The Only Good Song on the Radio

The only time I listen to pop music on the radio these days is when I’m driving. I don’t expect much, just something pleasant enough to keep me going with the traffic over the Burrard Street Bridge—something with a good beat, lyrics that are not too idiotic, and a catchy melody. Usually that’s what I get, but a few weeks ago I realized that radio music had gone dead for me. The only thing that kept me from switching over to a CD was one song. They didn’t play it often enough, and I kept waiting for it—the only good song on the radio.

I clearly remember the exact moment when I first got hooked on radio. A song came on with a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard, a song so insanely good that I had to turn up the volume and lean close to the brown Bakelite box in my grandmother’s kitchen. I knew that it was for kids my age in a way that no song had ever been before—Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline.” That’s so many years ago, and I’m still listening, listening for the Zeitgeist.

When the music on the radio goes dead, there’s something wrong in the world. I remember one of the worst years. Watergate, post-Nixon, Gerald Ford in the White House, the fall of Saigon, and I simply could not listen any longer to the music on the radio. Captain & Tennille, Glen Campbell, Freddy Fender, The Eagles, John Denver, The Bee Gees, The Doobie Brothers— Do I need to go on? Janis Ian, The Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John— I was always listening to something, so I slapped Dylan onto my turntable, and early Bowie and vintage Flat and Scruggs, but then, as a Christmas present, a dear friend gave me an album by someone I’d never heard of. I loved the picture on the cover—a young woman in a white shirt, a black jacket slung over her shoulder. Nobody had ever looked quite like that before, so Sally-Ann-cool and stunningly androgynous. Yeah, photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, the great Patti Smith. She brought music back to life.

When I’m driving home, I know that I’m never going to hear a game-changer like “Horses” on commercial radio. All I want is a small ray of hope, and that’s exactly what I was getting from the only good song. Okay, so what was it? The phrase that stuck in my head was “the dark of the moon.” I Googled it, and all that gave me was the soundtrack to Transformers: The Dark of the Moon, and that sure wasn’t it. A day or so later I heard the song again and listened carefully. Ah, I’d heard it wrong. It was “the dark side of the moon.” Back to Google, and that gave me Pink Floyd. I felt like an idiot. What was I doing chasing a song that any media-savvy teenager could identify in ten seconds and I couldn’t?

In my car I toggle back and forth between KISS FM and VIRGIN RADIO. I read through both of their playlists, and not a single title had the word “moon” in it. Okay, so I could go through the playlists song by song, but there was a better way. I tuned my office radio to KISS and waited. Well into the second hour the song came on, and I pounced on it with my iPad. Shazam told me that it was “It Ain’t Me” by Kygo & Selena Gomez.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What? The moment I read it, the title conjured up Bob Dylan’s old-timey voice acquired from saturating himself in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. If you reach into the dusty burlap bag full of early Dylan tunes, you’ll find his anti-love songs carefully crafted to make girl-recipients feel like shit. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is not the nastiest of them, but like the others it’s a perfect example of just how entitled guys felt themselves to be in 1963. So why would contemporary song writers want to invoke Dylan, and who were those song writers anyway? I had never heard of Kygo, but a quick search told me that he was a DJ and producer from Norway and a very big deal in the electronic dance music scene. All I knew about Gomez was that she was one of those unfortunately fortunate people who had been one of Disney’s child stars. How on earth had they managed to create the only good song on the radio? I listened to it on a headset. Gomez did not sound even remotely like Dylan. She was not singing about the moon. It was “the dark side of the morning.”

At roughly the same time that I was trying to chase down the only good song on the radio, the current occupant of the U. S. White House tossed 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria to boost his approval rating. That, I thought, should put things into perspective. The songs I wanted to hear would be sites of resistance, created by kids on their laptops at four in the morning or boiled up by angry young musicians in a garage somewhere. Why was I wasting my time thinking about a song sung by Justin Bieber’s ex-girlfriend? But I couldn’t let it go.

Now that I had identified it, I could listen to “It Ain’t Me” as many times as I wanted. I’d liked it when it had been an elusive rough-edged memorandum squashed through the Dixie-cup speakers in my car and mixed with wind and traffic. I liked it even better when I could actually hear it. I liked the way it opened with an acoustic guitar and a bit of narrative about sipping whiskey neat in the Bowery—an opening so protracted and convincing that you’re sure you’re about to hear an alt-folk tune until the beat drops to inform you that this is actually electronic dance music— Oh, but hold on a minute. I’ve got to open a sidebar.

