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Steinhoff, welcome to Switched-On Pop, I'm songwriter Charlie Harding, and I'm musicologist Nate Sloan. We have some very exciting news to share and people will be moving Switched-On Hip-Hop from Vox Dotcom to its sibling publication New York Mag's Vulture, which is known for its amazing culture and especially music coverage. Yeah, this is like thrilling. I've been reading Vulture every single day for, I don't know, five years now. So it's pretty cool to finally be a part of this magazine that I'm so familiar with.
Yeah. And for those of you who are new listening coming from Vulture, thank you for joining us. We're really excited to have you be a part of this conversation, diving deep into the world of how popular music works and why it matters.
And for those of you who've been listening for a long time, just know you're going to have the same show, the same hosts. We're going to keep having great conversations with artists, songwriters and producers. And you'll also be hearing voices from many of our colleagues at Vulture, some of whom have actually been on the show in the past, like Megan, the Stallion and Khateeb switch jump up and Vulture is a dream CoLab.
And to mark this occasion, I think the best thing that we could do is to get right into the music and talk about what is arguably the biggest song of the last three years, potentially in some ways, all time. Well, the weekend's blinding lights.
Tonight, big claims here, Charlie. Let's dig in.
So the weekend is performing very soon at the Super Bowl after a decade long career, proving that his vision of this nightmarish dark RMV sound is the sound of pop.
And what we want to do today is understand this song, Blinding Lights. It is truly breaking records. What makes it work? How did it get here and what is its legacy?
Let's just get right into the song.
Let's take a listen to the chorus. Get our first impression.
I've been hearing this track so much over the last few years, but we have some we've been shirking our responsibility, not analyzing this massive hit, and I'm excited to actually really dig deep into what are the musical properties that had made this song get stuck in our heads for years now.
You're absolutely right. This is long overdue.
And in the time that we have put off, lots of other folks have thought really deeply about this track. And I want to start with an insight from one of our new colleagues at Vulture.
Hi, this is Chris wreckage from Vulture. I think the appeal of the weekend's wedding alights is twofold. Firstly, it's a catchy song about longing for human touch, which is a feeling that we can all relate through during quarantine when we're all physically separated out of necessity for public health. But it also speaks to the deep and subtle 80s nostalgia of an era where intellectual property is like the Karate Kid of Dune and Human. And she wrote her all of a sudden, back in fashion and music, relatability and familiarity are the key ingredients in the recipe for a hit record.
So an illuminating breakdown from Creg here. It's like two things go into the song success. This nostalgia for the 80s sonic palette that we're hearing in the tune. That familiarity. Yeah.
And then these lyrics that, you know, I guess unintentionally because this song came out before covid began.
Right, right. Yeah. It actually debuted back in November of twenty nineteen in a Mercedes commercial in which there are some fast cars driving around, which will come up later actually as in the entire imagery and rollout of this song. But yeah, it's been around for a minute.
I mean so that's like almost Nostradamus, like the way it predicted our current locked down state with these lyrics about longing for touch. So yeah, OK, interesting familiarity and relevance for Craig is like two of the benchmarks of the song's success.
So let's dig into those ingredients of this recipe. Let's look at relatability.
You mentioned how these lyrics seem to precede what is going to happen with the world. And they are words that have really resonated with people. They've provided a canvas in which we can paint our own experience.
This is Andre from Dallas, Texas. I think we can relate a lot of the lyrics in blinding lights to what we are currently living through, just pandemic and mobilise. If you look at the lyrics in the first verse, I've been trying to call, I'm going through withdrawals. You don't even have to do much. You can turn me on with just a touch. I feel like these are things that we are all feeling during and in a covid world.
I'm going to just. You don't even have to much you can tell me on just a. During the bridge, I look around and since it is cold and empty, a lot of us are still quarantining and social distancing. So the cities that we're living in are cold and empty. I love that.
It's uncanny. I mean, when they were writing the song, the weekend probably was coming up with this imaginative image of, you know, the busiest city, Sin City, Las Vegas being empty.
