As I Walk Into The Great Unknown

Rachel Platten, if she is remembered at all, is remembered generally as a one-hit wonder for her empowerment anthem “Fight Song” and for her debut album Wildfire, both of which were widely panned as among the worst music of 2016.  And 2016 was a bad year for music (and other things).  Technically speaking, if you count a top 40 song as a hit, then Rachel Platten is at least a two-hit wonder because her follow-up single “Stand By You,” which I prefer to “Fight Song,” hit #37 on the charts and gave her a second #1 single on the adult contemporary charts.  Since the album before Wildfire, “Be Here,” did not do much of anything on any chart, and neither did her follow up to Wildfire, “Waves,” it seems unlikely that Ms. Platten will have any more chart success, and that would be a shame, because she is a far more interesting artist than those only familiar with her hit singles would indicate.

From time to time when I am reading and eating in restaurants, I like to pay attention to the music I am listening to.  Generally speaking, the restaurants where I like to eat will play soothing and relaxing music in them, which makes sense since that is precisely the sort of music I generally appreciate the most when it comes to my own listening.  Some people listen to music that pumps them up but as a person who is fairly amped up as a general rule I tend to look for music that will sooth and relax and calm.  This bias in music has been present my entire life [1] and I see no reason why it should change anytime soon, and that particular bias in terms of favoring calming music and thought-provoking lyrics tends to make me far more interested in adult top 40 and adult contemporary music than is generally the case for bachelor males of my particular age, which is at least in the same demographic as many of the people who make this kind of music, at least.

During one of the times recently when I was sitting in one of my usual haunts, I remembered that I had heard several times a particular song that had the hook, “As I walk into the great unknown,” where the female singer’s voice got high and powerful as she talked about her tendency to seek freedom through departure from the familiar.  And to my great surprise, when I looked up the lyrics of the song and listened to it, I found that the song in question was “53 Steps,” from Rachel Platten’s unheralded album “Be Here.”  The song wasn’t even a single, but it is a song that apparently is popular in restaurants and JC Pennys, at least from what I have researched.  And it is no surprise that a song like this would be soothing as well as inspirational, and that it would be widely chosen for public performance because of its likely low royalty costs given the song’s obscurity.  I’m not sure how much money Rachel Platten makes from royalties to her album tracks like this one, but it is probably not that much.  Then again, considering that from the same sort of listening experience I found out about the fantastic “Above The Timberline” by Five For Fighting, it is perhaps a very good thing that songs like this find their way to people like me who are going to appreciate them, no matter that they are obscure album tracks on largely forgotten albums by generally obscure and forgotten artists.

What is it that makes “53 Steps” such a fascinating and worthwhile song, despite never having been released as a single and coming from an album that seems to have gotten little or no attention upon release or since then?  Well, for one, the worth of a given song or other cultural artifact does not depend on its popularity or even that anyone notices it.  In the case of this song, the singer provides a lot of telling and odd details about her desire to escape her humdrum existence and enjoy the soothing ocean that is only 48 stops from her apartment.  While “Fight Song” is very generic in its encouragement, “53 Steps” shows Rachel Platten as being observant to the cracks in the sidewalk, to the number of blocks it takes to get from her apartment to the station (she doesn’t drive?), and again, how many stops on the train it is to the coast, showing that she has either taken the journey before or has mapped it out in detail, and those details demonstrate that Platten was observant to her surroundings and sometimes conveyed that effectively in her songs.  When she talks about how calming and soothing the ocean is in vivid detail or talks in the chorus about how she sees patterns in the snow, she comes off rather credibly.

All of that leads to the question of what went wrong.  “Be Here” was released in 2011.  More than four years later is when Platten received her only popular success thanks to “Fight Song” and, to a lesser extent, “Stand By You,” from her gold album “Wildfire.”  And it is precisely in those details that “53 Steps” has in abundance that “Fight Song” is so lacking.  Given what she wrote and performed in 2011, she certainly knew how to provide the little details that make a song obviously personal even if it is very relatable to others who may drive to the coast instead of taking the train but who share the tendency of seeking relief through some sort of escape from the familiar into the great unknown.  So why didn’t she provide those details in “Fight Song?”  Was she told that by scrubbing her songs of personal detail that her songs would be more accessible and thus more popular?  That is, sadly, what happened, and something that happens often, as artists gain mass popularity through underwriting and a lack of detail that allow the listener to self-insert into the song more completely, since those telling details tend only to get into the way of using the song as a means of serving as an empty container in which people can fill their own emotional longings and frustrations.  Yet, for what it’s worth to me, I appreciate far more those little details that show Rachel Platten as an interesting writer and as an observant person who appreciates those little details that allow someone the opportunity to show who they are as a person and to appreciate others as being quirky and unique individuals.  Give me “53 Steps” over “Fight Song” any day of the week.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Music History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to As I Walk Into The Great Unknown

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Isn’t it interesting that most people are afraid of taking chances and fear the unknown? Their comfort zone is the devil they know. I just reviewed the lyrics of “53 steps” and Rachel Platten is actually drawn to the great unknown. That alone, I think, makes her a rare and remarkable person.

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