Some songs that carry you throughout the years, and evolve with each listen, and contain multitudes.
Lead illustration by Esme Blegvad
Hi. This is a monthly column where I'll be writing about something I've been unhealthily obsessed with. It is basically a written accompaniment to this meme. But with more music. Thanks.
Most people have numerous favourite pop songs – and so do I. There are the ones cemented when I was a stoned teenager (New Young Pony Club’s “Ice Cream”) the ones that only truly come alive when I sing karaoke at Rowans (Cher’s “Believe”), the ones specifically reserved for getting ready in the morning (Shampoo’s “Viva La Megababes”). But then there are the pop songs that are more than that. The ones that carry you throughout the years, evolve with each listen, contain multitudes, and aren't restricted to one specific scenario. For me, that song is “Into You” by Ariana Grande.
“Into You” came out during late spring of 2016, just as the air had begun to heat up and thicken. I couldn’t tell you a single thing that happened that year, because I didn’t feel very connected to my surroundings. I was reaching the end of a four year relationship that finally culminated for good in November that year, leaving me feeling directionless and distinctly lacklustre. A few months afterwards, I found myself half-asleep in an east London queer club, hanging with my best mate who had also recently come to the end of things with an ex. We were both miserable and hungover, but had decided to go out anyway, for distraction. Then just as the club was about to close, Ariana’s voice started floating out the speakers: “I’m so into you, I can barely breathe…” It had been a whole year since that song’s initial release, but it was like we’d both been shaken alive by the sound of it. For the first time in what felt like forever, beneath the purple strobes on a packed dance floor, I felt genuinely happy.
“Into You” very quickly became the soundtrack to that summer as it unravelled. That jagged, thudding bassline in the beginning became every semi-successful Tinder date unfolding over vodka jelly shots on a Tuesday. That first line, “I’m so into you, I can barely breathe…” became every dizzying, thoughtless mid-summer hook up with all the windows wide open. That breezy falsetto, which comes in around 0:38, became every hysterical Whatsapp sent to mates in the work toilets the next morning about how, wow, you’d never tried that before but, lmfaooo, how you probably won’t again. That fluorescent synth bridge, which still catches me by surprise, became all the sweet, bleary Sunday afternoons, mushed together in a miasma of grass and cans and crunched up rizlas and trying not to glance at your phone screen but feeling a lurch every time you do. Listening to “Into You” is like biting into a big, fat, ripe strawberry until cold, sugary juice dribbles down your chin. It is hunger – but more than that – it is the satisfaction that follows.
The podcast Switched On Pop recently dedicated a whole episode to unpacking the genius of “Into You”. According to its host, musicologist Nate Sloan, the song – which was written by Grande, Max Martin and his regular team of collaborators – is “deceiving our ears constantly”. He explains how the funky, syncopated bass at the beginning gradually moves up the minor scale, note by note, but because it’s so rhythmic, we think it’s more complex and surprising than it is. He describes how, when you slow it down and lean in closer, the bassline is actually a breathy male vocal that unfurls itself to mirror an orgasm. He points out how a vocal adlib at the beginning is then recreated by synth in the bridge, which makes it extra addictive and cyclical. “When I listen to this song, I picture a rococo golden mystery box,” he says. Listening back for the zillionth time, it’s hard to disagree with him.
The alchemy behind a perfect pop song is something that has been discussed at great length in other corners of the internet, too. When Max Martin gave his first exclusive interview in Swedish financial newspaper Dagens Industri, three months before the release of “Into You”, he tried to outline his thoughts on the subject, though they were vague to say the least: “You must be able to have more than one favourite part in the same composition. First out, you might like the chorus. Then, once you’ve grown a little tired of that, you should long for the bridge…” Later, he explained how the vocals are actually the most important part of the whole process. “It’s all about how the artist sings the song,” he said, “If you’ve got a verse with a lot of rhythm, you want to pair it with something that doesn’t. Longer notes. Something that might not start at the same beat. As I say this, I’m afraid it might sound like I’ve got a whole concept figured out… But it’s not like that. The most crucial thing is always how it feels.”
He’s not wrong. “Into You” is more than its perfectly calculated production. As the summer months began to cool down, so did the versions of “Into You” that wormed their way into my life. Me and that aforementioned friend made a habit of listening to the 80s remix of “Into You” as we applied makeup to our faces before a night out, and then the Stranger Things mashup of “Into You” when we returned, that same makeup having turned into weird, abstract splodges across our faces. On our 25th birthdays – which are three weeks apart – we sang screaming karaoke renditions of “Into You”, adding words and adlibs in places that aren’t there, roaring it like an emo song much to the distress of onlookers. By the time winter settled in, the song had evolved and taken on a life of its own. It wasn’t just a good Ariana Grande song that had been rinsed. It had become an emblem for something that I can’t even pinpoint properly. For someone who had felt unhappy for a long time, and then suddenly didn’t, “Into You” was – still is – a reminder of everything good, how fun life can be when you are in the mental space to embrace it, and how important your mates are to that process.
If the memes that are constantly circulating gay Twitter are anything to go by, then there’s every chance you’re as obsessed with “Into You” as I am. And then there are the numbers: the song is now certified gold in seven countries and platinum in seven others, and it has swiftly become one of Ariana Grande’s most successful and well-known creations to date. But also, perhaps you’ve got your own “Into You”. Perhaps yours is “Last Resort” by Papa Roach or – controversially – a song off Madonna’s 2000 album Music, or the theme tune to Grease?? After all, music is only ever a sum of its associations, and how those things stick with you as your life ebbs and flows.
Because like all good pop music, “Into You” contains infinite universes. For me today, it’s a song from a near-distant summer, but in years to come it will be dated, and in generations to come, a relic. And as this song flies through the space-time continuum, outliving all of us, outliving our children, passed through hurried Whatsapps and late night YouTube excursions, played at throwback club nights and through whatever technology we use to experience music in the future, memories will attach themselves to it, adding to a richness that exists already: “I’m so into you / I can barely breathe…”