December 18, 2019

As MeToo vulnerable phase ends, confessional songs of reckoning and reconciliation to get a new start on relationships

When the vulnerable phase of the 15-year excitement cycle comes to an end, it gives way to the restless, warm-up phase, when people are no longer in a refractory state and feel like coming out of their shells and mixing it up with other people again, particularly the opposite sex.

During the transition, there are cultural hallmarks that reflect the bridge between the two phases -- they draw upon both the old emo vulnerability as well as the new urge to move on and connect with people once more. They want closure and new beginnings.

What better way to explore these themes than to write a song about reckoning with your past relationships, and perhaps even reconciling with someone you had a falling-out with? It is a far more honest signal of being over the emo withdrawn phase if you can re-connect with someone, than to just meet someone new -- you have to swallow your pride to deal with someone you were formerly close to.

Musically, these songs reflect this theme of bridging the two social-emotional phases by drawing on aspects of both, although primarily on the vulnerable phase musical style, since there hasn't really been a new style formed for the warm-up phase when it's only the first year or so.

That means the broad sense of "dream pop" as I've been detailing over the past couple years, as characteristic of the vulnerable phase. (See here for mainstream examples, and here for indie examples.)

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.

A recent post looked at vestiges of this style lasting into the restless warm-up phase. But the current look is different -- it's not late examples of a bygone style, it's transforming it to reflect the change of phases.

While the instrumental traits are largely carried over, the vocal delivery is totally different -- soulful and energetic, not collapsing or sighing (the background vocals may be sighs, though). Concrete and forceful, not ethereal and wispy. It's belting out a raw confession, wide awake, directly addressing a target -- not drowsily droning your way through a detached stream-of-consciousness exercise to yourself. And rhythmically, there is more of a simple but forceful beat that picks up, signaling the willingness to get out of bed from under your pile of emotional security blankets, and start moving your body already.

As the current vulnerable phase ends, we can expect to get hit by a few songs like these during the early 2020s. MeToo is over, and girls are going to want to connect, and re-connect, with guys for the first time in a long while. That will require a clearing of the air, getting rid of the "all male attention is rape" bad vibes that have infected the social atmosphere since about 2015.

Before conducting the survey over time, the purest example to study is "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Sinead O'Connor from 1990, as the late '80s emo phase was giving way to the restless early '90s phase. I'll only dissect this one song, but you'll see similar things in the others as well.

It opens with droning string layers, at a mellow tempo -- so familiar to those accustomed to the emo phase, that it sets off a cascade of dream pop stereotypes we expect to be fulfilled. Then a single bare vocal -- hmmm, not the usual vocal harmonies -- that is pained in a familiar way from the emo phase, but now strangely more melodic and pointed, woken up. After nearly a minute of this somewhat familiar set-up, we're hit with an entirely new kind of beat from out of nowhere -- a simple alternation between bass and snare hits, yet it's unavoidably body-moving, not letting us wallow in our dreamy emo state any longer. At the same time, the vocal builds slowly toward a crescendo, which feels even more tense because we're not expecting any kind of rollercoaster ride during a droning dream pop song.

In the second verse, they introduce sighing background vocals to bring us back into the familiar dream pop layered sound, all while the main vocal grows more soulful and restless, unlike what we're used to. The string layers continue into a solo, along with the sighing background vocals. The final verse is like the second, only now even more tenacious and clingy, not crestfallen and resigned, and with outbursts in volume rather than a uniformly mellow level like the typical dream pop vocal. After the final refrain crescendo, there's a lengthy outro in the usual layered style. In this case, it's serving as a denouement after a climax, whereas in a vulnerable-phase dream pop song, it would've been that way consistently all along, as part of the lazy river ride experience to lull you into a slumber.