My elder daughter, with a superior tone in her voice, can’t resist telling me that her music, the music that she feels in her soul, is absolutely not EDM, it’s house. I cannot claim to fully understand what she means by that. “House” is short for “warehouse” because that’s where you went to immerse yourself in that stuff when it was brand new and subversive and created by Frankie Knuckles and other inner-city black guys in Chicago. House has come a long way since then, has split into multiple genres, and has become so identified with youth culture intertwined with drug culture that now, when an entire generation of North American white kids makes its list of things they’ve absolutely got to do before they die, an item most likely to be near the top will be getting fucked up in Ibiza.

Not long after its release “It Ain’t Me” generated its own Wikipedia entry that didn’t hesitate to label the song both EDM and house—“tropical house,” to be exact. Professor Google informed me that “tropical house” was a subgenre of “deep house,” which, in turn, was a subgenre of “house.” If I wanted an example, Edward Maya’s “Stereo Love” was tropical house. That was a song I knew. I’d liked it so well that I had downloaded not only the original but half a dozen remixes, and the comparison was clarifying. If you moved the beat back a few yards, brought the vocals forward, slowed the tempo a notch, brightened the whole works up, and threw in an acoustic riff—the accordion in “Stereo Love,” the guitar in “It Ain’t Me”—then, I gathered, you had “tropical house.” But why the arcane terminology? Maybe because being a sub-genre of a sub-genre is a lot cooler than simply being EDM—it adds to the mystique, creates an exclusive club of connoisseurs who can actually hear the distinctions.

Of the people who created “It Ain’t Me,” Selena Gomez is the most famous. Her primary contribution is singing the vocal. She had been aiming for another high-charting single, and “It Ain’t Me” gave it to her. Kygo—Kyrre Gørvell-Dahll—rose to fame, as many kids are doing these days, via his computer and has racked up three-hundred-million views on SoundCloud and YouTube. He’s so famous in Norway that he has his own clothing line. He sang back-up vocal on “It Ain’t Me” and is listed as one of the four producers. Everyone credits him with making the tune sound like EDM.

The nitty-gritty down-in-the-trenches work of actually writing the song was done by the three American professionals, and they’re the only members of the team credited with the lyrics. Brian Dong Ho Lee is the oldest of them. He’s had his name attached to hits by such artists as Carly Rae Jepsen and Lady Gaga and cowrote the Icona Pop smash “All night.” Andrew Watt has worked with a multitude of artists, including Justin Bieber and Skrillex. A performer as well as a song writer, Watt sings, plays bass and keyboards. Ali Tamposi is the youngest. She has contributed to songs by Kelly Clarkson, DJ Snake, Beyoncé, and Christine Aguliera—and also has had the misfortune of having sung backup vocals on a Nickelback album. If you add the two producers who are not given composition credit, seven people were actively involved in bringing “It Ain’t Me” into the world. Only two of these—Gomez and Tamposi—were women.

I found it depressing that it had taken such a large, high-powered, well-connected team to create “It Ain’t Me” and make it a commercial success. In my car, before I’d been able to make out much of the lyrics, I’d been alerted to the only good song on the radio by the sound of it—a little bit like every other good EDM tune I’d heard in the last two years but new and different enough to be interesting. Now that I could listen to it closely, I heard—in its shape, texture, and use of various techniques—nothing that hadn’t been done before, although what it did do, it did superbly well. You don’t write a hit tune by being ahead of the curve. You don’t write a hit tune even by being on the curve. You write a hit tune by being just a fraction of a beat behind it.

In case we can’t figure it out for ourselves, the Wiki entry for “It Ain’t Me” tells us what it’s about—“a breakup song with a theme of nostalgia.” Selena Gomez is positioned firmly in the center of this exercise; she “narrates the regret of a previous relationship ruined by her former lover’s habits of drinking and partying too often,” allowing her fans to read Justin Bieber into the story. To clinch the point, Ali Tamposi explains that it’s “about a woman finding the strength to walk away from a toxic relationship despite the pressure she receives from society to stand by her man.” The song is said to be “uplifting and empowering.”

So there I had it. The only good song on the radio was a commercial hit assembled by half a dozen seasoned professionals and packaged for easy consumption by girls and women looking for “empowerment.” But that wasn’t all of it. I could sense something more, something important. What about the Dylan reference that was perfectly obvious but nobody was mentioning?

Like any art form, song writing is a conversation. A multitude of voices, each marked with its own particular time and place and world view, live in the minds of song writers and interact with each other there. To look closely at any song we need to understand a conversation that’s already in progress. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call the narrator of Dylan’s tune “Dylan.” That’s okay so long as we don’t confuse this fictional narrative voice with the historical Bob Dylan. So a girl has been annoying Dylan by hanging out at his window, and he goes to considerable length to explain to her that “I’m not the one you want, babe, I’m not the one you need.” He tells her repeatedly:

No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

The narrator of “It Ain’t Me” asks, “Who’s gonna walk you through the dark side of the morning?” and answers, repeatedly:

“It ain’t me, no no.”