And that was kind of this fantastical idea. And now it's a reality. How just how bizarre.
Right? This metaphor of blinding lights can mean so many things in the world of the song. There are city lights. There is perhaps the metaphor of paparazzi cameras. Right, right. Right. Dealing with his struggles with fame.
But there's also a relationship here and perhaps stories of relationship. Well, hoping the person will come back.
This is a song where there is as much sadness as there is potential for that hopefulness that the bright lights.
But they're also blinding us. And I think that that that paradox is something that we can see ourselves in, but it's something we can also hear. The song is built upon this musical bed, which is equally dark as it is hopeful. Is this repeating chord loop where the first half are these minor chords and F minor and then a C minor.
But then it kind of brightens up into these major cause, you flat major in a B flat major. And it repeats again and again, so we feel all of those feelings that are this great canvas in which we can paint our own experience, right.
So in the background, the song is like constantly oscillating from dark, minor to bright major and back and forth and back and forth. Yeah, exactly.
And I think while that's not a novel way of writing a chord progression, it's one where the chords really sort of match the mood where strangely, this is a very dark song for a lot of us.
We hear it as like an upbeat pop of a track. It's dark, but it's fun. Yeah, you do some angsty dancing to this, I think. Yeah, totally.
It feels familiar. As Craig said, this is part of what makes it feel comforting. I think one way that it's actually familiar is also just in the title, the main hook of the song.
And strangely, it took me more than a year to realize this. The song Blinding Lights doesn't actually use the words blinding lights in the lyrics at all.
No, no, no. Every chorus he sings, I'm blinded by the lights not.
Right. That's right. He does, but he doesn't say blinding lights. OK, I see. I see what you mean. I see what you mean. Huh? That is curious now that you mention it. What's that about?
I think it's kind of obvious. Blinded by the Light is a very famous song, first written by Bruce Springsteen.
She was right by God. Another night covered by Mega Man's Earth band, the lights go back into the night by the lights.
And frankly, it's one where it's like maybe not calling it blinded by the light helps it work better in search engines, like it's easier to find blinding lights.
You're not going to get it confused. So it has its own identity. Yeah, but using that title that we know makes it familiar in this way where it's like, you know, you know it, but you can't point to it because the sort of sonic characteristics of the song are so different than the Bruce Springsteen or man's version.
Yeah. Yeah, I'm, I see what you're I'm picking up what you're putting down here. It's like, well, wait a minute, let's not call it this to have the exact same title as this other song. Let's mix it up. Blinding lights. Right. Yeah. OK, right.
And it does it by putting it into this other category of sound and this other genre, frankly. Right. And that was the other side of Craig's comment. Right. It has to be relatable, which is the lyrical component, just perfectly hitting this moment. And it also has to be familiar hits like Stranger Things in a Pop Song.
And for a lot of listeners, these sounds of the 80s are what makes this song work so well.
Hi, my name is Naksa. I'm a listener from Cork City in Ireland. The beach at the beginning kind of sounds like a maniac by Michael Zambello.
And I think you guys have talked before about the ages kind of coming back into the sound of pop. And I think the blinding lights is definitely part of that trend and it might explain part of why it's having such a long run. She. Whoa, Cork City represent. She nailed it. Yeah, I never connected this blinding lights to the Flashdance vibes I was subconsciously getting every time I listened.
Yeah. Why do those sound so familiar? Part of it is the the drumbeat maybe. Yeah, definitely the blinding lights version here.
That takes a very similar drumbeat. Is it a hundred and seventy one beats per minute is moving right along.
Yeah. And I think that the speed of the song is part of what may be temper's the dark minor ness of it makes it feel really fun. Yeah.
Wait, give me that weekend drumbeat for a second. You know what, I notice it's fast. Yeah, but it's also very simple, very simple, it's like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.
