September 10, 2015
I continue my look at the pinnacle of pop-music success, #1 on the billboard hot 100. Apart from my personal curiosity as a classical composer, I hope to put into words what attentive listening looks like. Pop music is not meant for attentive listening, but for passive listening either as aural sugar or else dance music. But what happens when you listen to it attentively? This is the ongoing experiment. Finally, a discussion about popular music is a discussion about culture—what we value, how we think, who we are collectively, etc. It is never a bad thing to know such things about the society one finds oneself in.
For the week of September 12 the no. 1 song on the charts was “Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd.
The song opens with a synth emerging out of silence like a star walking onstage. Soon he seizes attention with lyrics to a simple pop melody. Comparisons to the King of Pop are warranted: there’s a Jackson-esque urgency in his voice—hot, sharp, full of self-assurance and performance energy. It’s the repetitive cadence of the melody that belongs to the present decade, as The Weeknd celebrates the perennial theme of badness.
What makes the song ‘bad’? Look at the opening lines:
And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb
And she’ll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come
But at least we’ll both be beautiful and stay forever young
This I know, yeah, this I know
Obviously there is a contradiction. Will you die or stay forever young? But contradiction is the point. There is a strange pleasure in intentionally embracing falsehood, especially when you are addicted to something.
The celebration of contradiction, though, is an old strain in rock music (broadly conceived). Think of U2’s “With or Without You,” Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” and even the Beatles’ “Getting Better”—it’s getting better all the time (it can’t get no worse!).
But still: what the heck is the song about? I can’t feel my face when I’m with you…but I love it?
The first thought is that it’s simply about an erotic relationship. But if so, how could numbness of face have any significance? Isn’t facial sensation a good thing in the midst of (ahem) romantic interactions? How could it possibly be construed as a compliment: “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you”?
Apparently it’s a reference to cocaine, which can act as a numbing agent. Like Eric Clapton’s “she’s all right,” this song personifies the stimulant with the feminine pronoun—She told me ‘don’t worry about it’. So the song is about cocaine personified as a girl. On the other hand, it could be about a girl who is compared to cocaine. Either way, to understand the song, one has to get the reference. If one doesn’t, it must be exceedingly meaningless.
But how many people playing, streaming, or dancing to this tune know or care about what it really means? There doesn’t seem to be any widespread acknowledgement of its real meaning. The whole situation looks like a very sad, but not surprising, commentary on the state of popular taste. “Who cares what the song is about; it makes me feel good!” There is no need to satire this; the masses are already satiring themselves.
The song is in some way parallel to the name, The Weeknd. First of all, he’s saying “I’ll spell my name however I want to. I don’t want another e in there. Done.” But now non-initiates might think: “Are you supposed to pronounce it ‘weekend’? What else would it be? I guess it must be that.” Then, “Oh, of course, The Weekend!” when they hear someone else say the name, or look it up on Wikipedia. Abel Tesfaye creates an image for himself that people don’t quite understand unless they’re initiated—in the circle. People desperately want to be in the circle. Now they’re singing “I can’t feel my face” thinking it’s just a dope love-song. It looks like The Weeknd is playing on how ignorant people can be—when the beat is good enough.
What about the music itself apart from the lyrics?
The first verse doubles as a sort of intro. Synth sounds keep the tension up until the beat comes in. The beat has a slight disco-feel, and is obviously simple and repetitive, which lends to its rhythmic power. It makes you want to move. Without this beat, the song wouldn’t be #1. There are other factors too, but the beat is the sina qua non.
“Woo” happens every time the chorus starts. Tesfaye channels the height of feeling, which is what dancing in da club is all about. Yielding to the power of the beat is analogous to yielding to the power of cocaine, or this girl who is like cocaine, or both.
An interlude forms the bridge—the beat stops, and the spotlight is on what’s going on in the subject’s mind, regardless of any external realities, like the noise and bright lights of a club. This breaks up the monotony and creates some real contrast. It also recalls the intro, so that when the chorus starts again it’s like a new beginning. It also emphasizes the conscious choice the subject (i.e. the singer with whom the listener is supposed to identify) makes to enter and reenter the state of inebriation which the beat symbolizes. The song is short; but offers plenty of playing ground for DJs, who can mix it, sample something over it, make it last as long as necessary.
In sum, it’s the latest popular oblation to goddess of hedonism, the mainstay of the popular music industry, inviting people to discard their moral inhibitions and yield to the object of their affections, whatever it may be, whether it’s addictive, destructive, face-numbing, fatal, or worse. And why? Because this is what sells.