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'Take Me To Church' and the extremely earnest return of apocalypse pop

'Take Me To Church' and the extremely earnest return of apocalypse pop


Songs for the end of the year, if not the world

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If there is such a thing as seasonal music for New Year's Eve, it is apocalypse pop. Apocalypse pop is a subgenre of radio dance pop that I made up, whose lyrics and musicality invoke the end of the world, usually to rationalize dancing for a very long time or engaging in sexual activity with someone you might otherwise not. For reference, the holy trinity of apocalypse pop is "Give Me Everything" (Pitbull feat. Ne-Yo, Afrojack, and Nayer), "Till The World Ends" (Britney Spears), and "We Found Love" (Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris). All three of those songs were released in 2011 — the brief reign of apocalypse pop coincided with the rise of the EDM-crossover pop hit, back when EDM could still be said to cross over into the mainstream, rather than take up indefinite residence there.

Apocalypse pop was predated by the rise of Ke$ha and LMFAO, silly party tracks that were about having a good time at the expense of health and good taste. These songs, perhaps most literally exemplified by Katy Perry's "Last Friday Nite (T.G.I.F.)," were obviously nihilistic in their own way, but were delivered with a metal-mouthed grin. It did not take very long for the party to get weird. A minor key started creeping into the mix, with Far East Movement's "Like a G6" and its champagne-bucket-cold synth line and endless, mindless repetition of its titular lyric. "Like a G6" sounds like walking for hours through a maze of subterranean passageways in Forever 21 stiletto heels, looking for the party and never quite finding it, which is to say it sounds amazing.

Both this period and the apocalypse pop period were criticized for a perceived lack of substance, the full musical expression of a generation of apathetic libertines. But more accurately, it was the sound of pop artists and producers figuring out how to fully integrate the sound of "the clurb" into their hits, and the first instinct was to use those inhuman, too-big-to-be-real electronic melodies to channel their basest poetic feelings. Something about the dominant big-room EDM sound — 130 bpm, minor key, syncopated — suggested a kind of careening instability that obviously found some kind of resonance in the post-recession mainstream.

At the core of these songs was something earnest and vital — and yes, totally nihilistic

But more importantly, once you got past the winking and smirking of Ke$ha and Katy, at the core of these songs was something earnest and vital — and yes, totally nihilistic. When Ne-Yo wails "give me everything," it's ostensibly about sex, but it's also a call to action: dispense with all pretense and commit yourself fully to this sick beat / your marathon training / your career aspirations — not necessarily for the betterment of yourself, but because you've realized you're nothing but a bag of meat and bones that could be wiped out at any moment by some whim of the universe.

At a not-at-all raging New Year's house party in 2011, I remember somewhat obnoxiously taking over the stereo and plugging in my phone so we could listen to "Till The World Ends" when the clock struck midnight. People got up and danced, hesitantly at first, because you kind of have to dance to "Till The World Ends." Eventually we were all bouncing around the living room, counting down the seconds to 2012. There is something deeply primal about jumping up and down to a silly dance song as a new year begins, repeatedly, rhythmically utilizing our planet's gravity to reassure ourselves of its stability as we make another rotation around the Sun. It's a cliché, but like anything that invokes death, apocalypse pop necessarily invokes life as well.

After the world had collectively OD'd on endtimes (in pop at least — the apocalypse lives on in blockbuster filmmaking), the next wave of mainstream EDM hits started with Avicii's "Levels," or, more likely, Flo Rida's hijacking of "Levels" for "Good Feeling." That song's refrain, from Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold On Me," was a far cry from the "let's ruin our lives at the club tonight" vibe of 2011. Even if Avicii was using James' words as a roundabout reference to the effects of MDMA, the song was purely focused on the positive effects of that good feeling, not the perhaps less-good circumstances that may have led to the seeking out of that good feeling in the first place. Pop artists and producers soon realized they could find more universal appeal — and thus more licensing opportunities — if they accentuated the positive. Thus by 2013, we got Swedish House Mafia's "Don't You Worry Child" as well as Avicii and Aloe Blacc's "Wake Me Up," songs with a redemptive bent, built around a soulful male vocal. The apocalypse got handed back to pop-rock, in songs like Imagine Dragons' world-endingly successful "Radioactive" (87 weeks on the Hot 100, a record it still holds) and Bastille's "Pompeii."

When "Wake Me Up" first came out, I thought Avicii's EDM-folk hybrid was just about the worst collection of sounds I'd ever heard; rave-lite music for the Hollister set. But without it we wouldn't have the now-ubiquitous DJ Mike D remix of Hozier's "Take Me To Church," a song I just realized is the most viable inheritor of the apocalypse pop banner we had this year.

The last time I heard it involuntarily was last night at a nearly-empty vegetarian café near Columbus Circle. When it came on, blasting fuzzily from the boom box in the corner, the one other diner in the establishment looked up at the girl behind the counter, smiled, and said "I love this song." I've overheard versions of that exchange several times now with regard to this song, in line at the drug store or at Chop't, but this time it stuck with me. Here was this guy, eating his meatless dinner by himself on a cold winter night while reading his phone (same as me, to be honest), probably getting goosebumps when Andrew Hozier-Byrne yells "Good god, let me give you my life!" (Also same as me, to be even more honest.) I challenge and dare anyone to be cynical about that lyric. You can be sick of the song, but that moment is irony-free. It's a belated response to Ne-Yo's 2011 request, but Ne-Yo could not have predicted how serious we'd be three years later.

Dance music has always had an evangelical undercurrent

YouTube commenters seem to be less sold on the dance version ("This remix is an abomination. All of the original song's poignant emotion is lost in this remix.") but throwing that somewhat arbitrary dance beat over its towering melody is what makes it apocalypse pop, driving it eyes-closed toward an ever-more-imminent white light. Dance music has always had an evangelical undercurrent (guy behind a pulpit, hands up, ecstasy) and remixing "Take Me To Church" for the club seems only logical. Lyrically, the song, like most apocalypse pop, is about sex. But when Hozier talks about death it feels more like the big kind than the little kind. It certainly sounds like the end of the year, if not the world, but it would probably only work at tomorrow night's New Year's party if everyone actually got raptured at midnight.