It's very straight ahead. It's not very syncopated. It sounds kind of old, I think, in part because most of the drumbeats we're used to today are so complex, thanks to the skittering rattling high hats that we are familiar with and trap music. Right. Maybe the most contemporary kind of drum sound, which are so syncopated and sort of rhythmically adventurous. This beat, by contrast, just is like, I'm not going to do anything fancy. I'm just going to chug along and just you're going to get swept up in it to chat, to chat, to chat.
This might not be a fancy drumbeat, but for Ben, host of the podcast, The Skip Button, the drumbeat is the undergirding that gives the song all of its propulsive energy.
It doesn't really let up except for maybe one time in the chorus and then at the very end where you kind of get a sense of how sad the song actually is. But until then, it's just thumping away and it's such a basic pattern. But around it, you get to have these synth lines and these arpeggios that all syncopate around it. But the thing that makes it so danceable and the thing that makes you want to hit the replay button is the fact that that drum line to do to to never lets up.
I love that.
It almost sounds like you're back in the 80s and someone just like brought one of the first drum machines into the studio and they're like, check this thing out.
Like go like, oh, well, that's so cool. Just keep it going and let's do all this stuff.
It's like it has that 80s spirit of creativity and newness and absolutely also rudimentary. I love it. I love it.
It's a sound that was wildly popular in the 80s. There are so many songs that use this style beat as its rhythm section. And I think a song where we're getting that same kind of cognitive resonance time machine quality back to the 1980s is AHA's take on me.
There's a beat right here. We also got a synthesizer, kind of what Ben was saying. It dances all around the beat. All of a sudden, it becomes way more interesting, like you can dress up that drumbeat in so many different ways. Yeah, I don't think I realized until now what an 80s formula that is like.
Get that drumbeat going and then, like, drop some synths on top and you'll probably have a hit. And it's a sound that many listeners enjoy. Hi, I'm Holly.
My favorite musical moment in the song is in the introduction of the song where there is a quiet sense that prepares you for the larger sense that transcends you into this bigger picture of the song. And it goes like ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. Then it pauses, then it goes into this like drum beat that goes like. Jeff, Jack, Jack. It has a pretty haunting beginning sound, but then it transforms into this danceable, upbeat song like Blinding Lights.
Wait, I want to be able to purchase a version of the song where Holly just sings every single part. So the idea is going to put that stuff into the world and see what she does it.
That is truly joyous and part of the connection to the 80s. That's fast through synthesizers, I think. Is that joy. It is the the comforting nostalgia. And I think that the weekend is really smart. Here he is working with material that he has mined before.
You know, if we go back to a song like Can't Feel My Face, which we broke down all the way back on episode 20, back in twenty fifteen, I know she'll be the death of me and Liz will always make the best of me.
The worst is yet to come. That song likewise really feels like it's sort of pulling on a, you know, Michael Jackson sort of aesthetic.
And part of what he does that I think is so brilliant is taking those elements that, yeah, you're like, I know exactly what that is, but I can't quite place it.
Like, it's not quite ahar. It's not quite like a maniac. It's its own thing, but it's all of those combined.
Right, that's interesting, too, because he's also working with one of the same collaborators from I Can't Feel My Face, the kind of dean of modern songwriting, Max Martin.
Right. The guy who's composed hits from everyone from Britney Spears to Taylor Swift and has kind of this magic touch for modern pop. Right.
And he's kind of elusive in that he's able to very easily slip between styles. The only way that I know that I'm hearing a Max Martin production and songwriting is that just like everything clicks, but other than that, he's a chameleon. And when we listen to blinding lights, it's very clear that he's choosing, along with the weekend and the other collaborators here.
Very deliberate points of reference in the 1980s, but still making the song sound entirely contemporary.
One of the ways that we can hear that contemporary quality is the underlying base because it's doing something we wouldn't have heard in the 1980s, something which is thoroughly of the 2010s. And what are we in now that 2020 is a company, 20, 20, rather 21?
Pretty sure, yeah. It's that eight style baseline.
