Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Let’s brush the dust off, and see who’s up today.
Ellie Goulding is…uh, who is she? This song’s been big for forever, and I’ve never heard anything about her other than “she’s the woman that sings ‘Lights'”. A little research shows that she’s British singer-songwriter who began as a critical darling, released her debut album Lights, and has had an EP or two.
All of this was in 2010.
The fastest way I can summarize Goulding is that she’s from a Gotye-style background: an artist who was kind of a successful thing in their country, but never had enough oomph to break through to America until That One Hit came along. It’s not a perfect analogy, as Gotye is a more established artist working with a more recent album, but it’s close enough to give you an idea of who Goulding is.
Well, now that we have the “who” reasonably squared away, let’s take a look at the “what”, “Lights” itself. After opening with a synth that I’m surprised hasn’t been made into a ringtone, “Lights” blends the organic with the synthetic: that keyboard loop never leaves, and there are synths at the chorus, but those drums and bass sound awful live to me. The first verse builds off the loop, drums, and bass before sliding right into the first chorus where the synths creep in to fill things out. At some point, some acoustic guitar is able to make its way into the back of the mix.
Instrumentally, the drums are doing the most work. The beat’s always a little different, and the slight touch of hi-hat goes a long way. Overall, I’d call it a well produced song, especially the quick fake out at 2:29 that I fall for every time. But really, what makes “Lights” special is Goulding’s voice; she’s able to stay in her upper register with the slightest rasp, and sounds remarkably stead while doing it.
Also pulling in her favor is the song’s super catchy and singalongable chorus. It trades in pure danceability for a sleek groove, and the lyrics are just cool enough that it’s ok that they don’t quite make sense.
“You show the lights that stop me turn to stone/You’re shining when I’m alone” Ok, that second one is easy to get, but for the longest time, I thought the first line was “the lights they stop me, turn to stone” like they are what turned her to stone.
“‘Cause they’re calling, calling, calling me home” Do you need to phone home first? Because someone’s already taken that metaphor. Or maybe Goulding’s writing the song from an alien’s perspective, which hey, that’d be fun.
But nah, that’s not the case. “Lights” is written with just enough vague artistry that it sounds smarter than other pop songs, but at the end of the day is close enough to self-empowerment. It’s there, but a little hard to understand.
Speaking of hard to understand, I have one question about “Lights”: how is this song this popular?
I know that’s something I say a lot in Radio Rants, but this time I’m saying it without the implicit derision. And I don’t just mean that it’s made its way to the Top 20 with the movers and shakers of today’s pop music scene (and Train), it’s that it’s been there forever. As of writing this, “Lights” has the 9th longest streak of all songs currently on the Hot 100. And it’s not just on the chart, it’s been in the upper-reaches for the last few months; other acts like M83 and Of Monsters and Men have logged more chart time than you’d think, but haven’t cleared no. 60.
The weird thing is that “Lights” has pretty much escaped all of the 21st century ways of getting popular. It’s not by someone judging a reality show. There’s no 200 million plus view count viral video. It’s not by a massive pop star. It hasn’t had a gentrified Glee cover. It hasn’t bludgeoned its way up with deterministic advertising. “Call Me Maybe”, current no. 1 and one of the catchiest songs I’ve possibly ever heard, ascended to the top through sheer exposure. “Lights” doesn’t have that. What it’s got is a pretty kickass dubstep remix, but hell, even that wasn’t a big thing, and it came out a year ago.
Not that I’m complaining that it’s popular because right now, this is probably my favorite song in the current top 20. It’s a nice number that has a lot of replayability, and fits most moods. Goulding’s buoyed the song with appearances on the late night TV circuit, getting it into people’s heads, and it’s consistently good enough to stay there. “Lights” hits just enough from everybody that’s it become one hell of a slow burner, and I hope we get to hear more from Ms. Goulding. Or at the very least, less from Katy Perry.