Recently I have come to appreciate one song in particular by the contemporary singer Dua Lipa. Dua Lipa is a young woman of Albanian heritage and has become vastly popular, first in the United Kingdom, where she grew up and became a model, and then around the world. She managed to place 3 songs on the Top 100 songs of 2018, and I thought all of them were at least good (“One Kiss”) to great (“New Rules” and “IDGAF”). Yet none of these songs was the one I found to be my favorite of hers. Instead it was an earlier track, one popular in the UK but not in the United States called “Be The One” where the singer passionately and often flirtatiously sings that she could be the lifelong love of whoever she is singing to and that it is worth getting to know her and worth the two of them communicating well and not crossing purposes all of the time. One thing I noticed upon thinking about the song is that it was particularly repetitive, but not in a bad way. Indeed, many of the song’s lyrics are repeated in a threefold repetition that is immensely pleasing to the ears, at least to my ears.
What struck me, though, when I thought about it, is that a lot of songs I consider to be my favorites have the same sort of soothing repetition as part of them. The Donna Lewis song “Simone” repeats the same lyric in the chorus, and that song helped me fall asleep when I would listen to it at night , which some might f ind a bad thing but I find a very good thing. It was meant to be a soothing lullaby and does its job admirably. My favorite hit song of 2018, “Say Something” is also a song whose poignancy is increased by repetition with a haunting instrument playing over the threefold repetition of the hook that closes the song . And it is not only 2018 that had a rather repetitive song be my favorite for the year. For 2007 my favorite song was “Living Darfur,” a song that repeats over and over again such lines as the moving “You shall rise” and “You may never know if you lay low lay low,” lines that draw a lot of power from their feeling and not from how they read. Perhaps the most repetitive song I have ever really liked is the Gerry Rafferty verseion of “Kyrie Elieson,” which consists of four phrases repeated over the entire song, and mostly of just two. There is a lot of repetition going on in these songs, but I wouldn’t consider the repetition vain.
Of course, others might disagree. For me, the repetition of the song demonstrates the feeling that the singers attach to it. Dua Lipa’s repetition expresses her passionate desire to be the one for a very lucky man. Donna Lewis’ repetition expresses her fervent desire that her friend would find peace after years spent suffering the effects of child abuse. Justin Timerlake and Chris Stapleton repeat their lines as a way of trying to convince themselves that it is not necessary to insert themselves into every sort of controversial cultural debate and that one can say nothing at all and let one’s example and behavior do the talking. Mattaflix’s repetition expressed his belief, against the reality of the people of Darfur languishing in refugee camps while trying to escape the horrors of Sudanese oppression, that the Darfuri people would rise. Gerry Rafferty, reaching the end of a life drastically shortened and harmed by his alcoholism, was clearly passionately singing for Christ to have mercy on him. The repetition in words suggested that the feeling of those words hadn’t been wrung out yet until they are said over and over again. Sometimes life is like that, where we have to repeat ourselves over and over again until we have said what we need to say enough times.
For all of the repetition, though, that these songs have, sometimes the songs end very abruptly. And there is nothing wrong with that. After three times of repeating “I could be the one,” Dua Lipa’s gorgeous song ends after less than three and a half minutes. Mattaflix ends his ode with the line “Sooner or later we must try…living,” which hangs over a final chord like the haunting feeling that hangs over the site of a massacre or a refugee camp where living is a serious issue. And “Say Something” ends with a threefold repetition of “Sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all” with that haunting melody coming to a stop. Indeed, there is an entire class of songs that make their way through repetition that comes to a glorious and abrupt conclusion that is meant to leave the repeated thoughts in the mind of the person listening to it (or singing it). There is an art to constructing songs, and part of that art is being able to stop at a point where the emotional resonance continues on after the song is done. This is a far better choice of songwriting than to make interminably long and repetitive songs where the emotional resonance never even begins, but I would rather not talk about “Te Botè.” Some things are just better left unsaid.