Texts refer to other texts—that’s their nature—and pop songs often blatantly refer to previous pop songs. As listeners simultaneously hear the new song and the history behind it, these cross-references can amplify a song’s resonance—as, for instance, Patti Smith’s “Land” referring not only to “Land of a Thousand Dances” but to the entire genre of rock ‘n’ roll. Any good song allows for multiple readings, and no single reading cancels out any other, so “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” can be read as one of Dylan’s dump-on-girls songs, but it can also be read as his rejection of the role of guru, prophet, or savior—a rejection he would state more succinctly later as “take this badge off of me.” The writers of “It Ain’t Me” must surely have felt these resonances, particularly as Kesha had recently used Bob Dylan’s words to do her talking to Dr. Luke—at least that’s the way much of her audience would have read her performance at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards. So what is this reference to Dylan being used to amplify?

Selena Gomez is facing the problem that all child stars must eventually face—how to grow up in public. It’s particularly hard for her because some of her predecessors have not exactly made a brilliant job of it. “It Ain’t Me” was released in February of 2017 and then, nicely timed, she appeared on the cover of the April Vogue with the caption: COOL, CANDID, COURAGEOUS SELENA GETS REAL. Vogue assigned Rob Haskell, one of their long-time writers, to do the accompanying feature article. Short of sending Humbert Humbert, they couldn’t have made a worse choice, and Haskell’s perviness and condescension have been trashed from one end of the net to the other. Particularly creepy is the way he deftly inserts himself into the story, as though to send us the message: “I get to hang with celebs and you don’t.” He’s cooking dinner with Gomez. Here she is commenting on her 110 million Instagram followers.

“People so badly wanted me to be authentic,” she says, laying a tortilla in sizzling oil, “and when that happened, finally, it was a huge release. I’m not different from what I put out there. I’ve been very vulnerable with my fans, and sometimes I say things I shouldn’t. But I have to be honest with them. I feel that’s a huge part of why I’m where I am.”

And where we are, Haskell tells us, is in the “They’re Just Like Us!” era of celebrity, and that does seem to be the point that Gomez keeps trying to make—that she is just like us. She talks about going into a residential therapy program. “You have no idea how incredible it felt to just be with six girls,” she says, “real people who couldn’t give two shits about who I was.” She talks about wanting to disappear. “Look, I love what I do, and I’m aware of how lucky I am, but— how can I say this without sounding weird? I just really can’t wait for people to forget about me.”

Like Burial maintaining his anonymity as long as he could or Claire Boucher writing “California,” maybe Selena Gomez was cooking dinner with Haskell as her way of resisting being transformed into one of those impenetrable images with which Debord says we mediate our social relations under spectacular capitalism. Or maybe it’s all hype, part of the game plan. But then again maybe it’s all true and she means every word she says. The problem is, we’ll never know because we aren’t at that dinner and we’re never going to be. By the end of the article “It Ain’t Me” is being spun as a comment on her breakup with Justin Bieber—although she’s never mentioned his name.

Before Gomez recorded “It Ain’t Me” she and Ali Tamposi met to go over the vocals. The Wiki entry tells us that they “shared a similar emotional vision” based on “their own personal experiences.” That was an important meeting. Gomez was going to have to sell the song. Her enormous fan base would only take her so far; if she wanted it high-charting, she was going to have to feel the song, occupy it, own it. Because she was given no credit on the lyrics, we know that she sang the words they gave her. It took a team to create this hit, and Gomez does her part of the job with élan—she’s so solidly into the song that if you didn’t know better, you might think that she wrote it herself.

Ali Tamposi
Photo by Brittany Brooks

“When I create,” Ali Tamposi tells us, “I come from a place of being a messenger from a higher power of some sort that shows me how to funnel out a message.” She’s being interviewed by Matthew Meadow in the February edition of the online journal YOUREDM. The headline bills her as ALI TAMPOSI, CO-WRITER ON SELENA GOMEZ & KYGO’S “IT AIN’T ME” She describes her collaboration with Watt and Lee as casual but focused. They “order food and talk about what’s going on in our lives.” Then the guys will pick up guitars “and we’ll all shout out melodies until we land on one.” Together they write lyrics; then she cuts the vocal, and that’s it.

