Where were you when you found the tune “that [you] were searching for”? The tune that made your heart “beat like a drum”; the tune whose flavor became, well, your irresistible sonic “chewing gum”?
I borrow wording here from the Greek Eurodance songstress Despina Vandi. Vandi’s on the money when she compares a pop song to a stick of gum, slight and sugary. When you find a new one, you can’t help but really work it over, chew the juice out of its springy mass. Unfortunately, most pop songs feel made to dispose, to be sucked dry and tossed.
This is, of course, collateral damage on the road to developing one’s “taste.” If anything, our sonic landscapes are scarred‐up sidewalks, speckled with every already‐been‐chewed musical pleasure we’ve ever known. In our formative years, we curate, we crib, we cultivate; we blast that new track 20 times, delirious; we impose it on our friends and hijack party playlists before the hit’s freshness runs its course. And somehow, through this swirl of spat‐out phases, something sticks.
The one time I got a wad of gum stuck in my hair was in 2004. We were visiting relatives in Greece; they tsked at the gnarly snarl as my mother attacked it with a comb. Beyond gum drama, the trip’s one true milestone was when my twin and I discovered the joys of Greek music television. MAD TV’s music video block – our entertainment option of choice when left alone at our grumpy uncle Yannis’ dingy apartment. While our mom went to chill with her crazy cousins, Grayson and I switched on the TV, a peephole into what we imagined to be the adult world; every apartment‐bound Athens afternoon that August, writhing pop stars and foul-mouthed emcees were our babysitters.
Being saucer-eyed fourth-graders with no conception of “genre”, per se, we gobbled indiscriminately. Gwen Stefani, Garbage, Good Charlotte, Gorillaz – all bled together as we, titillated and a little scared, let the T.V. be our teacher. However, the crown jewel of MAD TV’s video rotations was undoubtedly Despina Vandi’s monster summer banger “Come Along Now.”
This Coca-Cola and Olympics‐sponsored track was everywhere: it clinked tinnily through every ice cream parlor, fast‐food joint and grocery store soundsystem in Athens. At night, we’d hear its lyrics thrown from countless cars as they tore past under our window: “I need this beat like the earth needs the rain / This beating tune quenches my thirst before I go insane…”
“Come Along Now” is perhaps the single cheesiest piece of Eurotrash nightmare-pop I’ve ever experienced, and that’s no small feat – I listen to a lot of garbage. This is “Barbie Girl” by Aqua’s big, brassy sister, one who insouciantly hacks up little sis’ tops with scissors to bounce around in at Da Club. If A*Teen’s “Upside Down” is Marshmallow Fluff, “Come Along Now” is marshmallow Smirnoff. This is the utter apex of corporatesponsored sonic gloss, its wailing chorus an instant earworm. It’s pop music, weaponized. What gives the track lasting power, however, is a quality rarely found in pop singles today: pure, full-blooded sincerity.
Consider the recent developments in pop music today, which has fractured into both the mainstream top 40 and more reflective, underground splinter cells. If Despina Vandi’s “Come Along Now” has a contemporary heir apparent, it might be the work of London collective PC MUSIC, a constellation of self-aware bubblegum‐dispensers headed by A.G. Cook and Danny L. Harle.
Harle and Cook have gone on record with the fact that their friendship was originally founded on their fondness for comedy duo Tim and Eric, which is wholly appropriate: much as Tim & Eric bludgeon audiences with a self-aware meta-badness, PC MUSIC’s output jackhammers listeners with the same kind of dead‐eyed pastiche of pop landscapes. The Guardian describes PC as “music which sounds like Japanese tween pop of the distant future played through the JD Sports in-store radio of 2002… part intellectual response to the prevalence of marketing in popular culture, part antagonistic refreshing of the most critically ridiculed music from the past decade, and packaging it as the future.”
In short, PC MUSIC is cynicism shellacked with strawberry LipSmackers. It is this that separates Vandi from these PC offerings, despite how easily they pair in a playlist: authenticity and a sweet-hearted guilelessness that seems altogether missing these days, save for stabs from Carly Rae Jepsen or Charli XCX that seem artificially flavored at best.
In Vandi’s track, her moans (and I quote: “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah”, etc.) seem to spring from her joyfully – for the love of the tune itself. Phrases like “quenches my thirst” and the aforementioned gum citation connote bodily craving – she sings this song because she has to. There’s a sense of urgency here, and also a sense of compulsion – pop as infection. “No way to get out of my mind this tune,” she warns. “You ‘ll get the picture that I ‘m telling you soon / Shortly my love you ‘ll be singing my song…”
Pop music’s threats are, on the whole, sexual in nature: I’m coming for you, get ready. This song, however, is purely enthusiastic: I love this, you’ll love this, get ready. Any sexuality seems second place. (This might have been furthered by a sexuality‐free rap interlude awkwardly contributed by Phoebus, one my brother and I found at the time to be the apex of cool.) It’s a song about the beauty of dance music, a pop paean.
Guilelessness is so scarce, so valuable these days. In a Hazlitt piece on Twitter account Horse_ebooks, Alexandra Molotkow writes “we people have a basic yearning for the guileless genius, or the guilelessly ingenious: the outsider artists who do their work in a vacuum, and so create something truly original…the accidentally hilarious spambot. We expect to be deceived, so we dream of a spectacle that doesn’t deceive us, as well as proof of innocence in the world.”
While Coca-Cola- and Olympics-sponsored Vandi might not qualify as an “outsider artist” there might be a groupthink cluelessness found in the room full of ad exec suits fumbling to sell sugar water to teens: what on earth do the kids love nowadays? The key word is love: our reliance on irony and cynicism as a culture today has all but killed this impulse towards innocent adoration. You could find this kind of youth-culture puppy-love all over the place in decades prior (or at least our collective conceptions of the American past): think sock-hops, think Beatlemania, think Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes’ lush wail: “Be my baby now.” Today’s sarcastic, hashtaggy anhedonia leaves no room for this kind of beating heart.
The 2004 summer we learned about our music tastes, my brother and I learned about sarcasm from Disney Channel reruns full of snarky teens in hoodies. We’d quote incessantly, practicing the right kind of vocal inflection without truly understanding the point. We were as pure as “Come Along Now”, hardly understanding Vandi couldn’t hold a coolness-candle to tracks like “Feel Good Inc.” and “Blue Orchid.” Nonetheless, we omnivorously rocked out to it all, the concept of a guilty pleasure as distant as adulthood, letting the adrenaline of Despina’s joy infect us as Phoebus instructed: “Join the party zone / And move your feet right to the beat / Like dancing all alone.”