by Anwesha Dutta
There’s a certain kind of feeling that comes over us when we listen to a good pop song. Heads begin to roll, bodies begin to slither, eyes close relishingly, and our personalities get subsumed in the song as we fashion ourselves main characters in the world of the track. In a moment like this, our bodies and minds are very susceptible to literalizing the world of the song into ourselves and our lives, and this is especially true when specific songs remind us of specific periods in our lives, specific memories, and ultimately, specific people. Such nostalgia lends itself particularly when it comes to the trials of romantic desire and the music that accompanies the pursuit of that desire. Yearning for a person dislodges you. You lose sense of time, place, circumstance, rationality, even emotions: yearning is a singular piercing or pang that perhaps has no other comparison. It's not that pop music is uniquely attuned to this emotion and its frequency, or even that it's the best, most accurate articulation. It's just that its specific iteration conjures up worlds that are ubiquitously warm, loud, inviting and accessible, whereas desire often has the opposite propensity of making us completely isolated in our delirious state from everyone other than the solitary object of our crush. I want to look at this effect of vulnerable identification that is brought about through such music by exploring some albums I particularly enjoyed from this year because I think it has been a great year for pop! Pop music’s momentum goes through ebbs and flows and this year has given us exquisite albums from the likes of Caroline Polachek, Carly Rae Jepsen, Janelle Monae, Amaarae, Chappell Roan, Christine and the Queens, Jessie Ware et al, all of whose albums crystallize the ecstasy of yearning in a sundry of shapes and forms.
The word poptimism can be understood to have a range of meanings in terms of its cultural implications in the world of music criticism, consumed as it has become under the contemporary attitude towards micro-labels and identifications, but if I say I’m a “poptimist”, I mean it in a very literal sense i.e. being optimistic about and receptive to the potentials of popular music! In no way do I want to imply that it is the best kind of music that everyone must enjoy (given that a judgement like that can even exist), or that it doesn’t come with its own echo chambers of constant moneyed blandness in the mainstream - it very much does. As it stands, pop music that is defanged and inoffensive to the ears to work as anthems or wallpaper is the most recognized and celebrated kind of sound now, be it in the form of awards or charts. Yet, when artists get paid peanuts in their streaming revenue, it feels disingenuous to want them to make their art from a space of pure artistic expression devoid of consumer expectations. Everytime I think about pop music critically, though, I just think of this SOPHIE quote:
“I think all pop music should be about who can make the loudest, brightest thing. That, to me, is an interesting challenge, musically and artistically. And I think it’s a very valid challenge – just as valid as who can be the most raw emotionally. I don’t know why that is prioritized by a lot of people as something that’s more valuable. The challenge I’m interested in being part of is who can use current technology, current images and people, to make the brightest, most intense, engaging thing.”
Similarly, what interests me is how the desire that we hear articulated in pop music, especially that of a select few musicians cultivating a sensibility that is distinctly dedicated to the worship of this emotion, achieves a viscerality that is difficult to believe except when the music is experienced. This quality is especially vivid in pop music that isn’t polished and exists in between genres, affects, and tunes that cannot be done justice to calling them just pop, like the mystical feeling invoked in the wondrous world of Caroline Polachek. Her new album Desire, I Want To Turn Into You is especially eclectic, as Cat Zhang writes in her Pitchfork review that its production “veers from trip-hop to new wave, trance to flamenco, demonstrating an innate understanding of the pop archive in pursuit of a new personal style.” If her breakout album as a solo artist, Pang, was a self-contained electro-pop meditation on the intensity of impossible desiring and the agony that such passion brings about because it can never be fully realised, this one is a maturation in the act of letting go of the need for fulfilment to embrace neither the self nor the other but the passion itself. Glaringly, the way she modulates and manipulates her voice to achieve ungodly levels of sensation and hits notes oscillating between breathless whispers to full throttle screams, sometimes with the same words in the same song like Violent love / Feel my embrace, oh, feels as palpably close as desire can feel through music. Her music is elusive in the way the best kind of love often proves to be, and this seems to be intentional given how abstract, indirect, and mysterious her lyrics are on the surface.
If such a conceptual approach characterizes Caroline Polachek, Carly Rae Jepsen is driven from the opposite direction. She has atomized directness to a stilettoed perfection from her masterpiece album Emotion to her latest B-side to last year’s The Loneliest Time, The Loveliest Time. Even though she is direct in her longing, she has not, will never have arrived - only always arriving. Carly’s poetics can perhaps best be encapsulated by this Anne Carson quote in Eros the Bittersweet where she writes, “To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope.” Most of Carly’s songs exist in this perpetual state of what in common parlance we call the “honeymoon phase” of a relationship. They understand the ecstasy in the drama of pursuing someone and being pursued in return so well that they are content with being suspended in that space forever. Love, lust and passion is hardly ever realised in one plane which is what gives her music their breathless and sugary passion. Classically evading the self in her latest album, Carly focuses, over and over, solely on the beloved, singing in "Kollage", Nothing really matters, but it matters if it matters to you/…I did it to myself, always giving the lover the power of absolute annihilation.
