The pop song is the perfect form for those emotions that arrive and pass quickly, intertwined with the fabric of our lives; a good pop song can do in three minutes what we fail to, or don’t think to, articulate in a lifetime. A good pop song has to do three things; it has to be universal, it has to sound good, and it has to have a chorus you can sing along to. The second two are easier than the first.
Every good pop song starts somewhere, and Erasure’s masterful jewel-like acoustic-synthpop track A Little Respect starts with a plea, perhaps one of the most universal; a plea for respect, literally, and understanding, figuratively. It is the sound of one man, at his most vulnerable, opening up to an imagined lover (many pop songs are addressed to imagined lovers). It carries a strain of hope, as he asks ‘would you open your arms out to me’, and it carries a strain of sadness, as he declares ‘you’re making me work so hard‘.
The two main notes of this song are hope, and sadness. It exists at the precise point where vulnerability and fortitude collide; singer Andy Bell is clearly at a place of emotional distress, and yet despite his distress he also has the courage to look the object of his desires in the eye and say; do better, be better, I deserve more.
Thus, this is perhaps one of the most empowering pop songs ever made. It is helped by the fact that Bell is a gay man, and the song was written in the 1980’s, when fear of the HIV virus was at its height, and the virus itself remained uncured. Only 24 when he wrote it, one can assume that Bell was very conscious of the worries of the community at the time, especially as he was later diagnosed with HIV, and released music to raise funds for AIDS research.
As I type this, I’m watching Queer Eye, a hugely popular show created by one of the biggest content producers in the world, in which five gay men are the base, or ‘norm’, and the various (often straight) people they encounter are the ones who need their help, who are in some way missing something that those gay men provide. This is an obviously pointed description of the show, but thought of in those terms, it is all the more stark that we can come from a pop song founded on the premise of basic respect, to a widespread media project in which being gay is normalised.
But this isn’t simply a song about gay experiences (although those experiences perhaps lend it an urgency that might otherwise have been lacking). And it also isn’t a song told simply with words; musically, this song contains a very pleasing staccato synth-riff in an oscillating ABAB structure, underscored by a rich acoustic guitar; both of these instrument chug through the song, adding a marching quality that, musically, resembles someone getting to their feet. The deepness of the Clarke’s guitar playing is matched by the fraught falsetto of Bell’s singing, with the singing bringing the sadness and the instrumentals bringing the determination.
But it is, in the end, a pop song; it can be danced to, it can be sung along to, and if the mood is right it can be cried along to. It can be as deep or as lightweight as you want it to be, and that, for me, is the hallmark of a truly great song. Which this is.