We all like looking down on things that are beneath us. We don’t often get the chance, but when we do, we relish the chance to assert ourselves above something. Like, “I may not be able to add two plus seven, but at least I’m not one of those idiots in the hotdog industry who took more than, I don’t know, ONE DAY to come up with bun length hotdogs.”
It feels nice.
In music, especially among “music people,” who only listen to “real music” (I hope you can hear the disdain in those quotation marks), there is nothing we like turning our noses up at more than the top 40 list, filled with cheesy, soulless, over-produced pop songs written by some guy you’ve never heard of and given to a famous person to sing.
And, to be fair to “music people,” these songs are often terrible.
But, with the exception of the hotdog industry, no group is ALL bad.
And in fact, there are some really good songs that get blasted ad nauseam over the radio.
Yes, they are overplayed.
Yes, they get annoying, and it doesn’t sound cool to say you like them.
But they’re still good songs.
And that’s what I’ll be doing in this series: talking about pop songs I think transcend the stereotype, and why. So, buckle up, read on, and yell at me about how wrong I am in the comment section.
And don’t worry. I’ll leave you some songs to look down on (looking at you, “Diamonds”).
“Closer,” by the Chainsmokers, is one of the most perfect pop songs I’ve ever heard, both in its lyrics, and in its composition, so we’ll start there. It’s not a philosophical allegory about the existential suffering that takes place inside of all of us, sure. It’s a love song. But look at these lyrics from the chorus for a second.
“So baby, pull me closer
In the backseat of your Rover
That I know you can’t afford
Bite that tattoo on your shoulder
Pull the sheets right off the corner
Of the mattress that you stole
From your roommate back in Boulder
We ain’t ever getting older.”
It’s kinda weird, right? It sure isn’t Shakespeare, but you know what else it isn’t? Safe. I just want you to think for a second about the fact that one of the most popular songs in the last few years dedicates a quarter of the chorus to a mattress that this chick stole from a girl in Boulder, Colorado.
Details like this in songwriting, story writing, poetry writing – in any kind of writing – connect with the audience. Yeah, I can’t relate to this story personally, never having dated a woman who a) owns a Rover, b) is poor, c) has a tattoo, d) likes stealing mattresses, or e) exists, but it paints a vivid picture of someone else’s life that really draws you in. This is important, because it is such a pleasant change of pace from how most pop songs are as generic as possible so that people can “relate” to them.
Compare the above lyrics, for example, to the chorus from another very popular song that talks about sex, “Slow Hands,” by Niall Horan.
“Slow, slow hands
Like sweat dripping down our dirty laundry
No, no chance
That I’m leaving here without you on me
I, I know
Yeah, I already know that there ain’t no stoppin’
Your plans and those
See the difference? I’m not even hating on Niall here, that’s a fine song too (it’s freaking catchy). But that chorus is describing a very generic encounter between two people trying to get it on. There isn’t anything else there beyond their sex drives. But in “Closer,” with the artist trying to elicit similar imagery, you’re painted a portrait of someone interesting. And it matters.
When it comes to the music involved in this song, this is still a pop song, so it’s not complex, but if you don’t think it’s catchy, you’re insane. The Chainsmokers have been subjected to a fair amount of public ridicule for abusing the 4, 5, minor 6th chord progression to death, but there’s a reason for that: they know what’s catchy.
And that’s the goal of a pop song. Be catchy. “Closer” executes that perfectly.
Importantly, it’s not just the chorus that gets stuck in your head. It’s not just the beat. It’s not just the verse, or the pre-chorus. It’s all of it, because the song does an excellent job of changing the pace of the song up, even as a lot of its musical elements remain the same. The changes aren’t tempo shifts; they’re much more subtle than that, but as the song transitions from section to section, there is a change in pace you can’t miss. When you’re tapping your foot to this song (go on, try it) some sections want to be tapped out in eighth notes, some in quarter notes, and some in half notes.
Something novice songwriters tend to really struggle with is this change of pace at key moments. Each section here builds up to the next, and as a listener, you’re excited to get to the part where the beat picks up and really drives, or slows down and grooves. It’s not boring to sit there and listen to this song for three minutes, even though the chord progression barely changes. There’s more than enough variance to keep you invested.
“Closer” doesn’t have to be your favorite song of all-time (in fact, it probably shouldn’t be), but we should be able to appreciate the things it does right. Because this is one of those rare pop songs that’s a song first, and pop second.
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