Yeah, that synthesized bass that's so low, it's so deep, it's almost subterranean, it's like it's a very modern sound because it's almost at the edge of audibility and it's like, yeah, as much felt as it is heard.
Absolutely. It's like you perceive the pitch, but you also just kind of like feel this like deep vibration in your gut.
And that is the like the kind of hallmark sound of a lot of modern bass production that it drum that just like kind of cuts you to the quick and like literally makes your whole body vibrate. That's what we've got going on here. Yeah, absolutely.
It's the connective tissue across Billboard Hot 100. If you listen to songs across genre, you hear that Ayoade bass sound.
I mean, let's just check it out really quickly. What's it like, hot 100? So we have like thirty four plus thirty five remix, Ariana Grande, Danger Cat. I don't want to give you a human can you give. Because there's that subterranean, you know, maybe another frequent Max Martin collaborator. Actually, that's true, but she's not alone. Let's see what else we have. Ager's bang. The song is called Bang. It's got to have a deep bass better.
So I got an apartment across from the property. There it is.
And now we're in like a very different style than Ariana Grande Days R and B, we're in some I don't know what we call this post rock polka or something, but still there's that deep, sludgy subterranean bass once again. Yeah.
Yeah, right. And of course, this sound can be heard most prominently in the world of hip hop and Trappe, which pioneered the deep A2A bass. Let's see. We could take on the hot 100 right now, little babies on me and I'm sure it's got an anyway, let's see if we can get a neuro damage.
There's that deep Ayoade and hey, the weekend Max Martin threat the songwriting team smart enough to realize you can even use this sound to make an 80s kind of production sound totally modern.
Is that NATO technically? That's an interesting question, right? Yeah, I mean, I think we've talked about it briefly, but basically the way it is, they need a drum machine. It's known for its very deep bass sound. Producers figured out that they could tich that bass sound really, really, really low. And it actually becomes a bass sound, not a bass drum, but actually like a bass instrument. Now, people use samples and synthesizers to sort of approximate that sound and to make it even more rigid harmonic.
So my guess is no. OK.
I just want to clarify that this is cool because I'm hearing this very familiar song and kind of a new way. Right. These like classic 80s elements, the pulsing drums, the screaming synthesizers, but underneath it, this very modern bass sound that gives us this familiarity. The lyrics have just enough ambiguity that they can touch on our present moment. In this surprising way, I'm starting to understand now why this song has been a hit with such longevity.
Yeah, I think those are some of the essential components that make this song a hit, though. This is kind of the uncomfortable thing is that every pop song is successful both because of its catchiness, its artistry. The thing that, you know, I think you and I are most attracted to, but also because of commerce.
And there are a lot of nonmusical factors that helped drive this song up the chart and have maybe even distracted us from the song's larger meaning. All of which we'll explore right after the break.
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But, yeah, I need to know more about this.
What's going to you know, now we're getting into the territory. That is not my expertise. So I had to call up chart whisperer Chris Melaniphy from the podcast Hit Parade, who told me that no one could really see it coming, what kind of impact this song was going to have.
I don't think it's possible for any label or any artist to foresee that a song is going to connect the way this one has the sheer longevity. It is basically breaking longevity records left, right and center.
Chris told me that Blinding Lights is the longest running song in the top five and top 10.
It's piling up new records every single week. Like by the time this is out, it will have some other record.
But what's curious is that the song actually only had a very short run at number one just four weeks back at the start of the pandemic due to the success of a viral dance right at the start of the pandemic, there were all these tick tock videos of little assemblages of friends and family who were in their bubbles together doing little Sprocket's like dances.
Do you remember these back in March and April? No, I think I missed this trend. OK, well, it was basically the moment when seemingly every millennial and boomer took over Tick-Tock because people decide, all right, they got a shelter in place at home and what are we going to do?
We're going to do tick tock challenges.
The other as a family and blinding lights has this just absurdly simple but very fun kind of running in place. Silly arm movement, dance routine that became a massive tick tock challenge.
