You know cuffing season is over when the iTunes Top 10 list starts to sound like the soundtrack of your summer. At first, you were begging that special someone to “stay.” Now, you’re out on the town, persuading a new lover to join you in your Miami beach house to eat lobster and drink strawberry champagne because that’s “what [you] like.” Throw in a Kendrick Lamar song to make it look like you’ve actually considered the sociopolitical moment you find yourself living in, then throw a bone to the minorities by boosting a Spanish song to #2 with the help of the whitest Canadian to ever make it big in the U.S. music business, and you’ve got a pretty picture of today’s pop music culture. That’s just it, though. Pop Top 10 is an image made up of songs that story the people and relationships we like to think are “normal.” It makes judgements of who is worthy of love and sex—only the people to whom you can sing “I’m in love with the shape of you.” It is based on a taxonomy of love that attempts to define what it means to be human according to stories of who can be loved. It’s a categorization that implies if you can’t look the part, if your “issues” can’t be fixed by love, if you aren’t innocent/pure/clean, then you must not be human, or at least not the right kind of human. Therefore, you can’t be loved, can’t give love, can’t even successfully get through cuffing season.
Categorization is an inherent part of the way we make and listen to music. Though the genre system is a type of classification that points in many different directions, it is as much an exclusionary binary as the sexuality dichotomy. In this system, artists are asked to commit to one genre, if not for their entire career than at least for an entire album. All music that does not conform is labeled “alternative.” Alternative music thus becomes the bisexuality of genre classification—a catch-all middle ground that doesn’t quite succeed at opening up space for the non-extreme or “weird.”
Glass Animals’ “How to be a human being” is formally labeled as alternative, but also recognized for indie rock, synth pop, alternative R&B, and art pop influences. It integrates multiple styles to create something fluid and dynamic that inherently challenges traditional genre classification. Each song represents the life of a particular character so that, all together, the album functions as a portrait of the darker, desperate, drug-addled side of humanity. It, arguably, creates a fuller picture of what it means to be human. Where popular music says love and sex is simple—easily defined (Something Just Like This), in our control (Lust for Life), and only romantic or sexual—Glass Animals sings of loss, confusion, failure, mental illness, lust, love, all through relationships and experiences so rarely explored in pop music. Further, each theme has multiple dimensions that stretch across multiple songs.
In Youth, a mother, shown wearing a white shirt and brown skirt, sings to her lost child, the young boy sitting on a tricycle.
The song is slower and more whimsical than the other tracts. Synth sounds play with the lyrics and complement scenes of the boy dancing. Despite the relaxed tempo and subtle notes of bittersweet nostalgia, the music is still fairly up-beat. It’s a song that can make you just “a little bit dappy” by conjuring your own innocent childhood memories.
Bayley’s warm, almost mournful, tone and the sample of an owl crying give the impression that the mother is grieving the death of her child. However, in the music videos for Life Itself and Youth, the boy is shown to have escaped being held hostage. The ending is ambiguous enough to imply that the boy is more alive than ever, running free the way his mother wished. This lends weight to the optimism of the lines “now your life is back to front, but you’ll see that’s not for long.” The mother may be grieving the death of her child, but she may also be grieving the circumstances that have trapped her child in a lifestyle that has been holding him hostage. Either way, she conveys a sense of hope that one day he will “fly.” The love she has for him is undeniable. But it is layered in pain, grief, and desperation, making it relatable to anyone who wishes more for someone they love but have, in some shape or form, lost.
The Other Side of Paradise plays with those layers of loss. It is about the basketball player shown on the cover of the album, and the woman he left to pursue fame and success.
The man she loves is lost to “pipe dreams” of being famous, and she is lost in her own anger. Her fury is built up lyrically from the naivete expressed in the first description of herself as “young and stupid” to the bridge where her “fingers [are] in a fist like [he] might run.” It’s also musically accented in the structure of the song, which gets increasingly complex as the fractured instrumentation is reintroduced one layer at a time. Her aggression is emphasized by the animalistic grunts that make up the beat, but also more subtly highlighted in the chord progression. Unlike most pop songs which often use the same I-V-vi-IV chord progression that allows you to magically know the words and tune to sing along the first time you hear it, Glass Animals uses minor chords that build off each other in second and third intervals creating tonal tension. It takes more than a few repeats to learn where the pitch is going. Musically, the song is one of their most strange, but it nonetheless blends seamlessly into the rest of the album (which does not get any more “normal”).
The entire album is like this, musically unusual, lyrically complex, and layered in contradictions and ambiguity. The songs are fluid, sharing themes, underlying tones, and musical influences from a variety of sources. So, at first glance, it is disorienting to see it all connected under the title “How to be a human being.” The characters are more monstrous than human. They are radically different from the normal and from each other. They broadcast to the public their fear, anxiety, grief, confusion, lust, loneliness, anger, passion. In that openness, connections are made, though, “revealing that difference is arbitrary and potentially free-floating and mutable” (Cohen, 12). They also defy categorization. The characters themselves are complex and the “alternative” format in which their stories are told support their demand of a “‘system’ allowing polyphony, mixed response, and resistance to integration” (Cohen, 7). Like monsters, the characters challenge our comfortable notions of what is safe and human. They endanger the neat, clean-cut hierarchy that labeled these characters undesirable because they are unemployed, mentally ill, addicted to drugs, or slutty (Cohen 16). Yet, they force us to contemplate the emotional complexity of our own experiences. The qualities that make them different and dangerous are also what make them free. Those who deny themselves the opportunity to be fully and more human, even at the price of monstrosity, begin to desire that open freedom (Cohen 19-20). The appeal of alternative music is that it captures a gritty real-ness usually hidden in pop culture. Certainly the form the stories of these characters took was critical. It is only a monstrous form of music that can tell the stories of monsters.
Still, Glass Animals boldly claims that this is how to be human. And so the hierarchy is flipped. The monsters are made human, their stories painting a more fluid and comprehensive picture of what it means to be human. The picture these characters make isn’t pretty and fun like the perfect image curated by the iTunes Top 10 list. However, it may be a truer representation of ourselves, especially given the actual messiness of establishing relationships with other people. Though post-cuffing season you may not have originally swiped right for these characters, does that mean they are any less deserving of love and sex than the characters that inspired today’s top 10?
To be continued…
Cohen, Jeffrey. Monster Culture (Seven Theses). 1996.
4/22 iTunes Top 10
That’s What I Like —Bruno Mars
Despacito (ft. Justin Bieber)—Luis Fons & Daddy Yankee
Body Like a Back Road—Sam Hunt
There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back—Shawn Mendes
Something Just Like This—The Chainsmokers & Coldplay
Shape of You—Ed Sheehan
Stay—Zedd & Alessia Cara
Lust for Life (ft. The Weeknd)—Lana Del Rey