This transformation of the dream pop style, along with the new lyrical themes of reckoning with the past, coming to some kind of reconciliation, perhaps re-connecting with a former partner, or giving a strained relationship a fresh honest start, mark a decisive end of the vulnerable refractory phase of the excitement cycle, and the transition into the restless warm-up phase.

For the survey, we'll start with the most recent warm-up phase, the late 2000s, after all that mopey withdrawn emo stuff from the early 2000s. (All examples made the Billboard year-end Hot 100 charts, showing how much they resonated with audiences at the time.) The first example was technically released on album during the final year of the vulnerable phase, in 2004, but was delayed being released as a single for over 7 months, in 2005, probably because it didn't quite match the mood of 2004, and needed the start of the warm-up phase to catch on as broadly as it did. The second example came a little late into the phase -- usually they're right there at the bridge moment -- but shows the unmistakable signs of this type, from the heavy droning organ intro, to the simple body-moving beat, to the soulful raw-energy vocals.

"You're Beautiful" by James Blunt (2004)

"Bleeding Love" by Leona Lewis (2007)

From the early '90s warm-up phase, we've already covered the first example in detail. The second was a one-hit wonder, but it served its purpose at the time, moving out of the mopey and resigned phase of the emo late '80s, to a mood of making amends and turning over a new leaf.

"Nothing Compares 2 U" by Sinead O'Connor (1990)

"One More Try" by Timmy T (1990)

Coming right after a year considered one of the worst in pop music ever -- 1974, the capstone of the early '70s vulnerable schmaltzy phase -- there was suddenly a whole new take on the moody R&B genre, now more unabashedly high-energy and shedding the awkward self-consciousness of just a few years earlier. The second example rivals "Nothing Compares 2 U" for its mixture of droning moody instrumental layers from dream pop, with the soulful, urgent, hopeful vocal and simple forceful beat. Here, it's not so much a reconciliation with a specific person, but with his entire past -- and he's addressing a higher cosmic force, rather than a specific person, to deliver him into an exciting new hopeful state of being.

"Misty Blue" by Dorothy Moore (1975)

"Dream Weaver" by Gary Wright (1975)

Finally, from the early '60s warm-up phase, both examples come from a teenager who made this style her trademark. Doo-wop from the emo late '50s was moody, slow, and heavily harmonized with vocal layers. Early '60s doo-wop became more energetic and outgoing, but these newer groups (Italian, not black) did not provide the transition songs. Instead they came from the white version of moody emo music -- country -- only now with more impassioned vocals, and lyrical themes about closure and reconciliation rather than droning along in a limbo state of unhappiness.

"I'm Sorry" by Brenda Lee (1960)

"Break It To Me Gently" by Brenda Lee (1962)


  1. These are different from torch songs and the like b/c these have some kind of closure on the past -- either putting it behind you, and moving on to some definite new state, or re-connecting with an estranged partner. Or leaving this mundane world behind for a transcendent new one, a la Dream Weaver.

    The torch song could just have the singer going along in limbo, pining for someone who may or may not ever get back together with them. Maybe they're being strung along. There is not a definite sense of "what happens next" -- perhaps just pining forever, and not accepting the end of things with that person.

    The songs in this post are hopeful and somewhat optimistic, if guarded about it, because they have some goal they're working toward, not languishing in paralysis any longer.

  2. The show "Quantum Leap", which ran in the early 90s, typically had a theme of reconciliation within each episode - as the main character, played by Scott Bakula, each episode had to help someone with a personal issue(often getting them to steer their life in a new direction).

    In the words of the title narrator, 'to put right what once went wrong'.

  3. "Highway to Heaven", which ran from 1984-1989, was somewhat similar - but the difference is that in that show, the character played by Michael Landon was mostly trying to help people accept or endure a bad situation - whereas in "Quantum Leap", the emphasis was on getting people to be proactive and steer their life in a new direction.

    You can see the difference by comparing the buoyant optimism in the "Quantum Leap" title sequence, with the more subdued and sad one in "Highway to Heaven"


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