It actually just plays along to the instrumental section at the beginning because blinding lights, strangely, doesn't start with a chorus or a hook and actually has this very long, dramatic instrumental.
Who knew perfect for composing a viral dance to blinding lights was the mass appeal consensus record, especially in a tough year where people needed comfort food that radio stations felt comfortable playing just through the winter, the spring, the summer and the fall from tick talk radio stations pick up on this song and remember, it's important to note that Billboard Hot 100 is built up of streaming as well as sales and still radio play.
Still very powerful.
Part of the songs that Chart and Blinding Lights happens to be this cross generational cross format song that has gone from pop to as far as even adult contemporary radio.
The reason it plays on adult contemporary now is that it's not going to weird out a forty five year old listener in addition to its top 40 airplay and it's R and B radio airplay. You know, it sort of country.
It kind of works everywhere.
Radio play is what takes this song from a short number one hit Viral Sensation to this multi month record breaking track where it's safe to play it alongside an AHA or Phil Collins. And being associated with these icons, I think makes it just a wide mainstream pop song that, alongside the lightheartedness of the Tock dance, has really shifted the perception of the weekend and given him, frankly, the biggest platform that he'll probably ever have.
I don't think the weekend gets the Super Bowl halftime show of blinding lights doesn't happen. Blinding lights is mass appeal. Middle American pop music, like nothing he has released before, has been right.
If you look back to the weekend's larger catalog, there is a lot of darkness in the lyrics and behind the madness. Oh, yeah. Sex.
Drugs, yeah, loneliness. It's a very noir, like a canvas that he uses. Can't Feel My Face is a song about cocaine.
Use my face. You love it. I love it.
It was a big hit, but also one which is not as safe for what can be very conservative pop radio.
Definitely not one that feels like it should be seen by families sitting around on their sofas watching the Super Bowl.
Giving him this Super Bowl is a big opportunity.
And as as Chris said, it doesn't happen without blinding light.
It probably doesn't happen if not for all of these Tick-Tock dancers that make it feel like, hey, this is our own thing. Right.
And then all the radio DJs who are like, oh, I can play this over and over and people will enjoy it. Of all ages, totally, in some ways, we can think of this as almost like the consolation for the fact that the weekend had a major snub at the Grammys because this larger work that he has with the record after hours, there are some very heavy stuff there.
And perhaps the mass appeal of blinding lights has even distracted us from the larger artistic purpose.
I think that this is one of the most expertly executed rollouts of a song and album that I've ever seen, like the weekend has been trying so hard to deliver his message.
And everybody just wants to do a fun dance on the side.
For over a year, the weekend has been appearing in this 1980s, red blazer with these sunglasses.
He's got a new look, mustache, new hairdo. It looks like he's out on the town in Las Vegas. And each time we see him, it's in an increasingly worse state.
The first video for Heartless has him out on the town. The blinding lights video continuing the same look in the same evening has him in a bender I might have got in a car crash driving those fast cars that we had seen in the Mercedes commercials, which first initiated the song. And he's looking bruised and beaten up, bloodied. It continues. He does all of these live events. He goes on the Kimmel stage, he goes to the VMAs, he goes to the AMAs.
And each of these events, he's still in that suit, each time looking progressively worse, the bandages coming off, he eventually by the end of it, the recent video for Savir Tears that comes out a full year later in January of twenty twenty one, it's revealed that he is in a full new phase of really sort of botched plastic surgery, looking puffy and really not very good performing on club awards show kind of stage, maybe even a little nod to the Grammys, who he's upset with for not acknowledging his record.
It's a brilliant rollout of this image which feels like you have the washed up rock star kind of style, we can see the struggles with fame, the struggles with substance abuse, the struggles with alienation from everything.
This is like a walking Phoenix level of commitment to a bit. He is really he's really going for it.
I commend him for for that kind of commitment. That's cool.