At the same time, the potentiality of pop music to encompass and project joy simultaneously is miraculous. It is perhaps only inside the universe of a pop song that a person can have the audacity to not only declare something like Never in the world have two others been closer than us but really mean it, too. The protagonist of a pop song embodies desire aspirationally, in the sense that the possibilities that they give voice to are in the realm of a fantasy. Yet this fantasy, when accompanied with the jouissance of unbridled devotion, brings us close to the idea of desire as sacred and sublime. Several disco-pop infused albums from this year like That! Feels Good! By Jessie Ware, pop legend Kylie Minogue’s Tension, and Mid Air by Romy understand this transportive and transformative potential of being in love. They are not driven by unusual fixations of another nature but by the full-blooded desire for real people around them and in their lives who come and stay. Queer desire is integral to such an intimate understanding of desire, away from the heteronormative snags of love dictated by familiar dynamics of power.
Pop music, thus, embodies yearning like an ouroboros that feeds and sustains the unit. If yearning is not bound in spatial and temporal terms, pop music retains the yearning in its very structure - from the verse to the chorus to the bridge; just like crushing on someone is a liminal state of mind - it is neither reciprocated nor rejected - it exists in and for itself. The utterances and confessions of a lover integrate seamlessly in the short verses building up to the chorus, notwithstanding the overall sonic atmosphere of a song. The explicit telling in the lyrics hardly matters, then, when its very ontological dimension is located in this affective relation between song and listener. Such a relationship makes the music a potent space where a range of desires can co-exist without being conspicuous, and lends itself especially well to the articulation of desires that are criminalized or invisibilized from the mainstream.
The choruses of some of these tracks and really most pop songs deserve a singular ode dedicated to them just for the sheer capacity they have to hold their hearts in their sleeves with complete and utter earnestness, and repeat this truth throughout the length of the song. From the reverberant Desire, I want to turn into you followed by a crooning that melts everything else except the hunger for desire in Polachek’s “Welcome To My Island”, or the desperate need to just be touched in Touch me, baby (touch me, touch me, touch me, touch me) of Chappell Roan’s “Naked in Manhattan” that is a sublimation of years of repressed queer desire, to the queen of choruses, Carly, who never shies away from stripping them absolutely bare and expressing just the nakedness of her longing be it in the classic I really, really, really, really, really, really like you, or in her most recent album opener where the chorus for wanting to express how falling for her lover is never over just becomes a repetition of never, never over, never over, / never over, never, never over - choruses hold the key to the lock of unrealized and incessant yearning. It's what happens when you’re set free from the boundaries of language and context and there are no consequences to articulating your deepest desires in the most embarrassing, candid ways.
There will always be parts of myself that I am unable to access or experience as I am right now within the confines of my personality, because all of it is constructed in terms that are constantly in flux. When I listen to music that sounds like it cannot contain its ecstasy or pain within itself and needs me to transcend my physicality in order to be able to reciprocate the sensation, nevertheless, through this very body, that’s when I know that I've happened upon a pop song I'm going to shimmer to for the rest of my days. It isn’t embodied quite as intensely and effectively, however, in chart-topping tracks that seem to be made in a factory to appeal to the widest possible audience and there’s a reason for that. Manufactured, gamified, focus-grouped music could never compare to the lived experience of the utter chaos of ungovernable desire. This is also why most of the artists I’ve mentioned here are not nearly as famous or ubiquitous in the mainstream but have fandoms that are absolutely wild for them (read: gay). I’d also argue that the appeal of most of these artists to their fandoms comes from their sheer proximity to articulating the unfathomable nature of sexual or romantic desire that is unclear or muddled even to the desiring persons because of their shamed invisibility from the status quo. In the end, music needs to be extricable from capitalist interests for its experience to feel transcendental in the way that love is. Sometimes pop music reaches that magic and when it does, it's pure light.
P.S: I’ve made a playlist to soundtrack this piece; I hope you experience its raptures and blues with love-stricken euphoria! <3
About the Writer:
Anwesha Dutta is a writer and researcher. She is interested in articulating the subtle gaps at the intersection of culture, literature, and interpersonal relationships to make the world a place of nuance, justice, and equity. Find their newsletter at bimbopoetica.substack.com.