There’s perhaps no other song that represents the 2010s musically than The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey song ‘Closer.’
If you haven’t heard it yet–do you not have radio or go literally anywhere where music is played?–here’s the lyric video. It’s quite catchy, and even if you’re not a fan of this type of electronic synth-pop music it’s the type of song that is somehow much more magnetic than it should be.
Let’s be honest: Halsey is a big reason why this song is successful. She has a unique, colorful, strong voice, and is as confident and purposeful an artist as any in the music industry.
As far as why this is sort of a scion of 2010s pop songs, well, there is a kaleidoscope of reasons. First, it almost exclusively uses synths, keys, and programmed percussion. Second, the synths that it uses aren’t afraid of being electronic, unlike the 80s when synths tended to imitate other instruments like piano or guitar.
Third, the song uses the ‘drop’ in its song form, which is a decidedly recent phenomenon. The term ‘drop’ comes from electronic music and DJs, and you might have heard of the ‘bass drop,’ which is used in dubstep as a sort of chorus. Closer uses a drop, an instrumental break after the pre-chorus, in the same way. Its chorus is not sung, rather being played by the synths, which is an odd choice traditionally but something you’ll find a lot nowadays.
It’s a good song because it’s catchy and, like any good pop song, knows how to ratchet up tension and excitement as the song progresses to lead to an exciting climax.
So you’d think that Closer would be such a 2010s song that it would sound out of place in any other context, right? That its structure and core is definitively in a modern soundscape?
Well, you’d be wrong.
I was clicking around on YouTube and found this. I clicked on it for a few giggles and, guess what? It’s AMAZING.
It’s also fascinating, and it illustrates that pop songs are a bizarre, weird animal. Whether you think that the 80s version of the song is better or not is immaterial, because we can all agree that the 80s version, while completely different, is the same song.
Pop songs, of whatever flavor–rock, rap, metal, whatever (and yes, those all fall under the umbrella of ‘pop music’)–are different from art music because pop songs are their recordings. A Beethoven symphony is what happens when you play what’s on the page, but a Beatles song is the recording that they spliced together in Abbey Road studios.
That difference is gigantic, because any deviation from the written music for a symphony is a deviation from the piece itself. But the same isn’t true for pop music. When Taylor Swift performs a song in front of a stadium of people, she and her band do not just press play on a recording; rather, they play the song live, which everyone agrees is the same song despite it not being a note-for-note and instrument-for-instrument recreation of the song’s recording.
What that means is that even songs tied to a specific decade sonically can be re-arranged to fit an entirely different decade’s structure, harmony, and instrumentation and still retain its soul.
So what is a pop song? What is the song itself? The core part that can be transported and tucked into a snug bag of an entirely different size and color? The amazing part is that I have no idea. I’m not sure anybody else does, either. But we know it when we see it.