I’m not a betting man, but I’m willing to wager my left hand that fewer than 1% of the people reading this have heard of Thomas D’Urfey. I hadn’t either until I googled him four minutes ago, and I still had to check the spelling twice before I typed it above. He was a songwriter and playwright who died in 1723. However, the fact that he composed the melody to the nursery rhyme Old MacDonald Had a Farm gives him quite a substantial legacy. You probably knew that melody off by heart before you encoded your earliest memory. If you hear that tune, you think of farms. If you’re visiting a farm, that tune is likely to strut through your mind’s ear like a chick-chick here or a chick-chick there. ‘Here Comes the Bride’ means “someone’s getting married”; the eleven opening notes from Chopin’s funeral march means “someone’s getting buried”. In the past hundred years – from stage musicals to broadcasting to recording to streaming – we’ve accumulated a huge stockpile of sonic landmarks. Whenever there’s a sudden windfall of cash, a chorus of ‘We’re In The Money’ isn’t far behind; the women’s liberation movement will never be untied from Aretha Franklin’s Respect; Ghost Town by The Specials is the sound of British Thatcherism and austerity as viewed from the bottom. As for the Vietnam War, the only event that has more English-language songs attached to it is Christmas.
So, speaking of major events, which song will be the standard-bearer for the Covid-19 experience? Why don’t we consult the data? On March 9th 2021, Blinding Lights by The Weeknd became the first song to spend an entire year in the Billboard Top 10. We’re now in early May and it’s still in the top 15. This sort of thing never happens by accident. To put it mildly, this song has struck a nerve, and it’s been striking it like a rotary fire-bell since the start of pandemic. You could go through these lyrics line by line and connect each one to a different facet of the lockdown experience, which is bizarre because it came out in November 2019. This is an accidental quarantine diary.
“I’ve been try’na call
I’ve been on my own for long enough
Maybe you could show me how to love,
I’m going through withdrawals,
You don’t even have to do too much,
You can turn me on with just a touch,
The Weeknd (aka Abel Tesfaye) likes to tickle the borders between love, sex and drugs, so the meaning of “withdrawals” was already ambiguous here. Little did he know that the torment felt from a lack of touch was about to become extremely relevant. This song has reigned supreme during a time when being “in the same room” as other people is spoken about with grief and longing by almost everyone, like millions of insomniacs daydreaming of a good night’s sleep. Walking into my friend’s living room and sitting on his sofa next to him isn’t a wildly ambitious goal, but I want it so badly that it can ache. A simple line like “You don’t even have to do too much” speaks volumes to this mindset. That feeling of anxiety and disconnection is so ingrained in this song that it’s even observable in the rhyme and rhythm structure. You can ignore the melody and intonation, and the flow of the words still creates a tone of hesitance, pivoting between hope (“Maybe you could show me how to love”) and pleading fear (“Maybe”).
When it comes to lockdown, hesitance is one of our core states of being. Rewiring our habits, and avoiding things that were once second nature – from the pursuit of romance to passing someone in the street – takes a surprising amount of energy. What’s more, much of this overstimulating angst is also undramatic. Nothing is quite right even if most things are “sort of ok”. ‘Blinding Lights’ injects those same stale thoughts, worries and discomforts with bottlerocket energy and drama. It doesn’t sink beneath a wave of doomed desire, it surfs on it, soars above it while howling at the moon. Whatever misery it evokes is matched and bettered by the euphoria of the zooming neon synths, cinematic swells and, of course, Abel Tesfaye’s shirt-rending ecstatic wail. It’s this mingling pain and joy that prevents it from becoming a party song, but who’s had any parties lately?
Just as ‘Respect’ was not originally written or performed by a woman, and ‘Duelling Banjos’ was not penned by an incestuous backwoods rapist, ‘Blinding Lights’ may end up representing something by accident. It had its finger on a pulse that wouldn’t start beating until four months after its release. Even the scant positive aspects of the quarantine (“Sin City’s cold and empty, no one’s around to judge me”) are addressed here. It refuses to go away because it’s still saying things that are unsaid, especially with that final bridge:
“I’m just calling back to let you know
I could never say it on the phone,
I will never let you go,
Like us, it’s looking forward the days after the storm, when lost time can be earned back and connections are finally untainted. Those days aren’t here yet, but until then, it feels like ‘Blinding Lights’ is leading us out of the dark.