A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.
The Song: The Power of Love
from the 2013 album English Rain by Gabrielle Aplin
reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart
I was talking with a friend the other day, and we got to discussing different versions of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Lenka had put out her new EP of covers a couple of weeks ago, and my friend absolutely loved her version of “Tambourine” (though she also had a thing for the original). I, however, was and remain an absolute stickler for the Byrds’ cover, which I first heard when I was six and have since always remembered. “Maybe,” said Chels, ever the theorist, “it’s the first version you listen to that matters.”
I agree that that first flush of the relationship is important: when you listen to a song and it finds its way into your heart, then they establish themselves as the definitive version, the one you love all your life. All subsequent versions you hear — even if they’re the original — always sound somewhat inferior. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing out in doing this, excluding vastly superior craft for no reason other than my very own stubbornness — yes I know Adina Howard’s original is better, more sensual and honest, but I still go to the Sugababes for “Freak Like Me” (and also the tune it was mashed up with, “Are Friends Electric?”). Of course, there’s no real need for justification: pop is always a matter of personal choice, of picking out what moves your heart, and nobody has the authority to judge you for enjoying your preferences. Yet sometimes I catch myself on the defence, making up excuses for the songs I love. Some of them don’t even need one: I’m sure that nobody would argue against any of the Beatles’ songs, for example. But I still do it, and I wonder why.
The short answer, of course, is because it represents our musical tastes: we imagine that people might judge us for liking what they think is a “bad” or “average” song, and it’s our job to set them right. After all, if I can be passionate about pop music, then there must be others out there just as enthusiastic, people whose preconceived notion of pop music differs from mine — and we want to stand our ground, to open their eyes to (our idea of) musical nirvana. Or to put it bluntly: we can’t stand being labelled dumbasses. Q.E.D.
But that won’t do: I don’t like finishing thinkpieces after four hundred words. There has to be something more personal, something less basic than the urge to prove everybody wrong and yourself right. (Just thinking of that conclusion made me keep on writing.) So I listened to Gabrielle Aplin’s “The Power of Love” the other day, and I think I may have another answer. Not the answer, as we shall see. But something that ran the other way.
Chapter 1: Play Frankie Play
Before I go on about how beautiful Gabrielle Aplin’s “The Power of Love” is, though, it’d be nice to say something about the original song. In fact, her version of the song contrasts in so many ways from its source, it’s hard not to imagine that it was constructed as its antithesis.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood were probably the most flamboyant and explicit mainstream band in the UK when they came out with “The Power of Love” in November 1984 — and this was a market that had both Boy George and Pete Burns in it. “Relax”, their lead single from debut album Welcome to the Pleasuredome, had been so risqué that it was pulled off-air mid-song and was banned from BBC radio stations — which then created a media storm that propelled it to number 1. (To be fair, having a chorus with the repeated words “relax, don’t do it/ When you want to come” is basically begging for it. I make no apology for that previous sentence.) They followed that up with “Two Tribes”, an equally incendiary and gleeful commentary on the prospect of war in the world (the music video ends — “modestly”, as journalist Tom Ewing calls it — with the world exploding).
So Frankie were provocative — they had to be, it was part of their identity. And when they did “The Power of Love”, they could have gone the same way. Their publicist had intimated that the song would be about religion, and they could have made it a scathing attack, excoriating its destructive power. Instead they stunned everybody coming out of the park with a sincere and forceful love ballad, a steady jam that plods its way through five and a half minutes, slowly building up to a grandiose declaration of love. Gone is the sneer of Holly Johnson’s voice as he assures us, in one of the bombastic stage whispers I’ve ever heard, that he’ll “protect you from the hooded claw/ Keep the vampires from your door”. But that flamboyance still has bite: vampires and angels and so many fantastical elements might feature in the song, but it still feels so solid, so reassuring. He takes his time to enunciate every word, but every word has meaning, every syllable punctuated by a crash of the cymbals. The whole thing is lush, underscored with stateliness and strings. If this is the power of love, then I have nothing to fear indeed.
