Generally, upon the first listen of a song, the thing that sticks with us the most is the melody. If a song has an upbeat melody, something bouncy like Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” or jazzy and sultry like Mac Miller’s “My Favourite Part,” we tend to listen to it with a smile on our face, calling it our “song of the summer” or our “feel good tune.” However, when we take a second listen, sometimes what may be found are darker lyrics that directly contrast with the bright beats and drops. This is what makes the juxtaposition between painful poetry and calming or excitable melodies something worth a closer look. Here I give you three songs that are on an endless cycle of repeat in my ears for this exact contradiction.
Panic! at the Disco – “Camisado”
Starting off with a simple keyboard and lead singer Brendon Urie’s voice, the opening lines recite “The I.V. and your hospital bed, this was no accident, this was a therapeutic chain of events.” Already, we have a lot to unpack. This track was released on the band’s debut album A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, in 2005, and during this time, all of the band’s songs were written by their guitarist, Ryan Ross. Ryan has spoken out in interviews about growing up with an abusive and alcoholic father with whom he had an estranged relationship. This “therapeutic chain of events” may be watching his father turn to alcohol for therapy. Right after this stinging line, the beat kicks in, leaving us with jarring guitar chords, drums, and an electronic keyboard riff with every chorus: the glory of all punk rock lovers. On top of these layers of music we hear: “Just sit back and relax … Just sit back and relapse again.” Just dig your teeth into that play of words. Finally, leading into the bridge we hear: “You’re a regular decorated emergency, the bruise and contusions will remind me what you did when you wake” in a faded vocal with a backing of strong drum lines. Upon first listen, “Camisado” appears to be a jumpy, pop-punk anthem. However, even from the title itself we can derive a darker meaning as “Camisado,” in military terms, defines “an attack by night.”
Stromae – “Papaoutai”
Listen, putting a French song in here is not pretentious. Just because I’m a French minor doesn’t mean I chose this life. This song didn’t just hit it big in Europe, it blew up across America. The most popular single from his album Racine Carrée, Stromae wrote “Papaoutai” to depict the hardships he had experienced growing up for the majority of his life without a father. With an electronic backdrop and a single piano line following along, “Papaoutai” was met with success in clubs and amongst numerous DJ’s, being remixed several times due to its “fist-bumping” beat, specifically in its high energy chorus. However, as always, I’m here to ruin it all. The title “Papaoutai” comes from a french “slang” style of writing wherein words are combined to imitate the way native french speakers will enunciate sentences. Translated, the phrase becomes “papa où es-tu?” meaning: “father where are you?” Stromae has opened up in several interviews about the struggles of his family during the Rwandan Genocide. His father, an architect, was a Tutsi at the time and was captured and brutally murdered when Stromae was only 12. This song, sung from a childlike perspective, asks: “Ah sacré papa, dis-moi où es-tu caché?”—“where are you hiding dad?” The heartbreaking lyrics are found again in the chorus, a repeat of the simple question “where are you dad?” Stromae found himself as a lost little boy looking for a father where he no longer could find one. Towards the end of the song, over blaring electronic beats, he gives a warning of sorts telling us, and I translate: “everyone knows how to make babies, but no one knows how to make fathers.” Many children grew up fatherless due to this genocide, and Stromae writes to show that a caring and loving father is not only unique, but also irreplaceable.
The 1975 – “UGH!”
The 1975 love to play around with weird sounds and, as your “cool” uncle would call them, funky beats. “UGH!” is no exception, with its groovy guitar riffs and seemingly random, high-pitched staccato noises. However, despite this bouncy beat, (you guessed it) the lyrics tell the story of lead singer Matty Healy’s former cocaine addiction and the difficulty of “giving it up again.” Within the first verse we hear: “I know your lungs need filling since your gums have lost their feeling,” depicting the physical effects of cocaine and the desperate bodily need for relapse. This is followed by “Don’t say that you’re giving it up again.” This prefaces the rest of the song as the singer moves back and forth between delving into his addiction, and restraining from it. Formatted like a love song, upon first listen, one might believe it a ballad to a romantic interest. Matty sings, “You’re the only thing that’s going on in my mind, taking over my life a second time.” However, the haunting twist of cocaine as the subject depicts a life in tunnel vision. The singer is describing a breakdown into a relapse of consuming obsession, exclaiming: “You’re meant to be helping me.” The end of the song, however, leads listeners to wonder if this was a look into the future, and then a decision made, the song fades us out with the repeat of “I’m not giving it up, not giving it up.”
While these are only three examples, this contrast in music and lyric is apparent almost everywhere. It reflects a desire to capture attention—mainly mainstream—in order to deliver a deeper, more personal story or message. Although I did use information from interviews of the artists themselves, a lot of lyric analysis is interpretation and opinion-based. You might be reading this article and thinking that when you listened to “Uptown Funk” it was more to you than just a bouncy little song: and that’s what makes music so diverse! Next time you are listening to the radio and your friend starts dancing to an upbeat song, remember to turn down the volume and begin to dissect the darker story behind the electronic beat. Trust me, they’ll love it!