Pop music can be pretty alienating if you’re not in love with someone or anywhere near it. The relentless glorification of love and sex, the constant fixation on a relationship as the goal. Sometimes it seems less like the background noise of shopping centres and more like the background noise of our lives.
But there’s a wave of songwriters skirting the edges of the traditional love song market, making music that acknowledges that feelings which might not be particularly deep or enduring can still be intense and powerful.
Tessa Violet’s upcoming Bad Ideas kicks off with ‘Crush’, a cool-glass-of-water of a song, humorously self effacing (‘cause I’m a stalker, I’ve seen all of your posts’) and served up by Violet’s conversational voice. It runs swiftly through all the tropes of a crush: ‘I’d been waiting hoping that you’d want to text, like’, ‘I can’t focus on what needs to get done’, ‘I wanna touch you but don’t wanna be weird’. She delivers them simply and in a soundscape of sharp drum strokes, jumbled voices and rough-voiced exclamations that refuse to elevate her feelings to a higher plane.
Instead, she faithfully represents the scatteredness, the brief kaleidoscopic whirl of feelings that a crush brings with it. The music video communicates this too – Violet dances around an empty supermarket with a mix of exuberance and self-conscious precision, whilst the stark lighting of the aisles leaves her excitement exposed, overexposed – misplaced. The disorientating mundanity of the setting is half at odds with Violet’s feelings as she sings, and half in keeping with them. In a similar manner, having feelings for someone can at first seem disorientating in the same way as waking up in a paradisiacal garden, but eventually you realise it’s more like the disorientation of taking a wrong turn down a back alley.
Another track already released from the album, ‘I Like the Idea of You’, is gentler, more laidback and more straightforward than Crush, finding as its hook ‘I like the idea of you/ Wonder how it’d be to love you’. This admittance that the feelings driving the song are maybe more theoretical than practical would undercut a traditional love song, devalue those feelings. By placing this line front and centre, Violet refuses conventional love narratives in an album in which the whole point is to talk about romantic feelings as messy, brief, foolish, even funny. But still worth it: the whole song is high, light, fast-paced and anticipatory – the beauty of crushes, after all, ultimately always hangs on this ‘I wonder’.
Mitski, another female singer-songwriter, exploits the imaginative richness of that ‘I wonder’ across her 2018 album Be The Cowboy. I found myself stuck listening to’ Remember My Name’ on repeat, as it struck again and again on a powerful longing: ‘I need someone to remember my name/ After all that I can do for them is done’. ‘Crush’ is such a diminutive word, but Mitski makes this need for another person into a need for ‘something bigger than the sky’, some strange roving feeling whose enormity is greater than the love object could ever really be. Romance is more about yourself than you ever like to admit.
Mitski claims this with ‘Pink in the Night’, an intense imagining of self-transformation in which the ‘you’ is almost absent. Evolving synthesisers sound dreamily as Mitski croons ‘I glow pink in the night in my room/ I’ve been blossoming alone over you’. Her gentle voice belies the disorder of the words, glowing impossibly pink and blossoming mysteriously. Her beautiful feeling twists paradoxically, ‘alone’ as it attempts to approach ‘you’. Instead of yielding to the notion that an unfulfilled or unreciprocated crush is shameful, Mitski moves dreamily through something strange, uses her aloneness in the feeling to bend reality around it, make ‘every drop of rain’ sing ‘I love you’, and makes her voice tumble these words over and over in a shower that soaks you through.
Mitski’s most searing examination of the crush comes in the song ‘Nobody’: ‘Venus, planet of love/ Was destroyed by global warming/ Did its people want too much too?’. This uncompromising metaphor paints lovers (including herself) as greed-stricken plunderers of a limited resource. Perhaps wanting something bigger than the sky has a destructiveness built in. There’s a callousness to the lyrics that follow, untinged by the romanticism of ‘Pink in the Night’: ‘I don’t want your pity/ I just want somebody near me’. The demands of the song becomes less specific, with ‘I know no one will save me/ I just need someone to kiss’ finding its echo in the later ‘I’m just asking for a kiss’. Mitski distances both herself and her feeling, no longer admitting a need but just ‘asking’, no longer looking for ‘someone’, but for the process, the ritual of romance, the kiss only, the kiss without the kisser.
‘Nobody’ devolves into a haunting and distorted repetition of its own title, a persistent refusal of Mitski’s stripped back desire. This nightmarish element forms the song’s music video, in which Mitski goes searching for a lover – in the telephone directory, at the house down the road, in her diary, only to constantly be confronted by nobody – at the end of the phone, as the person at the door, as the only name written in her diary. And when she looks again at her hand, on which the word ‘nobody’ was previously imprinted, she instead sees the word ‘you’. Mitski dramatises the most horrifying potential of crushes – that at the end of the day it is only you. Either only you with the feeling, or only you making the feeling. It was never anything to do with the ‘you’ of them, but instead your self-absorption, your loneliness, your need. This is pretty chilling for a love song.
Neither Tessa Violet’s nor Mitski’s work is without cliched words. They don’t avoid well-trodden ground. But what they do is talk about the experience of love in a different way. They realise that often their feelings might be more interesting and complicated than the person that they’re felt for. That even the crush, the smallest, loneliness, and most trodden upon kind of romance can be strange and powerful when we celebrate that it belongs to us, rather than being ashamed of that inevitable fact.