Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Teen Suicide - "It's Just a Pop Song"

Highlighting some of my favorite songs of 2016.

This year I listened a lot to Teen Suicide's sprawling, 26-song It's the Big Joyous Celebration, Let's Stir the Honeypot, an album reminiscent of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in its hugeness, ambitiousness, and incredible diversity of sounds, styles, and genres.  And while many songs stand out on the album, one has consistently blown me away: the self-effacingly titled "It's Just a Pop Song.
This song has everything I look for in music: sharp, thought-provoking lyrics, an infectious melody, and a massive, well-earned emotional and sonic climax.  

The song opens with a desolate soundscape--as we hear only a few chirps of animals before given any sign of human presence--and the ensuing music, languid guitar jabs and sighing vocals, only fills this empty sonic space with a defeated air.  The lyrics further build on this despair, contrasting a question about living ("Where do your loyalties lie?") with one about death ("And who gets my royalty checks when I die?"), the words "loyalties" and "royalties" joined together in a bleak, bitingly ironic internal rhyme.  

But the song doesn't stay so morbid.  Its momentum rapidly builds--the guitars pick up speed, the vocals grow louder and grander--and then the singer unleashes this jaw-dropper of a line, which crystallizes how the song will balance its surge of euphoria and depths of despair:

You know the flares they fire from sinking ships?
I haven't felt like this in awhile.

Finally, the song's tension bursts into a huge, ebullient chorus, featuring a joyous and radiant melody that seems to counteract the song's initial gloom.  But, even while the music swells, the lyrics keep the song grounded, as the singer merges quotidian observations and questions ("what if I move to Boston?") with more alarming concerns ("should I go on Suboxone?"). To these questions, the band forecloses any answers, instead hopelessly attributing such questions and observations to the potentially meaningless ephemera of a "pop song."  Even as an incendiary guitar emerges in the foreground, burning through the song's vocals, the song won't completely shake its pessimism, pulling the listener simultaneously between transcendent highs and nihilistic lows.

The song, then, besides being one of the best-sounding tracks I've heard all year, expresses a fascinatingly deep ambivalence about the meaning of art and even human existence. On the one hand, it echoes a message of despair, reducing deeply human concerns to the transience and perhaps even predictability of pop music. But, then again, the sheer power and beauty of this song, particularly its massive, gleaming crescendo, rejects its title's dismissiveness and challenges its lyrics' hopelessness.  Not all songs (pop or otherwise) are equal, and while the lyrics invoke a shared hopelessness that seems to render all human experiences equal(ly pointless), the song's sound, and the feelings it evokes, are unique, extraordinary.

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