And sounds like what you're saying is this is all pushing us to read the lyrics of Blinding Lights in a different way.
That's exactly right, because it's much more than just visual, which is cueing us to understand the true meaning of blinding lights when we spend time with the rest of the music on after hours, we realize that there is a much more challenging message to blinding lights. If we listen to the song preceding Blinding Lights, a song called Faith, we get a sense of what might really be happening.
But if I ody. Wow, I haven't heard that before. It's very chilling, I mean, especially knowing that the the weekend real name, Abel Tesfaye, has struggled with drug addiction and brought that into a lot of his music.
I mean, this is a very dark notion here. It's very solemn, you know, overdosing with someone right beside you. That's that's a heavy thought.
And he's being blinded by lights. We start to hear what those lights may be when we get towards the outro of faith.
So we hear sirens, what sounds like sirens back in the flashing car, lights blinding him arguably potentially in an ambulance from overdose that he talks about. It's it's a very dark scene in this album, right about the midpoint of this album before we launch into the Major Pops mess, which is blinding lights. And it takes on a really different feeling. Now it starts truly dark. This part that we danced to feels cinematic and angsty in the pulse of the song feels like Get Me to safety in the first line of a song I'm trying to call.
I've been trying to call.
He's reaching out for help. Yeah. So now all of a sudden, these blinding lights, maybe not paparazzi. You don't think. You don't think fame. You think ambulance. You think overdose. You think drunk driving. Maybe you think addiction. Yeah, it's very dark. It's very heavy. I don't want to do a tic tac dance to this song anyway.
This is a metaphor that continues throughout the rest of his album after hours, which is worthless. And I think it's his strongest work by far. The metaphors of blinding lights occurs in the song in your eyes.
You always try to hide the pain. You always want to say. The final song on the record is called Until I Bleed Out, in which she says, I can't move, I'm so paralyzed I can't even explain why I'm terrified of.
And I don't mean to imply that this is a literal experience by any means, but I think he's taking his personal struggles and building a very compelling arc throughout the entirety of this work, using the challenges of his substance abuse.
I think to comment on all of those other things that we're also hearing the issues of the challenges of relationship. But underlying the record is this really heavy stuff that we've been hearing from the weekend for the last decade or so.
And, you know, that's I mean, this has been a great discussion because that gets at something that is like pretty special and magical about pop music is that you can be performing on the Super Bowl, one of the biggest stages, the song that has multiple meanings.
Some of them really kind of light and friendly and others like really dark and heavy. And it'll reach people in different ways and people will dance to it and people will cry to it and like do all these things. That is the power and the poetry of good pop. So props to the weekend.
I entirely agree with you. As much as this song is a dark, subterranean 88 base, it is also an 80s beat smash. And I think we can take the lyrics and play with them. I think we take the music and play with them.
I love that people you know, I don't think you and I are going to do it ticktock dance that this is not a likely outcome, but it's a beautiful thing that we have all made it our own.
And I think that part of its success in this long run, that seems to not be going anywhere. It's still in the charts right now as we speak.
I think it's because we've all found a way to put ourselves into the song. Switched-On Pop is produced by Nick Sloan, Bridget Armstrong, Charlie Harting, remixed, engineered and mastered by Brandon McFarland, though, this week by our friend Bill Lance, social media by bar illustrations by Iris Gottlieb. And our executive producers are Michelle Crowell and Hanna Rosin. I want to say a great thanks to all of our colleagues at Fox, especially Liz Kelly Nelson, who's been helping us for the last two years or so.
We're truly grateful for all of your support and work on the show, thanks to to Craig Jenkins, Chris Melaniphy and all the listeners who sent in voice notes about blinding lights. Jump into the conversation with us on Twitter at Switched-On pop Instagram. Same deal. There's a lot of lively stuff happening and it's really fun. And tune in next week. We have a brand new episode and it's going to be about a show that you shouldn't watch with your parents.
Bridgton, if you have a lot of fun, really excited about it. And until then, thanks for listening.