It does such a good job of reassuring us that I kind of wonder if that was the thing that “The Power of Love” was trying to satirize. Besides its obvious connotations to the George Orwell novel, 1984 was the peak of Thatcherism and its conservative impulses, and it became a hard time for people on the fringes, those left behind by the government — and that included Frankie, whose lead singers were both homosexual. That this song’s overblown call for empathy and sincerity — to “make love your goal” — still managed to convince an audience (the song was their third consecutive chart-topper) showed a rejection of all that year had stood for. Kindness and the art of being true had overtaken the official line of being fiscally minded and adherence to the church as the moral force of the household. “The Power of Love” isn’t a riposte delivered at God, but it does make you question it: a take on religiosity that somehow comes out much more authentic than the real thing.
Chapter 2: Christmas Comes Early
While Frankie Goes to Hollywood exploded onto the scene in spectacular fashion, Gabrielle Aplin’s route to fame wouldn’t look out of place on a normal magazine story: posting covers of songs on YouTube like we all do, releasing a couple of EPs, her talent attracting the attention of Parlophone Records who then signed her up, and so on. Out of so many possible records, department store John Lewis picked her debut single — a cover of “The Power of Love” — as the background music to their annual Christmas advert, and from there on everything happened for her.
I don’t mean to say that Gabrielle Aplin’s story has been pretty normal, nor has it been completely enabled by luck — the fact that she’s a star with a couple of successful records already sets her apart from the rest of us — but compared to Frankie, it’s a pretty simple story, devoid of frills or provocation. We might even relate to some parts of her story: who doesn’t dream of getting a call at the supermarket, telling you that your song’s been chosen to be part of a national campaign? Who doesn’t feel a rush of euphoria when they realize that they’ve made it for real? It feels like magic — it feels a lot, in fact, like Christmas.
Yet the capitalist ways of our world mean that Christmas never remains a simple feeling or mood for us: in the run-up to Christmas, there will be so many attempts to cash in on the Christmas spirit. Describing that spirit is a fool’s errand: some people associate it with snow and romance, others associate it with warmth and family. But I think we can agree that it’s a mood that crescendos slowly and then vanishes abruptly just after Boxing Day — so if you’re planning to monetize it, you need to start early, you need to get everyone in the mood long before the big day comes. And it’s here that Aplin’s cover comes into play: both it and the advert it underscored were released in early November, six or seven weeks before Christmas. It ended up missing out on being the coveted “Christmas number-one” — by Christmas Day it had slipped to number 9 and was falling fast — but being top of the pops on 25 December was never the point. John Lewis, being canny capitalists, made money out of the run-up to Christmas, out of that fuzzy warm hope for the holidays that falls apart so quickly over Christmas dinner — and in the meantime, to get you spending on things that might make Christmas just a little more real for you, to make it last a little longer even when the lights have gone.
In that aspect, using this song as a herald of Christmas was a masterstroke. Because “The Power of Love” is NOT a Christmas song — yes, there are romantic connotations, but Christmas does not have a monopoly on romance. But it isn’t a huge leap to imagine the two connected, and this song makes it so much easier: the hammy and transcendental proclamations suit Christmas, the biggest and loudest of holidays. So it’s against that background that we find that Christmas advert: a fresh-faced snowman, climbing mountains, crossing rivers and braving such dangers as a flock of sheep just to get Mrs. Snowman a gift. It’s a grand gesture of affection that just melts your heart: the snowman almost unbearably cute, the journey he took nothing short of an odyssey. It seems intimate AND bombastic at the same time — and in choosing to present it that way, Aplin’s cover became the perfect soundtrack.
With all that context out of the way, then, we can finally start talking about the song itself.
Chapter 3: This Time We Go Sublime
The moment the original starts, the spotlight immediately lands on Holly Johnson with a thud, already bragging about how he’s able to do all those things that I’ve listed above. This is in keeping with their flamboyant image: already established in the public’s minds, they could afford to start off strong, an assured statement on their own domination.
Gabrielle Aplin takes a completely different route: the piano and the six-note hook leads from the start, and it’s only after a few notes have dropped on the instrument — just one chord, really, repeated twice as if it’s still testing out its voice — that Aplin’s voice creeps in, a gentle sigh that hints at so many feelings bubbling underneath the surface. It slashes away at all the confidence that you might expect from this song: it’s the voice of someone who’s still wondering whether to lay bare her feelings and tell you about her loves. Tellingly, she doesn’t begin with Frankie’s ostentatious declarations, instead choosing to meander around the subject with some weird, abstract imagery: “dreams are like angels, they keep bad at bay”. There’s so much less energy from her beginning, as she slowly confesses “I’m so in love with you”. At this point, it rings hollow, unconvincing, coming after two barely cohesive lines of song. Nobody can fall in love with that, and she realizes it too. So she sets out to state her case, to tell us how she loves.
