence. Other Top 10 hits like Tim McGraw’s epic tough-guy ballad “Better Than I Used To Be” and even Toby Keith’s likeably dopey “Beers Ago” have characters, scenes, and climactic payoffs. (Spoiler alert: Toby gets the girl, and drinks 1,653 beers in the process.)
“We Are Young,” “Somebody That I Used To Know,” and “Call Me Maybe” aren’t story-songs per se, but they do have dramatic arcs that add indelibly to their appeal. In “We Are Young,” two would-be lovers plot to meet up by the end of the evening. In “Somebody That I Used To Know,” two ex-lovers hash out the aftermath of their breakup. In “Call Me Maybe,” a woman who wants to be some dude’s lover takes a chance and hands over her digits. Each song paints a picture; because the plots are so general, listeners might end up casting themselves in the story.
This is a crucial (and undervalued) aspect of what makes songs popular. While plenty of hits rely mainly on grabby beats and ruthlessly repetitive hooks, the truly transcendent songs—like “Rolling In The Deep” or Cee Lo’s “Fuck You” or Eminem and Rihanna’s awful (and awfully popular) “Love The Way You Lie”—come with some kind of storyline, provided either directly by the lyrics or how they relate to the singer’s persona. Fun, Gotye, and Jepsen became stars in the Internet age, but only because their songs were already speaking to people in the plainly universal language of pop plotlines.