April 18, 2019

Resilience songs help audiences spring back after vulnerable phase of cultural excitement cycle

As people transition from the vulnerable phase of the 15-year excitement cycle, when their energy levels have collapsed into a refractory state, and into the restless, warm-up phase, when those levels are restored to a baseline state, they need some motivation to pull themselves out of their emo funk and get back into the swing of things. Before they can transition into the next manic phase, they must first get over their sense that social stimulation is too painful to bear.

When pop culture responds to this transition of phases, it does not have to comment on it directly. Music simply becomes less emo, without drawing attention to that change on a meta-level. But there are a handful of songs that hit more directly on the themes of overcoming adversity, toughing out a painful situation until you feel better, and not letting antagonistic forces keep you down. They're not going to let you wallow any longer -- it's time to start feeling normal again.

Reinforcing these lyrical themes, the music itself is uplifting and moving, although not uniformly so, as it might be during the manic phase. It also has a melancholy passage or overall tinge to it, as a reminder of what a downer their recent emotional state has been. But it isn't uniformly moody either -- it tends to contrast a vulnerable verse with a more confident, even defiant chorus.

The following survey is from songs that made the year-end Billboard Hot 100 charts.

The first warm-up phase of the modern era, the first half of the 1960s, does not have too many explicit examples. Back then, almost all songs were strictly about dating, romance, marriage, etc. They did not comment on more general themes. Still, within this domain of romantic songs, there were some about looking forward to finally finding someone after a spell of loneliness ("Blue Moon" and "Where the Boys Are"), lovers persisting through a temporary separation ("Sealed with a Kiss"), and toughing out whatever adversity comes their way ("Stand by Me").

These songs counteract the emo tendencies of the late '50s.

"Blue Moon" has an interesting history, since its first recording was in the early '30s, then again in the late '40s, and the one we know best from the early '60s. These five-year periods are all 15 years apart, suggesting that they were in fact the same phase of the cycle.

At any rate, here is the exception from this period, a hit song that addressed the general theme of persisting through tough or painful situations, because somehow (here, by God) they'll get better. Pop songs were allowed to not be about romance, as long as they were narrative or allusions to history, religion, etc.

"Wings of a Dove" by Ferlin Husky (1961):

The next warm-up phase, during the late '70s, was counteracting the emo state of the early '70s. "Stayin' Alive" is not a relevant example here, since it's about getting through everyday obstacles, rather than transitioning from one enduring phase into another. "Good Times" is more to the point, emphasizing that emotional states are changing from the recent past.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" is probably the greatest example from the period, although the themes are addressed somewhat more indirectly than in Queen's other major entry in this genre. And sure enough, during the next warm-up phase of the early '90s, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was revived on the charts thanks to being included in the soundtrack for Wayne's World. If the late '70s had not matched the early '90s in its emotional state, these songs would not have resonated so powerfully. It was released again in 2018 for the movie of the same name, but it did not do well enough to land on the year-end Hot 100 at all (only on the rock chart), since general audiences today are in the vulnerable phase and want to wallow there, not be shaken out of it and act defiantly.

Here are the most direct examples from the late '70s.

"We Are the Champions" by Queen (1977):

"Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" by McFadden & Whitehead (1979):

During the next warm-up phase of the early '90s, they had listened to one too many soft rock and power ballad songs from the emo late '80s. "Something to Believe In" by Poison dwells a little too heavily on the downer side of things, but it is still looking for a way to be pulled up out of that state. "Tears in Heaven" is also a real downer, but rather than wallow, it emphasizes needing to be strong enough to get through a terrible event.

Of the entire Billboard history, the song that most directly tackles these themes is "Hold On," which I can easily see coming back into style in the next few years, now that Me Too is winding down and women will want to hear music that grabs them by the shoulders and tells them to just snap out of it already. "Under the Bridge" is the most personal and intimate of those surveyed here. A lot of wild, heavy shit had happened during the outgoing, rising-crime period of the early '60s through the early '90s, and there was a lot to reflect on from one's own life, not just historical or literary figures.

"Hold On" by Wilson Phillips (1990):

"Under the Bridge" by Red Hot Chili Peppers (1991):

The most recent warm-up phase was the late 2000s, counteracting the emo phase of the early 2000s. Perhaps the most annoying song ever written, and shockingly the #1 song for the entire year of 2006, is "Bad Day" by Daniel Powter. There's a throwaway line about singing a sad song "just to turn it around," but overall the tone is wallowing in how crappy your day has been, not springing back from it. And anyway, how would singing a sad song turn it around -- shouldn't you be trying to sing something more uplifting? Just another aspect of how terrible that song is. As it turns out, though, it was written and recorded in the emo early 2000s, and its hit status in 2006 was part of the continuation of the emo mood into the late 2000s.

