What is it about Top-40 ballads these days? They used to sound musically empowering with lyrics to match—and a few of them still do. But there's a new trend of ballady songs with beats that resound "I can change the world!" but with lyrics that contrarily go "meh"—with tunes that energize but words that preach complacency. It's as if pop music is reflecting a new brand of empowerment—one that equates power not with actual autonomy to change one's life but with simple awareness of the status quo, even if it's about a very sorry state.
01. "TAKE ME HOME" by Cash Cash, featuring Bebe Rexha
I'm falling to pieces, but I need this . . . / You're my fault, my weakness, when did you turn so cold / You cut me down to the bone, now you're dancing all over my soul / I'm falling to pieces . . . but I still stay cause you're the only thing I know / So won't you take, oh, won't you take me home.
"Take Me Home" may be the most infectious beat on the airwaves right now. But every time I catch myself caught up in its climactic refrain I realize I'm bopping my head to depressing lyrics about a dead-end relationship. "Round in circles, here we go / With the highest highs, and the lowestlows." That's when radio listeners may realize they've been tricked; what they thought was a triumphant ballad is actually a downer with upbeat pretenses. Doesn't it sound like we should go out on the town to celebrate something?! No, actually "I'm falling to pieces" so just "take me home." Wah-wah.
02. "STAY THE NIGHT" by Zedd, featuring Hayley Williams
I know that we are upside down . . . / I know that we were made to break / So what? I don't mind / You kill the lights, I'll draw the blinds / Don't dull the sparkle in your eyes / Are you gonna stay the night?
At first this may sound like a girl getting what she wants, but her repeated lyrics "So what? I don't mind" soon begin to sound like she protests too much. With bummer lyrics about the tryst being "made to break" and destined to "go down in flames," the song progressively reaches its lowest point by its last refrain:
Are you gonna stay the night? (we get burned!) / Doesn't mean we're bound for life (we never learn!) / So oh oh, are you gonna stay the night?
While "Stay the Night" shares a similar female-lament quality with Zedd's other radio hit, "Clarity," this one's distinctly upbeat tune sets it apart with full complacency-ballad status.
03. "YOUNG GIRLS" by Bruno Mars
I spent all my money, bought a big old fancy car / For these bright-eyed honeys / Keep me up 'til the sun is high / I'm addicted and I don't know why . . . I get lost under these lights / I get lost in the words I say / Start believing my own lies like "Everything will be okay" . . . / All these roads steer me wrong / But I still drive them all night long, all night long.
Of course, it's not only the ladies singing of complacency in Top-40 ballads these days, as evidenced by Bruno Mars' newest radio hit. Although it can sound lame to hear Mars whining about the woes of getting with too many women, it's hard to shake the remorse in his lyrics, "Oh, I still dream of a simple life / Boy meets girl, makes her his wife / But love don't exist when you live like this / That much I know, yes I know"—especially coming from the guy whose first hit singles included the super-romantic "Marry You" (a favorite among public engagement proposals).
Still, the song ends on the same catchy refrain, "All you young wild girls / You make a mess of me / You'll be the death for me / No matter what you do / I'll always come back to you." Words of dread; tunes of fun. Add another complacency ballad to the list.
IT MAY NOT BE SURPRISING that all three of these complacency ballads among Billboard's top songs deal with settling for lukewarm relationships. It's as if empowerment is more easily reached by today's generation in every area except relationships, that sticky gray area where emotional and sexual attachments can make it harder to see clearly and act freely. But to snap out of it, just pull up an old, honest-to-goodness power ballad—whether classic like Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" or recent like Katy Perry's hit "Roar"—there are plenty more where those came from.