Some people flock to music festivals and beaches for their spring break, I stay at home and argue with my siblings. It was during one such recent argument with my brother that we veered off of the typical personal insult train and delved into actual meaningful discourse (gasp) regarding the relative merits of an original song versus its slowed-down, emotionally charged cover. Specifically, the dispute centered around Robyn’s original “Dancing On My Own” against the 2016 cover by Calum Scott. Let the cage match begin, ding ding.
Now the occurrence of the argument itself is less than remarkable—my brother and I disagree on many things, and our taste in music is more often polarized than anything else—what was interesting, however, was the main point of contention we went back and forth on, e.g. which version was more “soulful,” and therefore more authentic, more valid. Personally, I was advocating for the Robyn original. Call it inherent bias if you will, Robyn is a queen amongst mere mortal peasants in my book. My brother took the position that Scott’s cover, more haunting and mournful in its tone, resonated more with audiences and was infinitely more soulful than its source material.
Taking a step back, I could see the basis of the point he was attempting to make. Typically, slowed down cover versions of pop-style hits will come across immediately as more serious and brooding in their aesthetic. But to me, the original version of “Dancing On My Own” wasn’t made less emotional by the presence of a catchy synth-pop beat. If anything, the song’s infectious sound and languid female vocals only add to the lyrics—in my mind, they underscore the exact breed of desperation Robyn hopes to encapsulate in the single. The kind of last-ditch desperation that would lead you to follow an ex to a club, watch him or her carry on in spite of your own lingering pain, and make a drunken fool of yourself trying to get them to notice you, even for a second. In that sense, I believe the genre of the original song and its message gel wonderfully, and function as a cohesive whole that has turned the song into a golden throwback of the 2000s and a staple on anyone’s “getting over you” playlist.
Although my heated arguments with my younger brother over the legitimacy of emotion in 2010 synth-pop are riveting I’m sure, the real question here isn’t who is right and who is wrong (although it’s me, I’m right, I win) but rather why have we created a preconception that in order to be meaningful, a song must adhere to a certain sound profile? Should all songs that hope to express the acute spectrum of human emotional pain be relegated to the acoustic, lyrical back burner?
Of course the option of the tried-and-true slow song will always be a favorite, and a frequent producer of amazing music, don’t get me wrong—I mean Adele has made a career off of the keening, mournful ballad, and one night stands would never have found their national anthem had it not been for the emotional confessions of Sam Smith set to piano. The important thing to take away from all this is that slow and steady doesn’t always win the emotional race—and synth-pop can bring us to tears just as easily as a lyrical verse in a black and white music video.