Remember, during the warm-up phase, there's a mix of the two sentiments, a downer and an upper, since energy levels are just at a normal baseline. They can be low-energy or high-energy, but not uniformly one or the other, as in a refractory collapse or manic spike.

The three major examples are all from artists who had contributed to the mellow, emo mood of the early 2000s, and their songs from the late 2000s represent the broader shift in themes and tone. After moping about absent boyfriends, Avril Lavigne released a more uplifting "Keep Holding on".

The John Mayer song followed the winding down of the various political moral panics from the first half of the 2000s, and shows that these songs don't have to be about definitively having reached a better state yet, but at least trusting that they will improve sooner rather than later, and no longer dwelling constantly on how screwed up the world is.

I expect that to find a new life in the early 2020s, after the Republican likely wins again in 2020. Just like how the activism of the early 2000s died off in the later half, all this bullshit about "Trump = Nazi / Putin," "This Is Not Normal," etc. is going to melt away. Not for political reasons of things improving -- the GOP won again in 2004, and likely will in 2020 -- but for emotional reasons. You can only stay in the vulnerable emo phase for around five years, and this is the last of those years for the current phase.

The My Chemical Romance song could not be more of a shift from their earlier downer material, which like the rest of early 2000s emo, was mopey or impotently aggro. The mood in this one is more uplifting, confident, and determined to persist. If "Under the Bridge" was the "Bohemian Rhapsody" of the early '90s, in the late 2000s it was "Welcome to the Black Parade". I expect one of the current downer bands to shift tone in the same way during the early 2020s, but have no idea who it will be -- just as no one predicted such a major change coming from the most stereotypically emo band of the early 2000s.

"Waiting on the World to Change" by John Mayer (2006):

"Welcome to the Black Parade" by My Chemical Romance (2006):


  1. The music videos show tentative social interaction. For instance, in "Under the Bridge", Anthony Kiedis walks down a street and tries to start a conversation with a Hispanic-looking man - who looks startled and somewhat wary in his reaction. The way Kiedis walks is more overly determined and intentional, making it somewhat awkward - like he's just going to jump into the cold water no matter what.

    "Waiting for the World to Change" has the same vibe - awkwardly venturing onto the street to meet people.

    "Bad Day" was actually the most popular song of 2006 - but it was only one song, and was popular during the beginning of that year - studying the top 10 gives a more comprehensive picture, and that year had "Promiscuous" and "Hips Don't Lie" as #1 hits, which were popular over the summer and fall.

    Still, it would appear that the early 2000s vulnerable period lingered on longer that we thought. "You're Beautiful" by James Blunt was #4 that year. Is that vulnerable or warmup in its vibe?

  2. Not sure what blogspot allows but is there anything you could do about the number of videos on the front page? right now there are 32 of them and it makes it difficult to load.

  3. Right, "Bad Day" #1 in '06 not '05.

    Not sure about "You're Beautiful," another top contender for most annoying song ever. And many other similar whiny songs from the late 2000s -- "I'm Yours," "How To Save a Life," "Hey There Delilah," etc.

    To me they sound like emo stuff from the early 2000s that's carrying over into the baseline phase. They're not socially avoidant, and they are trying to crank up the energy levels during the chorus at least, rather than being uniformly soft and mellow. But it still sounds emo to me.

    You could say it's a shift, though, with these kinds of guys trying to force themselves into talking to some girl, working up the courage, etc., rather than just being content to be a wallflower or angry venter. So maybe this is their way of forcing themselves to come out of their shell, a common theme during the warm-up phase.

    Others from the time sound more distinctive of the warm-up phase themes, though.

  4. Looking at the top 10 Billboard hits in 2005, Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone"(#4 on the list) is a song about resilience after a bad breakup, and has the same warmup vibe.

    Interestingly, the music video shows people jumping up and down at a concert.(not sure what the phrase for that is). People have the urge to start moving again, but don't have enough energy to move in a complex way, so they just jump up and down.

    Going along with that, is moshing more popular during the warmup phase? People want to move again, but not in a complex way.

    On the other hand, I can remember people trying to mosh at a concert I went to in the late 90s(1997) - though the impromptu mosh pits they formed were half-hearted.


  5. that's an interesting explanation - that these types of yearning songs, like the ones you listed, are more popular in the warmup stage, when guys are trying to psyche themselves up to pursue the opposite sex - by letting themselves feel the pain of desire. I can remember a James Blunt CD being played over and over again at an Office Depot as late as 2007, linking his music more to the warmup phase.

    Compare that vibe to "She Will be Loved" from 2004(vulnerable and mellow), which is more weary and resigned.


    Another yearning song from 1982, a manic period, is Jackson's Browne's "Somebody's Baby" from the Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack. I assume that's a manic song, so we can contrast it with "You're Beautiful"(warmup period) and "She Will be Loved"(vulnerable period):



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