Not long ago, I heard a song that was released in 2014 by an artist named Avicii called “Wake Me Up”. It’s well written, efficiently constructed (in the same way a pre-fabricated plastic shed one might purchase at Home Depot is efficiently constructed) and has a strong, sing-song melodic hook which the composers modified slightly to make the verse and chorus distinct from one another.
This is a very basic piece of music and only deviates from its Bm-G-D, Bm-G-D-A chord structure in the bridge/outro sections when it sheds the dominant chord and cycles on its initial three chord sequence. The minor to major transition provides a slight tinge of bittersweetness but overall, it is an upbeat, light and carefree ditty.
It also manages to distinguish itself from many other pop songs by cleverly straddling an assortment of unlikely musical genre-bedfellows, such as folk and EDM. The buoyant, bouncy “cotton-eyed Joe” acoustic guitar strumming/stomp that comprises body of the song is reinforced by handclaps on upbeat eighth notes which enter with the song’s chorus. This is later juxtaposed against a charming, cheery smattering of EDM that comprises its bridge section and outro, wherein, the beat reverts to four on the floor.
The song’s EDM aspects interact tastefully with the acoustic guitar and vocal while enhancing the overall structure. Breakdowns occur prior to the bridge and outro sections that create dynamic drops exactly where they’re needed, and parity is elegantly created between the stomp feel/handclaps in the body of the song and the upbeat eighth note hihats which are gradually introduced into the bridge/outro sections. These dynamics are linear and predictable but they work.
Pristine, streamlined and perfect, every single event belongs exactly where it was placed. It was tailor-made to appeal to everyone without offending anyone.
In addition to all that, “Wake Me Up” just happens to have been the most played song of 2014. In fact, the last time I checked YouTube, it was teetering precariously close to having been viewed 700 million times.
“Wake Me Up” is an undeniably catchy and infectious piece of music. Although about two weeks have elapsed since I last heard it, on occasion and without warning, it will suddenly pop into my head.
In spite of all the above, I feel absolutely no emotional connection to this song whatsoever. I feel no desire to own it or, for that matter, to ever listen to it again in my life. I know that at some point in the near future, it will stop playing in my head entirely. I also know that if I ever hear it again after the point in time that it has ceased being a part of my consciousness, I will be completely unable to recall exactly what I found appealing about it.
This is not because “Wake Me Up” is in any way bad or unpleasant. It’s actually very pleasant- one could even say it’s nice. Put in relative terms, it’s much like a painting you buy from a furniture shop specifically to go with the decor in your home- as opposed to a painting you buy from an art gallery because it communicates something indescribable that you have felt a powerful urge to immerse yourself in.
However, there is an important detail about songs, pieces of music- or, indeed, any form of art- that this one is lacking. Without a reasonable quantity of subtext to co-exist in a piece of art and counterbalance surface aspects such as “pleasant” and “nice”, these adjectives quickly become meaningless and useless. Subtextual information (such as contrast, engaging orchestration and arrangement ideas, opposing movement, intent embodied in performance, etc) is essential to a piece of art because it provides dimension and depth that greatly enhances its surface aspects and gives them deeper meaning.
For the sake of context, one could also use the adjectives “pleasant” and “nice” to describe “Girl From Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. It is light, breezy and carefree- some of the same adjectives I used earlier to describe “Wake Me Up”.
It is also rich with emotion, contrast and subtext that adds broader meaning, illuminates and re-contextualizes the song’s surface aspects. Its casual, carefree quality takes on an entirely different significance when juxtaposed with the unrequited adoration and sadness the singer is expressing. These contrasting elements resonate to create a unique sense of melancholy and this helps to transform “Girl From Ipanema” from being a charming ditty about an attractive girl on a beach into something much more.
Contrast, subtext and depth are determining factors in the anatomy and function of a piece of music and in the case of one as deconstructed and simple as “Wake Me Up”, they are absolutely vital. If we consider a song as a living entity, the absence of these elements has a detrimental effect on its DNA- particularly with respect to its longevity. In this sense, “Wake Me Up” is analogous to Roy Batty, the Replicant from the movie “Blade Runner”. It is a candle that burns brightly, but for a very short time.
And, while “Wake Me Up” has many of the surface requisites of being a terrific song (and certainly, its staggering popularity should confirm this in the most ironclad of terms), in truth, it is a simulacra of a great song. It possesses all the appearances and surface aspects of a familiar form, but has none of the requisite substance and depth that ultimately designates it as the genuine item.
That, right there, is the distinction between art and artifice.
Aesthetically, “Wake Me Up” is like an extraordinarily beautiful, disembodied head that has no brain and lacks sentience. It sits there looking stunning, but can only stare vapidly into space because it is absent the requisite neurological equipment to form ideas and communicate with others.
Popular art is both a reflection of its creators and a signifier that indicates the state of the society in which it was created. With this in mind, the ephemeral nature of “Wake Me Up” should be unsurprising since it was created by individuals who exist in, and are products of a consumer society infused with impermanence and planned obsolescence. And if, on some level, this song is a reflection of a greater and further reaching sense of transience, it is also a reflection of its creators’ mortality since, like them, it was born to die.
That is neither the physiology or function of a great song. A great song isn’t something flashy or shiny that catches your eye for a moment but quickly loses its luster, the same way that gum loses its taste after a few chews. A great song drags the listener face to face with an artist and permits him not an inch of latitude to escape.
It’s like a mega-dose of brain-scorching LSD that simultaneously chews you up and spits you out while infiltrating your entire being; or a genetic mutation that fuses with your molecular structure and alters you irrevocably and forever.
A great song is not forgettable in the short or the long term. It is both a curse and a constant companion down through many eons- a well-indented neural pathway like a drug yen or an obsessive urge that never fades. It is a monkey on your back that screams at you every moment all day and night- it claws and beats at your brain and your senses, yet you are unable to escape it, ignore it, reason with it or beg it to leave you in peace.
Not that you really want it to.
And then, even after you are finally gone, it still remains. This is because a great song can’t die- it’s an emotion trapped in sonic amber for all eternity.
“Wake Me Up” is not a great song simply because it was not built to be one. Ultimately, it is an ephemeral, gorgeous, empty vessel- merely mortal and inevitably, forgettable.
And inevitably, it will be forgotten.