It’s a combination of our experiences – we act as if we’re therapists for one another. If I’m going through something, Andrew and Brian will be my therapists and we’ll tap into that place and vice-versa. We’ll ask questions about that experience and it usually goes from there. We’ll be like ‘What did it actually feel like when you’re at the bar and waiting for that person to call you and they’re not calling?’ so it’s that type of vibe. It’s honest – everything that we write comes from past experiences that we’ve all felt. If it doesn’t come from that place, then it feels disconnected.

The lyrics to “It Ain’t Me” are exquisitely well crafted, every word carefully chosen. There are only two verses, and they have identical eight-line structures. Each opens with “I had a dream” and outlines the possibility of a bright future, but then a single word in the fourth line signals a turn—“nowhere” in the first verse, “never” in the second—and the remaining lines tell us that it’s not going to happen—because the narrator has had enough of her boyfriend’s shitty behaviour.

Let us imagine that the narrator of the song is someone much like Ali Tamposi. She is, after all, the only woman in the room. And then, having made this conjecture, I found another interview—done by Alyssa Bailey in the February 22 Elle—in which Tamposi admits that sipping whisky neat in the Bowery is her own experience: “Back then, when I used to drink, and I’d start in this relationship vibe, we were always at the Bowery, and we were good and high, it was high enough.”

But the problem is, as the song tells us, it’s never going to be high enough for the boyfriend.

I had a dream
We were sipping whiskey neat
Highest floor, The Bowery
Nowhere’s high enough
Somewhere along the lines
We stopped seeing eye to eye
You were staying out all night
And I had enough

In the second verse the line “never growing up” is beautifully double-voiced. In it, we can hear both the narrator now and the narrator back in the day.

I had a dream
We were back to seventeen
Summer nights and The Libertines
Never growing up
I’ll take with me
The Polaroids and the memories
But you know I’m gonna leave
Behind the worst of us

When she was seventeen, of course they were never going to grow up—no seventeen-year-old ever is—but to the narrator now, “never growing up” is exactly what her boyfriend is doing. She will take her good memories with her, along with the Polaroids, but she will leave behind “the worst of us.” She doesn’t have to spell out that worst; she can rely on the young women she’s addressing to fill in the details from their own experiences. She doesn’t care any longer where her boyfriend has been or where he’s going. When he gets back, she won’t be home.

Who’s gonna walk you

Through the dark side of the morning?

Who’s gonna rock you

When the sun won’t let you sleep?

Who’s waking up to drive you home

When you’re drunk and all alone?

Who’s gonna walk you

Through the dark side of the morning?

It ain’t me.

“I think the chorus has so many messages,” Tamposi tells the Elle interviewer, “especially right now, for this time period with this whole feminist movement… There’s a difference between standing by someone through a really dark period in their lives and being their support system.”

But it would be a mistake to attribute the song entirely to Tamposi. It took a team to write it.

We all individually connected with the message of the song and I feel like the places that we were in our lives during that time. We wrote the first verse and the chorus within 45 minutes and so then we had the engineer go out and find Kygo for another session….

I was just observing Kygo the second we pressed the spacebar [for the new track], and he heard it back, and his eyes were just going back from left to right, like he was just mapping out how he envisioned the production work. He completely lit up, and that’s the feeling that we were all looking for. It felt so good.

The feeling that they were looking for—yes—and reading that, something clicked for me. In Vogue, Gomez waxed eloquent about the residential therapy program she attended, and in her YOUREDM interview, referring to her two song-writing partners, Tamposi said, “We act as if we’re therapists for one another.” Therapists? When they were writing the lyrics—batting them back and forth—somebody probably said, “What rhymes with seventeen?”—and there are lots of things, actually, from caffeine to morphine to teens in the scene wearing jeans—so why that obscure UK band, the Libertines? Because of their drug problems, maybe—because that felt right? The song’s not just about alcohol; these are the writers who created that wonderful pun: “Somewhere along the lines.” In her Elle interview Tamposi tucked in a bit of information so unobtrusively that we could easily miss it—“when I used to drink.” They’re talking like people in recovery. The repeated word “grateful” at the end of their song sounds for all the world like the end of an AA meeting.

I’m right back where I started, driving in my car again, when I hear on the news that the current occupant of the US White House has just dropped the Mother of All Bombs in Afghanistan. Yes, there is something wrong in the world, and at the moment there is only one good song on the radio. So what is coming to us from the absolute center of mainstream pop music in the spring of 2017? “It Ain’t Me” isn’t really about dumping your asshole boyfriend. It’s about waking up and getting clean. Addressed to anyone who won’t grow up, who just doesn’t get it, the only good song says, “Thanks for the memories, but I’m not going to babysit you any more.” And you know, that’s a pretty good message.

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