How UK Pop Nailed Dating in 2017
Dua Lipa, Wolf Alice and Mabel made sense of first date hangovers, texts you'll never send and Tinder.
This is a column called Pity Party and it is brought to you by Lauren O'Neill from Noisey UK. It's about music (obviously) and feelings and #feelings. Please cry along, thanks.
In 2017, I went on a lot of dates. I like dating – it’s fun, and I like meeting new people, especially when those new people are cute and sometimes offer to buy me dinner (sorry @feminism sweetie don’t read this). In the last 12 months, I have met a plethora of boys, drunk countless nerve-settling Peronis in various branches of JD Wetherspoons across the great city of London, and suffered the many ill-advised weekday hangovers to go with them. It’s been interesting.
Between the man who had a tattoo of a famous London landmark (I will not deign to say which), and the band guy who informed me (a… music writer) very seriously that “new music comes out on Fridays,” I’ve had varying degrees of success, but largely I’ve not really been looking for anything serious: 2017 marked the first time in my adult life where I spent an entire calendar year completely outside a long-term relationship. That can be a lonely, exciting, nuanced place.
Helpfully (and, as usual) I had some good listening to guide me through it. I’ve enjoyed lots of music about dating, and hooking up, and feelings, and keeping it casual, and spinning out about not getting a text back this year – all of it by women – and the greatest of it has come from UK pop. Of course you can’t really talk about any of the subject matter I just named without mentioning SZA’s transcendent Ctrl (Noisey's best album of the year, on which her track “The Weekend” in particular is basically the ‘flexibility’ of modern dating scented, distilled and bottled). But overwhelmingly, the UK did it best – pop musicians like Wolf Alice, Mabel and Dua Lipa got dating, and specifically how millennials do it, extremely spot on in 2017.
Probably the year’s biggest song about dating came from Dua Lipa. After a year of nearly-getting-it-right-but-not-quite in 2016 (her closest thing to a hit was “Blow Your Mind (Mwah),” released in September of last year) she finally found her niche as the wise big sister of the UK singles chart with “New Rules.” Styled as the Ten Commandments of Washing That Man Right Out Of Your Hair, Dua’s stone tablets are a sparse tropical house beat, into which she carves the year’s best pre-chorus:
One: don’t pick up the phone / You know he’s only calling ‘cause he’s drunk and alone
Two: don’t let him in / You’ll have to kick him out again
Three: don’t be his friend / You know you’re gonna wake up in his bed in the morning
And if you’re under him / You ain’t getting over him
And though it’s let down by an en vogue drop where a real chorus should be, “New Rules” has been a sensation. In August, Dua Lipa became the first female solo artist to have the number 1 single in the UK since Adele almost two years before. Last week, Spotify UK named her its most streamed woman artist of 2017. In essence, “New Rules” has made her a bonafide pop presence with a tangible brand (her next single, a logical continuation, is slated for next year and will be called “IDGAF,” resonating with her online popularity and the Sassy Friend persona that “New Rules” established for her).
The question still remains, however, as to why “New Rules” is so huge, and I think that’s where my – and basically every millennial’s – dating experience can help. In a climate where social discourse is basically defined by relatable memes, the track could quite easily be one. It’s essentially a rundown of all of the most common dating mistakes, to which you listen and shake your head, knowing you’ve made them all, before mentally vowing never to do so again as you yell along to them, pissed off prosecco at the house party of someone you don’t really know, maybe feeling sad, maybe feeling empowered, maybe both.
It’s true, however, that Dua’s rules would be easily applicable to any generation – your mum, for example, almost definitely had to deal with the 1970s equivalent of a fuckboy not ringing her on the landline when he said he would. But the loosely defined edges and distinct sexual slant of the soured relationship Dua describes rings particularly true in the context of dating apps, and of the Generation Game conveyor belt of viable ‘options’ they offer at any – and every – moment in time (cuddly toy; microwave oven; Tom, 25, 6 km away). It’s this relatability, above all else, that made “New Rules” a hit – in the age of Tinder and @mytherapistsays, it could never have been anything but.
