If popstars… ate themselves

“I love you like a love song, baby!” sings Selena Gomez on her new single. Can she DO that? What happens when pop songs turn their similes and metaphors upon themselves? Recursive occlusion! Pop, as they say, will eat itself. Let’s have a look at some prominent examples.

NEIL SEDAKA – I’M A SONG (SING ME)

Or I’m Needy (Need Me) which is the impression you’ll get listening to this. “I got a rhyme that I’ve had for some time – nobody wants to sing me!” whimpers Neil. “Could I make you smile if I came back in style?” And then, in an unusally explicit turn of phrase for the early 70s easy-listening scene: “Sing me! Sing me! Roll me around on your tongue!”

It’s all a not-very-well-disguised plea regarding his own career, which at the time wasn’t doing so well. In fact his planned comeback went so badly that he left New York City altogether and ended up in Stockport. My nan used to live in Stockport. I know it well. I can’t help but feel that Neil was travelling in the wrong direction.

By turning music upon itself does he magically capture the ineffable? No. There’s a very earnest massed choral section at the end “I! GOT! MUSIC! I! WILL! SHARE!” which’ll finish you off if you make it that far.

COMMON – I USED TO LOVE H.E.R.

“I met this girl when I was ten years old,” begins Common. No wait, it’s OK! Because this song has a twist in the very last line. If you’ve been watching the BBC’s reruns of 1976 Top of the Pops episodes you’ll have seen the Brotherhood of Man using this gimmick not just once, but making a habit out of it, with songs divulging in the final moments that they’ve actually been about a dog or a baby or a cowbell or whatever. And a similar anvil crashes down at the end of I Used To Love H.E.R., as it turns out that the fun-loving soulful girl Common fell for, who turned her back on Afrocentricity and got into guns and crack, is hip hop itself. Imagine!

By turning music upon itself does he magically capture the ineffable? It’s not bad. The sincere appeals for hip hop to be more serious are amusing in retrospect, bearing in mind that Common’s most recent album was a frenzy of commercial-sounding dance-sex jams.

LITTLE BOOTS – STUCK ON REPEAT

Queen of the extended metaphor, Little Boots casts her attraction as a track on endless loop. “My heart’s skipping and I don’t know why – I know every part,” she sighs, perfectly capturing the essence of one way in which love is like music: the immersion, the sense of losing yourself. And the stuck record she’s become has a beefy Moroder bassline bolstered by dramatic choral swoops, sounding so beautiful and exciting that it doesn’t seem like a hardship at all.

By turning music upon itself does she magically capture the ineffable? The success of any song about repetition rests on whether you actually want to repeat it or not. Which makes this one a big yes.

KELIS – ACAPELLA

Kelis’s imagery is all over the place, on the other hand. Her melody was acapella, with no beat, yes, yes, but also it apparently had no tune. How does that work? “Before you, my whole life was acapella,” she warbles in the chorus. “Now our symphony’s the only song to sing!” No, Kelis. Symphonies aren’t songs. They’re long and complicated with lots of different sections and competing themes going off everywhere. And there isn’t usually a vocal bit. Unless you’re thinking of specific exceptions, but the lyrics aren’t, say, “Before you, my whole life was acapella. Now the soprano part from the fourth movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony‘s the only song’s to sing” are they? Maybe instead of ‘symphony’ she should have gone for ‘cantata’ or ‘oratorio’ or something. Or not confused things by going on about drums, bass and guitar in the middle eight.

By turning music upon itself does she magically capture the ineffable? Yes of course she does. I’m not a fool. I’m only making fun of the lyrics in an attempt to look clever on the internet. Acapella brilliantly gets across how transcendent and symphonic love can be.

SELENA GOMEZ & THE SCENE – LOVE YoU LIKE A LOVE SONG

And here we are in the present day, with one of the best songs of the year. This season’s unmistakable wob-wob bass hypnotises us on the off beats while we’re sprinkled with a careful seasoning of strings. Owing not a little to Little Boots — the feel and theme of Stuck on Repeat, the middle eight of Remedy — Selena sings of love that’s like every record she owns, of hitting repeat, of symphonies and destiny, of lyrical miracles. Her love’s like a song, so she sings a song to her love about the song of her love, and the love and the songs all multiply and fold in on themselves.

If you’re in any doubt how recursive this all is, check the video. Selena sings along to her own song on a karaoke stage, but she’s also all the girls in the cheesy on-screen backing videos. One of the backing video Selenas looks into a screen to see Selena in the club looking back at her. There’s a whole hall-of-mirrors infinite series of Selenas on screen at one point. It’s the sort of imagery metafictional literature’s been playing with for years, but as it’s a teen pop song by Justin Bieber’s girlfriend I don’t expect anyone’s really paying attention.

By turning music upon itself does she magically capture the ineffable? “There’s no way to describe what you do to me. You just do to me what you do,” Selena points out. And if that’s not ineffable then I don’t know what is.

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