Bittersweet Distractor

at the intersection of music and psychology

My pick for best song of 2013: “We Can’t Stop”

I think that when musicologists look back at music created between 2008 and 2014, they will call this period the “Apocalyptic dance music” period. (Can I coin that phrase now? Eh, someone will come up with a better one). A lot of the popular music nowadays centers on a common theme – drinking, dancing, and partying until death or the end of the world. “Just Dance,” “Tik Tok” “Die Young” (how do you explain the popularity of Kesha otherwise?), “We Are Young,” “Till the World Ends,” “I Gotta Feeling”…the list goes on. Besides the songs that are clearly about this topic, there is also the popularity of EDM (electronic dance music) and dubstep. This music is meant to be danced to, and almost always contains a build to a climax (an “apocalypse” of sorts).

I think that this music is popular for two main reasons.

1) One might argue that the Great Recession sparked an interest in living in the now (YOLO – that’s another one). First of all, due to the market crash, people lost a lot of their savings – i.e., money for the future – leaving them feeling hopeless about the prospect of being happier later…so, why not be happy now? People want to enjoy what they do have, and they want music to be an escape. I, for one, find myself partying in my mind every time I hear one of these songs. Secondly, the industry WANTS people to spend money and party. Since the artists and producers are no longer making money on CDs, they earn most of their money through concerts and performances at clubs. Concerts and clubs cost a lot, but if you make people feel like they need to be living in the now, they will go to the shows.

2) The second major reason refers to the “dance music” part of “Apocalyptic dance music.” As Sasha Frere-Jones wisely summed up in a New Yorker piece a few months ago, music is often a tool of rebellion for young people against their parents. But parents listen to cool music! Music from the 70s, 80s, 90s is still cool! So the only way to really make music their own is to listen to it at raves while dancing all night (parents don’t do that!). Dancing all night is something that only young people really can do (often this is aided by drugs, but increased drug use is just another example of people choosing to live impulsively).

I can think of no better example of this period of music than “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus.

People have written about this song extensively already (see this Business Insider piece, for example), so I won’t give it a thorough review. But part of the reason why it’s a great song is because it does what most great pieces of music do – it makes you feel both happy and sad, or either happy or sad, depending on your mood. (More examples of classic songs like this – “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey; “Take on me” by A-ha; “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys). It’s obvious that listening to “We Can’t Stop” induces happy feelings. The nice melody, the fact that it reminds you of partying with your friends, and the fact that it’s fun to dance to at clubs are all part of this happiness. But it’s also a very sad song. The melancholia is conveyed, first of all, by the minor key that the song is written in. A song like this in a minor key is rare. Also, the fact that the main line is “We can’t stop” is very interesting – after all, when people can’t stop doing something, that’s addiction. Miley (well, whoever wrote the song) is hinting at addiction throughout the song. The delightfully-executed reference to Molly (or did she say “Miley?” eh?) further suggests that this song is about drugs (MDMA, specifically). So, it both encourages partying all night and talks about the horrors and dangers of partying all night. Once you start, you can’t stop. What a scary, but tempting notion.

My favorite part of the song probably has to be: “the line for the bathroom, trying to get in line for the bathroom.” The way she sings this is so sad and urgent, and indeed, when you are out and you either 1) really have to pee because you’ve been drinking too much or 2) you really want to do another line of cocaine or hit of ecstasy, then not getting into the bathroom seems like the biggest tragedy ever. Miley is relating to all of the young people who have experienced such a dreadful thing.

Another part I like: “We run things, they don’t run we.” I don’t want to analyze the song too much, but I love the fact that she uses a subject pronoun in the predicate of the second sentence. Sure, maybe it’s better for a rhyme. But it also gives you this sense of a never-ending cycle: ending where you began. None of the current pop hits are about moving forward. They are all about cycling back and forth, around and around, in the now.

January 5th, 2014 - Posted by | Uncategorized | 8 Comments


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