A few days ago, I was sharing a workspace with a friend as I did some editing. My music was on Random as I focused on my work, when suddenly my concentration was broken by my friend’s incredulous laughter. I turned to find her staring bemusedly. After a moment I came to realize that my music had made a somewhat jarring transition from the zombie-apocalypse melodrama of Mogwai’s Les Revenants soundtrack to the bubblegum pop of “Sugar Baby Love” by The Rubettes.
“I didn’t know you were into this sort of thing”, she said.
“It’s one of my all-time favorite songs,” I responded. “It makes me happy.”
“It’s terrible! It sounds like ABBA.”
“I love ABBA, you jerk.”
Feels like the older I get, the less apologetic I am about my taste for unabashed cheese. Part of me may still hold on to the last vestiges of punk guilt from my youth, as well as that creeping desire to be at the forefront of the latest and obscurest two-bit indie rock act, but it’s quickly overpowered by my love for the craftsmanship of a perfect pop song. I’m using “pop” in the archaic sense: not a dirty word meant to describe the watered-down tepidness of Top 40 radio, but as an art form seeking to combine mass accessibility with melodic ingenuity in an attempt to capture the fleeting and the ephemeral in 2 minutes and 30 seconds of sound. Indeed, there has always been emotionless dreck on the radio– and much of it is the result of these assembly-line pop exercises– but every once in a while, a songwriter and a melody and a performer and a producer line up just right, and lightning is captured in a bottle. Or a vinyl record, as it were.
The Rubettes’ one hit, “Sugar Baby Love”, is one of these serendipitous happenings of pop. Created as part of the second wave of bubblegum music in the mid 1970s, this song is as contrived as they come. It was engineered as a surefire hit, conforming to every known trope of successful pop music: sugary, swirling strings over cascading piano arpeggios, a barrage of “bop-shoo-waddy”s and “doot-doot-doot”s, an irresistible falsetto and, perhaps most crassly of all, a spoken-word section in place of a middle 8. The entire song is sickeningly (and boisterously) sentimental, with lyrics depicting a contrite lover asking for forgiveness. It is also appropriately titled, as the arrangements and production are so sugary, it’s almost enough to give you a toothache.
And yet it’s one of my all-time favorite pieces of music because of how sickeningly sweet it is. It should be gross and off-putting, but every component is poured over and heightened to such an absurd degree that it achieves a certain type of Baroque beauty. Everything about it moves forcibly forward and upward, from the pizzicato-laden verses to the jumpy bassline; how it crescendos and bursts into its victorious hook, its sense of drama and resolution. It’s a pop tour-de-force, a celebration of hooks and melody and rapturous emotion. A showstopper.
A term that I often hear bandied about when describing a certain type of songwriting– specifically of the exuberant, celebratory and anthemic variety– is “life-affirming”. Though I understand what people mean, this never really sat well with me. As far as I’m concerned, all the music I listen to is “life-affirming” in one way or another; whether it be a stadium-rock anthem, an impossibly catchy Brill Building single, a slab of relentlessly dissonant aggression or the dourest, gloomiest funeral dirge. I am moved by music that captures and occupies an emotional space, that highlights a shade of emotion (or the confluence of several) and plants me right in the middle of it, reminding me that the human experience runs an ample gamut of highs and lows that can and should be explored and expressed in song. And that range of emotion shouldn’t be compressed down to a flat line. That’s how you get bland, soulless insipidness– the aforementioned emotionless dreck. That’s how you get Gotye.
I’m grateful that I have the ability to zigzag so easily through different shades of feeling. Music is a great tool that way. There’s a place for all of it– a place for unhinged, overdriven rock and roll, and a place for melody and composition. A place for aggression and a place for finesse. And I can’t speak for anyone else, but standing too long in the same place tends to make me antsy. I prefer to shop around.
Listen to the gorgeous ridiculousness of The Rubettes’ “Sugar Baby Love” by clicking the embedded player below: