“You used to call me on my cell phone,” Drake laments, and anyone within earshot chimes in to commiserate: “Late night when you need my love.”
That’s the power of “Hotline Bling,” and perhaps all pop breakup anthems: It takes a sad scenario, one that’s commonly experienced, and graces it with catchy, upbeat instrumentals. The implication is that things may be bad now, but somehow — maybe in a way you don’t yet have words for — it will get better. Top 40 artists, then, are the eternal optimists, finding something pretty amid the basest pain. In doing so, they allow listeners to turn heartache into connection.
Adele’s “Hello,” that heartrending power ballad you sang in the shower this morning, succeeds for similar reasons; personal tragedy is wedded to personal triumph, and memories of resilience bubble up.
Perhaps a more superficial similarity between “Hello” and “Hotline Bling,” but one that’s nevertheless worth examining, because it recalls the tenants of breakup anthems past: Both are about the stomach-churning feeling of a missed connection. You call a past love to chat or meet up, or to apologize for a petty remark that ballooned into a fight, and he responds with silence, leaving you to anxiously check your phone approximately once every 2.5 minutes.
It’s the modern-day equivalent of a lost letter (“Return to sender,” a chipper Elvis sang, “address unknown”). Shutting down the lines of communication altogether may be the most painful spurn, which is why the theme echoes throughout pop music history.
Author Ben Greenman explores the topic of communication and miscommunication in a chapter of his new book, Emotional Rescue: Essays on Love, Loss and Life — With a Soundtrack, writing, “Different writers. Different singers. Different eras. But underneath the surface all of these songs are about messages […] about the process of trying to reach out and communicate with another person, of sending up a flare and waiting for a response.” He surveys The Bee Gees (“I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You”), The Nazz (“Letters Don’t Count”) and Bobby Womack (“Communication”), all forebears of today’s aforementioned pop hits.
“Shutting down the lines of communication altogether may be the most painful kind of spurn, which is why the theme echoes throughout pop music history.”
Although message-sending is the focus of just one chapter of Greenman’s book — which is formatted as a collection of personal essays he wrote when he was younger, using music as a navigational tool for his burgeoning love life — it resonates throughout his examinations of other themes like silence, conversation, articulation and longing. Although he’s worked as a music critic and currently writes music-centered essays for The New Yorker, Greenman felt that a more overtly subjective discussion of pop songs was an appropriate medium for exploring their emotive qualities.
“Most writing about pop music is subjective. It just affects a certain objectivity,” Greenman said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “I found my way to certain kinds of music for very personal, emotional reasons. They were all topics I was preoccupied with in my life. Why is it that technology gives so many opportunities to connect and yet it seems to disconnect us from each other?”
It’s a question Greenman seems to enjoy mulling over — and one that music, which may just be the antidote to those missed connections, confronts directly. But is crooning about a lost letter the same as begrudging a lover for ignoring your texts or emails? Greenman doesn’t think so; he argues that there’s “romance in thinking about what’s unrecoverable,” whereas a saved correspondence that can be re-read and easily amended elicits a dulled version of heartache.
“It occurred to me that when I write people emails, it’s not really a correspondence anymore,” he said. “I can see what I said. It used to be that if I was really mad at you and I wrote you a letter, and you got it, you had to believe that I was still mad at you, and furthermore I still had to believe I was mad at you, otherwise why would I bother? Whereas now I can send a follow-up email, ‘Oh I’m over it. I changed my status, I’m not angry anymore.’”
If technology has altered song writing, morphing the loneliness and longing that comes with unrequited communication into an irritated plea with a flatter affect (“You and me, we just don’t get along,” Drake says of the girl he’s supposed to be aching over. “At least I can say that I tried,” Adele sings, consoling herself rather quickly), has it also changed how listeners experience it?
Absolutely. Aside from the obvious ways — we’re not introduced to new bands by thumbing through our parents’ or siblings’ old records anymore, or from mix tapes our friends gift us — streaming services encourage listeners to jump from song to song, rather than loyally listening to an entire album, ensuring that they get their money’s worth.
This, Greenman says, creates an atmosphere of casual listening rather than full-on fandom. “I thought of these things as classes you go to. You know, for a while you’re in Richard Thompson’s class or you’re in Mary Margaret O’Hara’s class,” he said. “And now it’s sort of different. It’s sort of a carousel. You see the class being taught but you don’t always go in. Maybe you hear Richard Thompson say, ‘It’s all bleak!’ and then it’s spinning and you’re gone. You don’t really get an immersion anymore.”
That we’re more likely to skim an artist’s discography the way we’d browse a website, learning about their work without really feeling its effects, is why a book of personal essays about pop music is salient right now. Greenman’s anecdotes — some of them petty retellings of past crushes, some of them meandering conversations shared between friends — link his thoughts about music with his personal life. Rather than cerebrally critiquing songs, he recognizes that pop songs are matters of the heart.
Enough talk, then. Go on and listen.
Greenman’s book Emotional Rescue is out Aug. 1.
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