How Pop Songs Connect In A Hyper-Connected World

You used to call me on my...flip phone?

October 30, 2015

Last Saturday night at London’s Royal Academy, I watched two men attempt to play the internet like an instrument. More specifically, it was a performance called Network Ensemble, which involved taking collated network data and bringing it to life in sound. Even more specifically, it involved a lot of plugging and unplugging wires, and it sounded pretty much like the screech of when you tried to connect your dial-up modem to get on MSN Messenger or AIM in 2000. It was a cool concept, in the way it physicalized the mystical swarms of network data out there in the universe, but I couldn’t help but feel there was an emotional quality to all those connections that was missing in the performance. Something about all that data whizzing around is very human, and I wasn’t sure if the takeaway from the robotic performance was supposed to be that I was horrified by the amount of signals we’re constantly pinging into the sky, or heartened by all those connections people are able to make with one another. Either way, my mind was taken off it on the way out of gallery, when someone in the foyer—not to mention, two cars and a closing-down butcher’s I passed on the journey home—was blasting “Hotline Bling.” And it was then that I really felt the internet being brought to life.

Living in a world in which you’re constantly sending and receiving data doesn’t really sound like a cyber drone or a high-pitched whine; it sounds like having a gossip about what your ex is up to—because thanks to social media, you know all about their lives, even when they haven’t called you directly in years. “Hotline Bling” makes me feel all those bitter, FOMO feelings that come with being online too much: like seeing a new guy tagged in your ex-girlfriend’s Instagram and feeling jealous; like reading yourself into an old friend’s subtweet and freaking out, but being too proud to ask about it; like ever since I left the city you/ started wearing less and going out more. It’s the jewel in the crown of an artist who, as Slate put it, “ever since the drunk-dialing rhapsody ‘Marvin’s Room’ on Take Care, [has] claimed the laurels of the 21st-century bard of telephony.”


He might swear that goin’ online ain’t part of his day, but Drake is our most internet-conscious popstar. The man once got a tattoo of an emoji. He’s the king of the retro-futurist cover song and the co-sign and the Instagram thirst trap. He decisively shut down his Twitter beef with Meek Mill this summer by performing against a backdrop of anti-Meek memes created by fans; in Shea Serrano’s hilarious analysis of the fall-out, he explained how Drake emerged favorably because of his “profound understanding of the internet’s mechanics.” In Drake’s FADER cover story, he stated: “I know everything. I know everything that’s being said about you. I know everything that’s being said about me. I’m very in tune with this life.” If that’s not the hyper-aware speech of a digital native with a solid data roaming plan, what is?


So it’s no surprise that “Hotline Bling,” as well as feeling of-the-moment in subject matter—getting jealous when you see sexy pictures of your ex on the ‘gram—was perfectly designed to go viral. Its headline-grabbing video, comprised mostly of Drake just dancing alone, is made with the simplicity and six-second chunks of humor of a well-curated vine compilation. It’s almost as if Drake saw the sharing power of that snippet of footage of Kanye doing the robot earlier this year, and decided to recreate it as an entire music video. Legendary choreographer Tanisha Scott, who worked on “Hotline Bling,” confirmed as much in an interview with The FADER: “He told me, ‘I already know I’m going to get so many memes from this.’ He was loving every part of it. After every cut, we’ll go back and look at his playback on the monitor and talk about it, and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, they’re going to get me for that.’”

Yet, there’s another huge just-released single that, despite “Hotline Bling” clogging every newsfeed you look at, looks set to dominate it where it matters: sales. Adele’s comeback single “Hello,” from her third album 25, has already broken digital sales records and Vevo viewing records in the week since its release.


The contrast is uncanny. Not only is Adele a chart challenge to Drake, but she's also his polar opposite—and no two songs could illustrate this better than "Hello" and “Hotline Bling.” Although both songs seem to be fundamentally dealing with the decades-old, familiar pop subject matter of missed connections, Drake’s takes place in our current world, in which you can’t escape updates and rumors about your ex even as you travel the world. Meanwhile, Adele sets her scene in a pre-social media universe: one in which she’s been calling the person she’s trying to reach on their landline for years (when I call you never seem to be home) and doesn’t even know if they live in the same place or not. It’s classic for Adele, the staunchly offline superstar who revealed to i-D that she doesn’t have Facebook, saying: “No one wants to listen to a record from someone that's lost touch with reality. So I live a low-key life for my fans...I'd like to be able to stand the test of time and the speed that the world is moving.”


While Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video was designed to become a frenzy of memes, Xavier Dolan, the Cannes Jury Prize-winning filmmaker behind Adele’s “Hello” visual, told The L.A. Times this week, "I could see the GIFs [of the video] on Twitter. I'm like, 'guys, get over it. It doesn't matter.'” He seemed annoyed that his video was being seen through the prism of online culture; and in particular, irritated that people were focusing on Adele’s use of a flip phone in the video, with not a touch screen in sight. Just as Adele maintains her vintage aesthetic no matter what changes around her, Dolan is known for the retro-fantasy feel of his films; his most recent feature, Mommy, also included a flip phone. “I never like filming modern phones or cars,” Dolan continued in The L.A. Times. “They're so implanted in our lives that when you see them in movies you're reminded you're in reality...If you see an iPhone or a Toyota in a movie, they're anti-narrative, they take you out of the story.”

Dolan’s dichotomy of the “online” and “real” world feels as outdated as the technology he depicts. Those who have grown up with the internet know that the two are inseparable: a 2014 survey by Google and Vodafone discovered that teenagers “no longer distinguish between real life and the online world.” Or, as more scare-mongering headlines put it, “children can lose track of reality when spending time online.” Reality today, for most "millennials," is online. The digital world is not a different place, but a film laid over the top of our physical lives; we find, and fall out of, love on the internet.

The best music that deals with this dual reality is the music that recognizes it as just that: it reflects the emotional turmoil of being in a world where you’re constantly connected. If you add gimmicky references to technology in your art, this generation will see right through it like an Instagram filter or a brand’s awkward hashtag. Clunky moves like calling your song “Double Tap,” or your EP Netflix and Chill, or using fancy technology in a video for the sake of it, won’t connect. Like the Network Ensemble sound performance I watched, it’s a cool concept, but it misses the emotional punch that our online experiences really have.

Kelly Rowland making great use of technology in 2002 video "Dilemma" with Nelly

But pop that really deals with perils of the online age does connect, in a big way—take Drake’s petty statement that he’ll read texts from models without replying, but will let ‘em know I read it though. Been there. Take Kelela’s “The High,” a song that charts the peak of a relationship and then hints at its distracted end with the line you’re watching video instead—been there—or The Weeknd’s “The Hills” (with six weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 at the time of writing) where he tells his hook-up you look even better than the photos. Been there. The Toronto artist’s third album Beauty Behind The Madness is full of raw lyrics like this, that hint at an online existence that seeps into his “real” one: take the ballad “Tell Your Friends,” where he lets slip that a cousin tried to take a selfie at my grandma’s funeral. (You may not be famous like Abel Tesfaye, but who hasn’t had a thought cross their mind about selfie etiquette when they see people exploiting situations for likes?)

But still, Dolan and Adele’s technology-free vision is wildly successful: and that’s because, if there’s one thing the internet loves more than self-reflexive awareness, it’s pure, unadulterated nostalgia. Look at the wild success of #TBT, or Facebook’s recent instalment of the “On This Day” feature that shows you content you created years before. Nostalgia is a huge business online; like Adele’s decision to remain obscure on social media, it’s an anti-internet or pre-internet idea that is hugely popular on the internet. It’s a formula that Adele shares with a handful of other popstars, like Lana Del Rey and—in her songs and aesthetic, though not in her viral marketing prowess—Taylor Swift. The formula being: don’t change your message or your medium to reflect our changing world, but instead stick to a "timeless" sentiment (one that is, in fact, rooted in a specific pre-internet time). Allow your listener to put down their phone for four minutes while they listen to your song, and achieve the utopian zen that all people addicted to their smartphones dream of: total disconnection.

It’s an ideal, but it’s an escapist one. Adele chronicles classic, heartfelt emotions without ever locating herself in a specific time and place (which, in a GPS-monitored and NSA-stalked world, is a dream for most). But Drake has figured out how to communicate for and with a legion of fans who live their lives online in a very real way, and as yet he’s unmatched in major popstars who can do the same. “Hotline Bling” is a break-up song with a video you can’t help but screenshot, written for the generation who also can’t help but screenshot their break-up texts. He might not get the No. 1 he wanted, with Adele projected to outsell everything in the world, but Drake—to borrow a phrase from the digital world—might just have won the internet.

From The Collection:

Popping Off
How Pop Songs Connect In A Hyper-Connected World