When popstars' songs showed their darker side
On the whole, pop is a fairly positive place – there are love affairs, joy, happiness, and optimism. But every coin has a flipside, and pop too can often stray into more downbeat areas: for every love there's a heartbreak, joy turns to pain, and things start looking bleak.
To mark Halloween, we look at songs and albums where pop confronts its demons, and tracks which have a darker meaning, even if they appear to be super-happy on the outside.
Canada's king of gloom isn't short of misery-pop anthems in his back catalogue, dealing with drugs, failed relationships and feeling low in many of his (amazing) songs. Hard to pick The Weeknd's finest bad trip, but Can't Feel My Face – on the surface of it a fairly upbeat song about a passionate relationship – actually being about being ravaged by coke addiction, and not minding too much, is probably up there.
Why record just one dark tune when you can record a whole album? Following up hit power-pop album Breakaway with My December was a brave move, but Kelly was undeterred. Embittered banger Never Again and wistful Sober were the first two singles, and while the album didn't match Breakway's sales, it still shifted 156,000 copies and outcharted it – My December peaked at 2 in 2007. Misery wins!
Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue
Oh, nothing to see here, just delectable pop princess Kylie Minogue getting clubbed over the head with a rock by fellow Australian Nick Cave, along with his Bad Seeds. Taken from an album entitled Murder Ballads – guess the theme, go on! – Where the Wild Roses Grow peaked at 11. Even though she spends most of the video murdered, Kylie does look very nice in it.
Lana Del Rey
When it comes to Lana, you don't have to look too far to find a bit of gloom, but perhaps it's Ultraviolence, the follow-up to the cheerily titled Born to Die, that sees Lana at her most downcast. Soaring, sweeping melodies, Lana's trademark sweet growling, doomed love affairs, fatalism – it's got everything. And it worked, hitting Number 1 in 2014.
Yé is not known for shying away from the darker side of music, and is open about mental health issues, struggles dealing with fame, and grief. Kanyé's dark era began with 808s and Heartbreak in 2008, and continued on follow-up My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanyé's switch from confident bravado on his first three albums to the introspective, darker soul was spurred by the death of his mother Donda and it's arguable Kanyé has never been the same since.
The late, great Amy Winehouse was renowned for exploring dark and depressive themes in her work – love gone wrong, drugs, toxic people – and the title track to second album Back to Black is perhaps the gloomiest of all. At the end of a love affair, Amy resigns herself to the fact that the only way to go is down, which she does artfully. Originally peaking at 25 in 2007, following Amy's sad passing in 2011 it became the Top 10 it deserved to be, reaching Number 8.
If you listen to the lyrics to 1983's Thriller, it's not quite the "LOL let's dressed up for Halloween" anthem you might think. Are its subjects being chased and murdered? On Smooth Criminal in 1988, Michael Jackson revisits the theme, asking the murder victim "Annie, are you OK?" Clearly not, Michael, she's dead. Fans of MJ's murder-pop had to wait nine years for a follow-up – Blood on the Dancefloor was his final Number 1 in 1997.
On the whole, Lady Gaga's Fame Monster album is pretty dark, and its imagery certainly hammered home the point. Barely a year into he chart career, Gaga was embracing her inner emo and songs like Monster (a rare foray into cannibalism bops) and Dance in the Dark cemented her image as queen of the unusual.
Sting's successful seventies and eighties band The Police were known for their darker side. On first listen, Every Breath You Take – their final chart-topper in 1983 – is a romantic declaration of undying love, but on closer inspection is worthy of a restraining order. Can't Stand Losing You, their first hit in 1978 and reaching Number 2, wears its heart more on its sleeve – and then the protagonist takes his own life at the end.
Not a tribute to the Oscar-winning actor at all, but, according to band member Siobhan Fahey, Robert de Niro's Waiting is actually about someone who was sexually assaulted and has retreated into their own world watching movies at home.
Remember the be-mulleted crooner Richard Marx, who had a huge hit with sentimental ballad Right Here Waiting in 1989? His next Top 10, three years later in 1992, wasn't quite as light. Hazard told the tale of a boy with either learning difficulties or emotional problems, falsely accused of murdering his friend Mary. While it's left fairly open whether he did it or not, but Richard swore he left her by the river, reaching Number 3 in the process. That hair, though – it's not going to endear him to a jury, is it?
A huge hit internationally in 1984, German band Nena's 99 Red Balloons is guaranteed to get any wedding dancefloor pogo-ing in a frenzy. Shame, then, that it's about the end of the world – kind of. The titular balloons are spotted in the sky by a fighter pilot who shows off by shooting them down. Bordering countries decide this is "a bit much" and a 99-year war ensues.
Nobody quite does "mournful but inexplicably banger-esque" tunes like Robyn. With Every Heartbeat, Dancing On My Own, Dream On (with her dear, departed pal Christian Falk), Call Your Girlfriend – need we go on. Agony and ecstasy all in one easy-to-swallow dose.
For her fourth album Rated R in 2009, Rihanna's music took a darker turn. Hardly surprising, following her highly publicised violent breakup with ex Chris Brown, which put her under constant media scrutiny when photos of her bruised face hit the front pages. The imagery was stark and bleak, and many of the songs were introspective and mournful. Rated R reached Number 9, and for its follow-up Rihanna went full-on club banger, and dyed her hair red to banish that sombre period for ever.
Hard to pick Eminem's darkest moment in his career, but perhaps his second Number 1 from 2000, Stan, is his gloomiest hit. It features an obsessed fan, abduction, murder and suicide – all bundled up in a five and a half minute radio edit. Happy Halloween!
OK, so who says disco can't be dark? As Sophie Ellis-Bextor warned us, it's Murder on the Dancefloor. The Bee Gees' soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever, in itself a much more downbeat film than many realise, contains some solid-gold bangers, and it's Stayin’ Alive which successfully hides dark themes amid a throbbing beat. It tells the story of the pressures on young people in NYC, which was a pretty dangerous place in the seventies, and ends with the refrain "I'm going nowhere, somebody help me". It got to Number 4 in 1978 and was wonderfully cheered up by dance outfit N-Trance in 1995, who added the iconic "get raw with the fever on the dancefloor" and peaked at Number 2.
Famously, the Irish band's second Number 1 I Don't Like Mondays from 1979 is inspired by school shooting in San Diego, and not cuddly, curmudgeonly, Monday-avoiding cartoon cat Garfield. See all Boomtown Rats' chart history
Foster the People
You know that cheery ditty Pumped Up Kicks? Very upbeat and danceable? Yes, that's the one. It's about a student going into school and shooting his fellow pupils because he's kinda envious of their nice trainers.
Prince did melancholy like such a pro, he could make a song about an imminent apocalypse an absolute floor-filler. While it rang out in many a club on Millennium Eve, it's not about seeing out the twentieth century, it's about nuclear war and the accompanying annihilation of the entire human race. Party over, oops, out of time. Happy New Year!