Overplayed Song of the Week: Ellie Goulding, ‘Lights’

Every week, Hollywood Prospectus editor and masochistically devoted mainstream-radio listener Emily Yoshida will pick an aging Top 40 hit that she has heard enough times to render the song meaningless, and thus likely to inspire otherwise inaccessible epiphanies.

Weeks on Chart: 41
Peak: No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, August 18, 2012 , 2012
Current Radio Play Frequency No. 6 on KIIS FM’s Playlist


Remember Evanescence? You should; they were immensely popular more recently than you probably think — their last no. 1 album was in 2006; “Call Me When You’re Sober,” from that album, broke the Hot 100 Top 10. You’re not really able to laugh about how awkward you look in your sophomore high school yearbook when you’re a junior; similarly, we haven’t yet gained proper hindsight to say that the society that gave Amy Lee a bunch of money to squeeze out the most laborious vocals this side of Rick Ross (seriously, has anyone ever sounded more loath to use her voice while simultaneously bashing you over the head with it?) is so very far removed from our own.

Evanescence was a band for girls whose unrequited crush ditched them at the tabletop gaming convention at the Dubuque Radisson, and for teen moms nursing their emotional wounds after another screaming match with their baby daddy. The lyrics of a typical Evanescence single were on a level of jaw-dropping self-seriousness only matched by their label mates Creed. Their breakout hit was the rap-rock musical theater “Bring Me to Life.”

The song starts off at an emotional 11:

How can you see into my eyes like open doors
Leading you down into my core?
Where I’ve become so numb

And only gets better from there:

Bid my blood to run
Before I come undone
Save me from the nothing I’ve become

A lot of rap-rock songs are about feeling numb or losing one’s soul, which is why they resonated with teenagers so well. (At one point, “Bring Me to Life,” like many other songs in the genre, served as the theme music for a WWE live pay-per-view event, which is equally perfect.) At the turn of the millennium, hard rock filled the spot that grunge, post-grunge, and all iterations thereof had once occupied as the most popular genre that could still be called “alternative.” It appealed to people who considered themselves outsiders of some stripe or another, but of whom apparently there were enough to make album after album go platinum, or triple-platinum. It combined the earnestness of the ’90s with the Bush era’s signature lack of subtlety.

Ten years later, I think it’s pretty clear that EDM now holds the “most popular alternative genre” title, with dubstep, like rap-rock, being the subgenre whose name anyone over the age of 21 likes to spit out with as much disdain as possible. Both early-aughts hard rock and EDM are largely male-dominated genres (though EDM’s fan base tends to be more diverse). But just as Amy Lee and “Bring Me to Life” shot a dose of tortured femininity into the scene in 2003, Ellie Goulding’s “Lights,” which has been slowly but surely conquering the charts for about a year now, is the pretty, highly accessible figurehead for the electronic takeover of the airwaves.

Lyrical notes

But none of these genre parallels are all that important, when lyrically, “Lights” is clearly mining the same haunted teen-girl angst cave as its forbear, albeit with a brighter paint job. Goulding, who, like the last artist to occupy this space, started off as a more traditional singer-songwriter before hitching to an electronic star (figuratively and literally), liberally dispenses with lines ready-made for scribbling in the margins of your journal, or perhaps more appropriately, embedding on your Tumblr.

Noises, I play within my head
Touch my own skin and hope that I’m still breathing

Right there, we’ve got two well-worn standbys of the mopey girl jam: light allusions to mental illness/schizophrenia and continual doubt in one’s own existence. But where the combination of Lee’s overbearing voice and lyrics reaches a critical mass before the first chorus, Goulding manages to tiptoe on the right side of angst.

Production notes

The version of this song that plays on the radio right now is not the original, which dates all the way back to 2010 and which builds up the synthy disco glossiness far more gradually than the radio mix. But that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface — there are so many remixes of this song, you guys. There are two EPs of official remixes, and that doesn’t count all the fan-made and unofficial mixes floating around the Internet. You could probably spend an entire day listening to “Lights” remixes without any repeats. I say “probably” because I had to stop after an hour, but from what I’ve heard the strongest version is the RAC remix off the second remix EP.

Regardless of the mix, I think the biggest takeaway from this song is that despite its somewhat graveyard-girl lyrics, the upbeat, danceable trappings say a lot about what it means to make popular outsider music right now. I know I’m supposed to always compare whatever the kids are listening to these days unfavorably with what I listened to at that age (which, just to clarify, was not Evanescence, though there were definitely plenty more embarrassing things on my Winamp), but I think there is something objectively more positive and uplifting about even a wistful song like “Lights” than whatever its equivalent would have been in 2002, almost entirely due to style and production. (I guess the sonic equivalent would have been someone like Kylie Minogue, who didn’t make nearly as much of an impact in that round of her career.) I’m a big supporter of working out your angst on the dance floor, both in film and in real life, so this song gets my stamp of approval.

Filed Under: EDM, On Repeat, Pop Music, Skrillex