March 22, 2019

Dream-like pop goes mainstream during vulnerable phase of cultural excitement cycle

An earlier post looked into the repeated appearance of dream pop music during the mellow, vulnerable phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle. I was pointing to less mainstream groups because it is most common among the indie types, but it did enjoy some crossover appeal with mainstream pop audiences as well. We'll look at some of those in this post.

The features of dream pop are a slow tempo, and multiple layers of repetitive drone-like "voices," whether human or instrumental. Harmonies (relaxing) over melodies (stimulating). The singing has an ethereal timbre. These features give it the subjective quality of being lulled into a meditative trance, and floating through an other-worldly space, where the multiple voices provide a rich array of distinct "textures" to the place, making the exotic dream-world feel palpable and relatable, akin to a lucid dream.

Anything with too much of a danceable or body-moving beat is excluded. The feel here is a passive rather than an active trance.

This sort of experience naturally appeals to audiences and artists who have crashed into the refractory period of the vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle. They are no longer on the surging invincible high of the previous manic phase, and their energy levels are drained out. They feel like sleeping late in bed, and floating alone down a lazy river, where they won't be over-stimulated by contact with crowds. The following restless, warm-up phase is like when their energy levels have recovered back to the baseline, and they finally get out of bed, do some morning exercises, and get ready for the day's activities ahead.

Working backwards from the current vulnerable phase of the late 2010s, I'm leaving aside those that only have a rich layering in the chorus but not the verse ("Water Under the Bridge" by Adele, "Starboy" by the Weeknd, "Delicate" by Taylor Swift).

To hear the full richness of all these layers, listen on a proper pair of headphones or speaker system, not earbuds or a pinhole on your laptop / phone. Close your eyes to make it easier to drift away (although it's hard to take your eyes off of some of them).

"Love Me Like You Do" by Ellie Goulding (2015):

"Never Be the Same" by Camila Cabello (2018):

From the previous vulnerable phase of the early 2000s, one that shows the strong New Age influences of this genre (who had another New Age ethereal hit during the last vulnerable phase, "Orinoco Flow" in 1988), and another that was the most commercially successful of the indie-driven dream pop / shoegaze scene. If rap had not secured a foothold in pop music by this point, I think more of the indie groups would have found totally mainstream support. As it happened, the dream pop groups of the early 2000s did fall more into the indie world.

"Only Time" by Enya (2000):

"Maps" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2003):

The late '80s saw the peak of this genre, coming from the most creative of the excitement cycles (whose beginning warm-up phase was the late '70s, climax manic phase the early '80s, and final refractory phase the late '80s). Artistic creativity peaks during periods of rising-crime and outgoing social moods, and the late '70s through the '80s were the height of the violent and property crime rates, as well as the outgoing vs. cocooning social mood. The height of the synthesizer craze only added to the other-worldly feel of '80s pop culture.

"Silent Running" by Mike + the Mechanics (1985):

"A Trick of the Night" by Bananarama (1986):

"Take My Breath Away" by Berlin (1986):

"Heart and Soul" by T'Pau (1987):

From the previous vulnerable phase of the early '70s, the earlier post already pointed out examples from the introspective side of glam rock (T. Rex) and krautrock ("cosmic" music). Here are some more mainstream examples. I'm leaving out Lou Reed's hits because they don't have rich enough layering ("Walk on the Wild Side"), or they're just not executed well ("Satellite of Love"). Lou Reed is like the Bob Dylan of glam -- it's a shame he didn't have his own Byrds to do better performances of the songs he wrote. I'm including "Space Oddity" because it charted several years after its initial release in late 1969. "Rocket Man" is another example from Elton John, but "Tiny Dancer" has tons more layering once it gets going.

"Tiny Dancer" by Elton John (1971):

"Space Oddity" by David Bowie (1973):

And from the first vulnerable phase of the Billboard charts era, the late '50s are filled with doo-wop songs that sound eerily similar to dream pop, only with fewer instrumental voices and a larger human choir that supplies the humming and oooh-ing and awww-ing drone lines. Some doo-wop was up-tempo, danceable, and cheerful, but that came after, during the restless warm-up phase of the early '60s, when energy levels were back to baseline. When they were still down in the refractory period of the late '50s, doo-wop was more moody, down-tempo, and ethereal. Outer space is a common theme with dream pop, but here we find an example of floating through a different unusual space -- below, rather than above, under the sea.

This period shows again how corrosive the introduction of rap has been on the evolution of pop music. During the current and the early 2000s vulnerable phases, black music that is moody, introspective, etc., just gets expressed as emo-rap, devoid of singing or instrumentation. Before rap, black music that was down-tempo and moody found a far richer expression in doo-wop.

"I Only Have Eyes for You" by the Flamingos (1959):

"Sea of Love" by Phil Phillips (1959):


  1. What do you think of the recent sort of not sure if its appropriate to call it psychedelic? Stuff by Mac DeMarco, Tame Impala, Ariel Pink and others.

  2. Eater's debut album contains four covers, two of them from the Velvet Underground. The only cover there I don't prefer to its original is their take on Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen", because they were too young for it.

    There's a band called Astronoid that started out playing black metal before shifting toward dream pop, while still keeping the tempo of their earlier style. It's a combination I think works better than actual black metal (generally unlistenable unless it's an instrumental) or the relatively cheesy power metal of a band like Dragonforce.

  3. "I Only Have Eyes For You" is my favorite 50s song. I like all the subtle spooky elements of it. The song takes you to a different dimension which is especially impressive considering the limited technology at the time.

  4. I believe David Gray's "Babylon", re-issued in 2000, is an example of dream pop, or sort of like it:

  5. The "Sea of Love" song will always bring to mind the 1989 Al Pacino move "Sea of Love" and, in particular, the dinner scene with John Goodman singing and moving to this song.

  6. Interestingly, Wikipedia says that "Babylon" is part of a subgenre called 'Folktronica', which appears to become more popular during defractory, vulnerable periods - Avicii, in the mid-2000s, is one example, Ellie Goulding another.

    Does folk music become more popular during the vulnerable periods, or does the genre simply lend itself more to sadness? Bob Dylan's hits were mostly in the 60s - a period rising energy levels - yet something like Tambourine man sure sounds sad as hell.


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