And it’s at that point, where the chorus first kicks in, that her cover starts to become something else. On the surface, it’s also nothing special: she simply tells us that love is “a force from above/ Cleaning my soul”. But her performance, her hesitant singing, throws this originally confident proclamation into doubt: whereas Holly Johnson sang it with the boldness of experience, Aplin sounds like she’s going through all those emotions in real time. We’re listening to her struggle, a struggle to articulate what it’s like to feel the power of love coursing through you. We’re hearing her sing words that she’s unsure about, trying to make even herself believe them. Make no mistake, it’s still a love song directed at a person like Frankie intended. But Aplin’s cover reconfigures that idea, adds nuance to the song itself. Frankie’s version was one where sincerity was key: there are no hidden emotions here, I’m just gonna tell you how deep my love is. Aplin keeps that sincerity, but her voice tells us to also look under the surface, to take a deeper look at the singer herself. Is she convincing someone to love like her (which a lesser song might have been satisfied with), or is she convincing herself that there is so much more to love?
Slowly she gains her footing. Slowly she realizes she’s capable, but it’s a long process. You can hear her tentatively sipping on the bliss and relish when she sings “love is like an energy/ Rushing in, rushing inside of me”. Those words are an almost ethereal glide downwards, but in it you still find somebody who’s recognizably human: somebody who’s discovering that love means a lot to her, somebody who’s still going through a process of recognition and reconfiguration. It sounds, if I may, like an unsteady teenager trying to figure out what love is, why they have this amazing, unexplained feeling of pleasure that they’ve never felt so intensely before.
But wait: the journey of discovery doesn’t end with peaceful recognition. The emotion within her voice demands to be let out. As she finds her way, you realize that the hesistation that she feels is giving way to delight — and when it does, there’s a silence that comes just before the final chorus. She takes a deep breath. Then she comes flying out, rapt with exhilaration and so, so much joy: the strings and the synths rushes around her, lifting the song upwards as she takes full control and revels in the passion of discovery. When she sings “a force from above, a skyscraping dove”, she follows it with a celestial shout to last the ages. In the official music video, fireworks go off and sparks fly around the room as she slams on her piano with a ferocity we haven’t seen from her in the past four minutes: the room, previously draughty and grey, suddenly becomes bright and orange, as everything suddenly becomes vivid and crystal clear for her, just as it is for us. Everything has changed now, and oh what a revelation it is.
There’s still one more layer worth talking about before I move on: technique. I’ve said before that pop music is so often a performance. Whether she means it or not, Gabrielle Aplin’s performance here shows us what she’s capable of in her performances — soft, uncertain singing on the one hand, but also a burst of passion that can stun with its intensity. The best part of her performance showcases both these sides: when she sings how she’ll be around “with my undying, death-defying love for you”, there’s a sudden burst in her voice, a leap into the heavens in both volume and pitch, and it’s at that point where she sounds like she discovers what she’s capable of, both within and without the song. It’s such an impulsive leap, something you’d say in a desperate attempt to prove your love — and it’s so candid that it lands perfectly. It touches you and me, simply because she makes it relatable.
Chapter 4: I Want to Know What Love Is
So. Why do I like this?
Perhaps it begins with the simple fact that I, as a person, am terribly romantic. This is of course a rubbish reason: so many songs are romantic, yet I do not love all of them. (One of the things I’ve discovered in writing this series is just how many love songs are crap.) So let’s rephrase the question: why this romantic song? Perhaps I’m just overly sentimental, but there was something weirdly touching about the ad which first introduced me to this song. Not to belabour the point, but the snowman was VERY cute — nervous, insecure, yet pressing on despite everything. I remember being very close to crying over just how awesome and funny it was: not since a school play many years back — also featuring a snowman — had I come this close to crying over fictional characters. (And for a boy with Asperger’s who’s learnt to repress so many of his emotions, crying is a big deal.)
