I entered 2020 smack-dab in the middle of a budding relationship. It was with someone I had met online through friends: a quick-witted boy with a charming, disarming smile and loud opinions. He was smart, which meant we could talk about anything and everything under the sun. He was also beautiful, which made falling in love with him all the more easy.
Our first actual meeting happened at a small bar in Cubao called Today x Future. It was a Saturday night, which meant that the place was loud and packed with revelers out to rid themselves of their stress and problems and whatnot. I can’t really remember who led who to the dance floor, but that’s where that boy (let’s call him X) and I stayed for most of that night: face to face, my hands on his waist, the two of us swaying and moving, drunk on the steady stream of classic pop and dance tracks supplied by the DJ.
By the time that night came to a close, we shared our first kiss.
This was followed a couple of days later by a date at UP Fair: we bought isaw and other street food, we listened to live music, we rode a ferris wheel. By the time we decided to call it a night, I knew — we both knew — that we were in love.
That relationship went on for the greater part of that year. It was beautiful, highlighted by late night conversations and Spotify link exchanges and laughter and virtual cooking dates. But it was also imperfect, with the relationship punctuated by arguments and stretches of silence.
When the time came for that relationship to end, I found myself reduced to a tear-stained mess — wrecked by the realization that we did not get the outcome the two of us had envisioned for each other.
And so I turned to the one thing that, by then, had become a constant fixture in our relationship: pop music. Specifically, pop music made by women.
A peek at my Spotify playlists from that period would reveal tracks from the likes of Taylor Swift, Janelle Monae, FKA Twigs, Carly Rae Jepsen, Jewel, Alanis Morissette, and Robyn — all of which were about heartache, anger, longing, yearning, and yes, acceptance.
Suffice it to say that I owe at least part of my ongoing recovery from that heartbreak to my pop queens. After all, not only did their music serve as an anchor that helped tie me down to reality, but they also gave me enough space to fantasize and dream about my many what-ifs.
That moment, I think, made me see pop music for what it was: a formidable force that can help people navigate and make sense of their emotions and experiences.
Unfortunately, however, the truth is that not everyone looks at pop music the same way that I do.
Pop has always been considered by many to be music’s weakest link, with criticism regarding the genre’s seriousness, production, and authenticity being par for the course for any pop artist. The situation, unfortunately, is even worse for women.
According to NPR’s Marissa Lorusso, many of today’s Best-Of lists, charts, and awards shows still heavily favor men, never mind the fact that it is often women who consistently drive music towards a more progressive and innovative state.
Not only that, but women are also far more intuitive when it comes to their writing, with artists such as Robyn, Alanis Morissette, Taylor Swift, and Carly Rae Jepsen, even possessing the ability to capture, distill and broadcast their emotions and experiences with such intensity that they make us feel as though we are in their shoes. Case in point: Robyn’s dance floor banger “Dancing On My Own,” which has since become a staple for many a broken-hearted individual wanting to dance his or her pain away, or Alanis’ breakout hit “You Oughta Know,” which is a scathing rebuke to an unfaithful and erring lover.
According to Alwyn Mancio, one-half of the duo behind the podcast Pop Emergency, pop tracks, such as the ones previously mentioned, are appealing to listeners mainly because of their potent, confessional nature.
“They cut deep and you don’t even realize the pain in the story until the music finally fades. We love that!” Mancio says, adding that it’s this ironic blend of upbeat production and somber – if pained – lyrics, that ultimately makes songs such as “Dancing On My Own,” human.
However, not everyone appreciates this raw honesty, writer Lori Saint-Martin says, noting in her study “Confessional Politics: Women’s Sexual Self-Representations in Life Writing and Popular Media,” that this disdain essentially has its roots in misogyny, both in society in general and in literature in particular.
This misogyny, Saint-Martin writes, effectively conditioned many critics to not only shower praises on personal writing by men, but also, to undervalue pieces penned by women, never mind if they share similar themes as that of their male counterparts.
The same thing rings true in the music industry, Mancio says, noting that the powers that be often box pop stars in specific niches, barring them from singing about other things aside from their perceived desirability. Stray even an inch from these themes, Mancio says, and a pop star will likely find herself getting called “tactless, ” or “angry,” or “out of line.”
Alanis, for instance, was initially derided by critics for her near-autobiographical lyrics and her unabashed vulnerability, with writers such as Rolling Stone’s David Wild and AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine even comparing her live sets to “group therapy” and describing her lyrics as mere “bitter diary entries,” respectively.
The same thing happened to Beyoncé during the start of the “Lemonade” era back in 2016. The album, considered by many to be the superstar’s magnum opus, was a distillation of pure love and pain and joy and racial justice. To Piers Morgan and several other (White, male) critics, however, it was nothing more than Beyoncé simply being an Angry Black Woman. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Pop music, despite being the running gag in many a musical discourse, is special in that it can easily connect with its listeners, effectively offering them a space in which they can fully understand their circumstances as well as how to rise above them. I mean, I should know — I’ve been there before.
I kept several pop tracks in heavy rotation during the months that followed my breakup, the most notable being Taylor Swift’s “Death By A Thousand Cuts,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Party For One,” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird.”
These tracks, as I have eventually come to find out, proved extremely helpful when it came to dealing with my situation — at least on a subconscious level.
For instance, the haunting and melancholic “Death By A Thousand Cuts” was every bit an emotional uppercut, its lyrics about lost love essentially providing for me the perfect avenue for catharsis.
“Party For One,” on the other hand, with its lines about self love – I’ll just dance for myself, Carly sings in the chorus — was the defiant, upbeat, and exultant bop I needed to hear after crying my eyes out.
Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird,” meanwhile, felt like a warm embrace, with vocalist and songwriter Christine McVie’s lyrics reminding me of the one thing I wished for my ex-boyfriend to have when we first started dating: And I wish you all the love in the world.
Despite my pop-leaning musical taste, however, there was one song I actively avoided during all those months: Donna Lewis’ smash hit “I Love You Always Forever.”
Lest you get the wrong impression, this was not because I find the song bad. It’s just that the song is loaded with too many memories, most of which I wasn’t ready to confront at that time — including that of our first kiss.
Anyway, I finally tried listening to “I Love You Always Forever” the other day and to my surprise, it wasn’t as heart-rending as I thought it would be. Instead, it felt liberating, if a little bittersweet. Liberating, because I have finally come to terms with the fact that the feelings I have for my ex-boyfriend will, in the words of Miss Lewis, never stop, never whatever; and bittersweet, because I know that the most I can do right now is to love — or at the very least, admire — him from a distance.
These realizations, I think, can be traced back to the elements that made this song successful: its lyrics.
The song’s text, as one might note, is deceptively simple — I love you always forever / Near or far, closer together / Everywhere I will be with you / Everything I will do for you — but one would also have to be hard pressed to deny its hold over one’s emotions.
It should be obvious by now that I haven’t fully moved on from that heartbreak: there are still days when I find myself paralyzed with loneliness; and there are still days when dread and fear and sadness seem inescapable.
I’ve no worries though — at least I know my pop queens are there for me in case I ever need a safe space.
See you in pop utopia.
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