Pity Party

Sad Pop, Catharsis and Teardrops on the Dancefloor

How a 1988 hit connects some of the best pop to come out so far this year.

by Lauren O'Neill
19 July 2017, 12:15pm

Photo by Loryn via Pixabay

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.

The first thing you register is the bassline. That familiar thrum of funk that's become instantly recognisable, almost ubiquitous. Then, the steady beat of percussion as the keys begin their ascent, brushed by the slightest hint of a backing vocal like lips to an ear. It's an intro that engulfs you. It leaks out of the radio you'd casually switched on, and somehow seeps into you, circulating around your body as you wait impatiently at its edges to jump off into the rest of the song, enticed by the promised gratification of singing along. That bassline again. The keys brighten. And then, right on cue, Linda Womack's voice cuts through, rising above everything:

"Whenever I hear goodbye, reminds me, baby, of you.
I break down and cry. Next time I'll be true."

These are the mournful, regretful opening lyrics of "Teardrops," the 1988 hit single by the husband and wife duo Womack & Womack. They're sad words that communicate pain and loss: I break down and cry. It's not an easy sentiment, yet it's expressed against an instrumental that feels optimistic – gloriously so – and doesn't coalesce with the rawness of what's actually being said. And it seems to me that almost 30 years later, we're seeing pop repeat this uneasy combination en masse.

Maybe more than ever, pop artists today are occupying the headspace we're invited into on songs like "Teardrops": there's a type of emotional discomfort between lyrical content and musical form that has become a crucial technique for some of our most bold pop musicians, from Lorde to Paramore, via Charli XCX and Bleachers. And it's made for some of the best pop I've heard in ages. Though I'm under no illusions that "Teardrops" was the first song to give us lows in the vocals and soaring highs on the backing track (that would ignore a big slice of the Motown Records catalogue for starters, so please don't @ me), I mention it here because the mood it emits with such an obvious combination of heartbreak and euphoria just feels especially relevant to 2017's pop landscape.

Back in May, I interviewed Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, who is one of the producers at the forefront of this current wave of what I'll call "sad pop." When I asked him about his tendency to offset big, often negative emotions with huge pop sounds, he gave me what kind of sounded like a bunch of songwriting mantras: "Talk about what's actually going on in your head, cut the shit. And then make the song sound as exciting as possible. Make it an overload of all those emotions that you're putting into it."

It's this kind of emotional honesty that musicians like Antonoff put on display again and again, in the tradition of "Teardrops." It honours feelings with sounds that do them justice, and understands that those feelings can sometimes be so complicated that sad lyrics don't always fit to what you'd stereotypically hear as "sad' instrumentation. There's only so much, after all, that a singular piano can say; only so far a big ballad, so long the standard of sentimentality in pop music, with the now predictable emotional tools of key-changes and diva vocals, can really take you.

And recently, to express those things that are often the hardest to say, pop musicians have been looking elsewhere. There are lots of instances of this in Antonoff's own body of work. He was, for example, the main co-writer and co-producer credited on Lorde's "Green Light," a lament about the first steps of moving on from a defining relationship, set to whirling synths and exuberant, deliberate drums.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that "Green Light" has quickly become the sad girl's party song of choice – you can lose yourself in it while relating to it entirely. In the same way as Rihanna's "Work," it embodies escapism and reality all at once, and I've had few more cathartic experiences than shouting "I'm waiting for it, that green light, I want it" surrounded by people doing the same thing, because it felt like a release of two kinds. Firstly, it's freeing in the way that only dancing to loud, upbeat pop music seems able to be. And secondly, instead of shouting along to inane lyrics about being in love or going to the club, singing Lorde's mantra feels relevant to those of us who haven't worked everything out yet, but who want to dance about it anyway. There's an honesty in that, and it's valuable.

Charli XCX's "3AM (Pull Up)," the standout track from her mixtape Number 1 Angel, pulses in a similar vein. It sounds like a bubblegum pop rave anthem, and the chorus makes you feel like you're on intravenous drip of blue WKD. But at a lyrical level, it's one of the most honest and penetrating portrayals of getting through an emotionally draining relationship I've ever heard, and the uncomfortable pairing of glittery, bouncy music with words that feel like they're raising an open flame directly against the skin on your forearm only gives the song's final act more punch:

"It's 3AM and you are callin'
Go fuck yourself, don't say you're sorry
I can't believe I used to want this
No more, no
Pull up, pull up
Pull up, pull up
Pull up, pull up right to your love
One thousand times, the same old story
Forgive myself, now this is over
I can't believe you had me fallin'
No more, no
Pull up, pull up
Pull up, pull up
Pull up, pull up right to your love"

At the end of "3AM", Charli breaks free of what was holding her back. And I think seeing the realness of lines like "Go fuck yourself, don't say you're sorry" and "Forgive myself now this is over" alongside the hooky lyrical trappings of a chorus goes even further to illustrate the power of sad pop, and the satisfaction it can provide – even though it's defined by a lack of satisfaction, by two strands that sit uneasily beside one another.

Pop is a complicated and limitless genre, and it's special because it can encourage a strength of feeling that's rare anywhere, not only in music. And when it takes emotions seriously, which it's starting to do increasingly these days – see also Paramore's recent album After Laughter, which deals with topics like loneliness and depression shot through by neon synths and the band's signature enormous choruses – pop music can be one of the most powerful modes of expression in the world. It knows that a song can be sad while sounding upbeat, and that you can be heartbroken to synths maybe even better than you can to an acoustic guitar, because what pop instrumentation reproduces better than any other genre is intensity. And when you're having those end-of-the-world feelings, sometimes there's nothing else for it but the biggest sounds, the cleanest hooks, and the actually-very-simple catharsis of singing along.

You can find Lauren on Twitter.