Elsewhere, London’s Wolf Alice offered the flip side. If “New Rules” is about reinvention after a dating experience, their track “Don’t Delete the Kisses” is a loyal recollection of what it feels like to be in the thick of desire. “Don’t Delete the Kisses” conjures scenarios that feel relevant right now – to me, its lyrics evoke tapping out a text message you’re fully aware you’ll never send in your phone’s Notes app, or hopelessly scrolling through someone’s tagged photos and catching yourself doing a weird smile at work. Its pretty surge sounds how navigating dating feels, in an era where communication is so simple that the lack of it is like a new, tiny heartbreak every time. That’s a fairly astonishing thing to be able to capture sonically, and Wolf Alice have managed it very beautifully.
These two tracks provide listeners with a look at specific parts of dating as a process – the heart-skittering beginning and the delete-his-number-and-block-him-on-Instagram end. However there’s one UK pop mixtape which goes deeper, collecting all of the neuroses, ups, and downs of modern dating in one place. Ivy to Roses by Mabel, released in October, is a selection of love, lust and like songs that pretty comprehensively communicate what it is to be a young woman dating men right now. Relationships for millennials are rarely even actual relationships; instead people move in and out of each other’s lives as if by coincidence – enabled in this by the accessibility and flippancy of technology – though despite the lack of structure, there’s still a strong intensity of feeling. Ivy to Roses understands that complexity, with each song seeming to tackle a different obstacle in the dating assault course.
Everything is there: there’s the lack of respect often shown for women by men with whom they have casual arrangements on “Come Over,” and the difficulty of walking away on “Roses,” while “Low Key” is extremely useful in a contemporary climate where men are still frequently surprised that every woman they’re texting isn’t dying to immediately bear their children and get a joint mortgage on a two-bed in Kent (“No pressure, appreciate the effort / But if you wanna be with me / Babe we gotta keep it low key,” Mabel breezily trills). Ivy to Roses is effective at telling the stories it does because Mabel is living them just like the rest of us – except she’s also great at turning them into impossibly catchy hooks. It knows that, often, dating can have you experiencing six different emotions at the same time, and it has a song for every eventuality. There’s not a lot of other music which reflects the mess of feelings that contemporary dating situations can bring on, so Ivy to Roses is a powerful weapon to have in your listening arsenal when you’ve got a lot going on.
Dating is different now to how I imagine it was in the past. For something so intimate, it can also feel depersonalised: people are profiles on a screen; what used to be knocking on someone’s door to pick them up is now texting them to meet outside a pub that Citymapper assures you is equidistant between your respective locations. That’s not to say, however, that technology is awful or evil: it brings people together all the time, and a lot of the best dating I did this year came as a result of it. It’s just that sometimes, waiting for a text or a Twitter fave distracts from the feelings – the big ones that swell when you’re actually with someone, next to them, drunk on the smell of them, floored by a pair of blue eyes. And when someone is out of the picture, swanning out as unromantically as they entered, with a gradual ghosting or an Instagram story featuring someone new and obviously much more interesting than you could ever have hoped to be, it’s similar technological frustrations which make the pain of bad experiences even worse.
To quote Lorde on her world tour for Melodrama, pop music is “all feelings, all the time,” and, whether those emotions are positive or negative, it’s there for you. As always, in 2017, it enhanced and articulated my big feelings – whether through plug-in headphones during a day-after hangover following a disappointing first date, on club speakers imploring me to denounce a no-good fuckboy, or in a quiet moment on a morning commute, validating all the facets of my experiences, and letting me know I’m not in them alone. I’d recommend it – it’s pretty good to keep you occupied when you’re ferociously left-swiping.
Respectfully slide into Lauren's DMs on Twitter.