And then I paid attention to the lyrics, which just got me stuck in deeper. Being a 16-year-old in a boys’ school with very few friends, I daydreamed a lot in class, and the topics of the day — music, politics, and love — seemed very much off-limits to me. So I started off very late in all of those aspects, unable to come up with ideas of what any of them were for myself. When this came in, I almost took them as gospel, even though they were vague and abstract and, now that I reread them for this article, absolutely not the type of love I was ready for. Even as I noted the overblown nature of the lyrics, I projected myself onto Gabrielle Aplin (relating to girls? A laughable concept in our school), I assumed her fragility to be mine as well — and I thought that maybe I, too, could discover love the way she had. It all sounded impossibly romantic, but over time I “made love my goal” — specifically, her version of it.
But it’s only while writing this article that I’ve been able to piece together what this song actually meant in its exploration of love. I’ve said before that she starts off sounding vulnerable, finds her footing along the way. And I keep talking about it because it is that process of discovery which sets Gabrielle Aplin miles apart (and above) from Frankie’s version. Their version simply says “they can’t do it, nobody else can do it, but I can”. Frankie is already immaculate, a paragon of romance. To put it another way, it is not what you and I can do. Most of us are more like Gabrielle Aplin, needing to work and battle our way towards this release. In doing so, we also try to prove ourselves worthy of those emotions, to keep fighting for that somebody even when “the chips are down”.
It’s a fragile hope, but then again that describes all us lovers, trying to build up our own confidence, trying to learn how to love with all our heart and soul. It’s why I find the most beautiful bit of the song to be when, halfway through a verse, Aplin suddenly gently sings “let yourself be beautiful/ Sparkling lights, flowers and pearls and pretty girls”. This is in the Frankie version as well, but they never try to make it human and encouraging like Aplin does. She reaches out, even in her crisis of confidence, and tells you to buck up as well. In that instant, she is every one of us — and therefore she is me.
Conclusion: The Power of Pop
The question remains, though: why this particular cover? I found the Frankie original on the same day I discovered the Aplin (and after I’d replayed the John Lewis ad like sixteen hundred times), but I immediately felt that it was inferior to the cover: here was somebody with a completely different style, someone who already knew what he was doing. I recoiled from such brazen flamboyance, thought it was absolutely the worst, and didn’t listen to it again for quite some time. So it’s only now, when I come back to listen to it again and compare the two in terms of their lyrics, accompaniment, presentation, everything, that I realize that the Frankie one is not bad in itself. The arrangement is pretty, the theatricality transparent (now that I’ve become accustomed to these things), but satisfying in its own right. But it’s just not as magical and cathartic as the version that reached me first. It teaches me nothing that I don’t already know about love, even though the words are the same. It does not squeeze a little more out of my heart every time I listen to it, at least not the way the Aplin cover does.
So what does my preference for this cover, already fading into the annals of time, say about me? In essence, I think that’s a question that we might all ask ourselves when it comes to our particular song choices. By allowing this one into my playlists, and shutting out the Frankie original, might I also be making a statement about myself, about my own personality and my choices in love? In other words: am I taking Gabrielle Aplin’s “The Power of Love”, in effect, to be about me?
At first glance, this might be one of those “obviously true” statements: if you have a particular philosophy in life, then of course you’re going to have similar tastes in music. But this song came into my life when I knew next to nothing about romantic love, and not much more of life itself — I had no philosophy to speak of. I didn’t know what love was or how it could possibly relate to me, though I knew it could be powerful for some. Instead, as I’ve said in the previous chapter, I took the lyrics, and I used them as almost a guide to love. As time went by, I added more songs to my playlists, used them as references and counterpoints, let all of them into my head. So in a sense, I didn’t shape my tastes in pop music with “The Power of Love” and all that followed. It was pop music that shaped me.
So to answer the question which we asked at the very beginning of this piece: why do we feel an urge to defend the songs we love, why do we want to tell all the world about them? It’s because pop music, at the end of the day, isn’t just a collection of songs. The songs we pick and put into our phones, our iPods, whatever listening device we use nowadays — those aren’t just people singing into a mic for three or four minutes. We choose to believe that some of those people reflect us, describe us, and even define us. It’s what these people say that illuminates a path forward, and gives us examples of how to conduct our lives and our loves. When I choose Gabrielle Aplin over Frankie Goes to Hollywood, when I argue for its eminence, I’m not just saying that this is who I am (to nobody in particular, no less). I’m picking apart the strands of my complex identities, cataloguing my continuing history of love — and along the way, figuring out what it all still means to me.
Happy Qixi Festival, everyone.
(Cover by Parlophone Records. “The Power of Love” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Gabrielle Aplin utilized for criticism and review purposes.)