“I’m just one big freakin ray of sunshine, aren’t I?”
That was a favorite t-shirt of mine for years. During one of my driving classes, when the teacher went around asking the class for a fun fact, I stated that I owned said shirt. Frequent bullying and general loneliness in elementary school made me put on a facade of sarcastic, jaded cynicism because I thought it would make me interesting and cool, and then at some point that facade just became who I was. I’ve gotten less cynical and more open and zen with age, and this website has certainly provided a home for me when I struggled to find friends in college. However, as I graduate from college amidst hearing horror stories about the housing and job markets, it’s a lot harder to fight against said cynicism and its more dangerous cousin, nihilism.
I say all of this to emphasize that I totally get the appeal of “Love It If We Made It,” The 1975’s single from their polarizing third album A BRIEF INQUIRY INTO ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS. It’s a broad snapshot of our contemporary world that intends to capture all of the hard-to-articulate phenomena, all the events, big and small, that create an aggregate monstrosity our generation is going through. However, this is far from a new idea for a song, and holding up a mirror to The 1975’s apocalyptic nihilism only shows how misguided and poorly constructed it is. In principle and concept, it is a perfectly valid song: in execution, it is disastrous.
One could complain that The 1975’s use of very contemporary references like the Syrian refugee crisis, Kaepernick kneeling, and the death of Lil Peep undercuts their goal in the same way that the SCARY MOVIE series hurts itself by throwing in so many jokes that no one will understand in a few years, let alone a few months. However, such a technique is not new in this type of song. R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” has a few Reagan-inspired lyrics, while Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” satirizes George H.W. Bush’s inauguration speech, but these are minor points that you don’t really need to understand to get their vibe.
The same cannot be said for The 1975 and their all-encompassing snapshot, which functions more akin to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel or “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire, but even that would not be a problem if it were not for the structure. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is not a good song, and it ranks up there with The 1975 as the laziest examples, but it is at least more competently structured. Each verse is limited to a specific era, so you get a sense that you are moving through time. The speed of the song also adds to the dizzying barrage of references, and “It’s the End of the World” works for similar reasons. It’s as indecipherable as any other R.E.M. song, but its impossible-to-karaoke tempo creates the sense that you’re in a chaotic maelstrom so you don’t mind if there are lyrics that you don’t catch. “I’d Love It” is written in a very slow, plodding pace, which I guess is supposed to make it more portentous and important, but it only forces you to pay more attention to what is being said to diminishing returns. You are forced to focus on the amount of backstory needed to understand “Thank you Kanye, very cool!” or the baffling choice to place an evocative, rather striking line about the Syrian refugee crisis right next to a line about the death of Lil Peep.
Now, I could see how references to Kanye and Lil Peep could work in a song like this, but this is where the composition becomes a problem. A lot of these songs are very one-liner heavy; they work more as a series of snapshots rather than a linear story. Songs like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “It’s the End of the World” leverage this by cranking up the aforementioned tempos, but “Rockin’ in the Free World” strengthens itself by devoting one whole verse to a single story about an impoverished mother who cannot take care of her child and indulges in drugs to cope. It’s essentially “Brenda’s Got A Baby” condensed to eight bars, but it adds an element of universality that you can emphasize with if you don’t understand lines about “a thousand points of light.” The 1975 could have done something similar; they could have addressed how Kanye had inspired so many through his music and his philanthropy, and how his betrayal is the latest in a long line of apparent angels who chose to be on the wrong side of history for reasons we can’t quite understand. They could have used Lil Peep’s death to symbolize how youth culture is being ravaged by prescription drugs, and how he was a promising young talent who will never be able to fully develop as an artist now thanks to the callousness of the pharmaceutical industry. Such themes of betrayal by our former heroes and the unfairness of an early death are certainly the intention, but they aren’t given enough space to develop and cut as deep as they could. Furthermore, their position next to lines about the Syrian refugee crisis and a nebulous war being incited does not help matters, as it’s tonally jarring in the former case and too vague in the latter.
A good way to deal with this apocalyptic subject matter is to use wit and humor to underplay it. “It’s the End of the World” and “Rockin’ in the Free World” use irony to hammer their points home, as the choruses are delivered with a winking nod that sells the odd defeatism or lethargic sloganeering. Furthermore, “Rockin’ in the Free World” sneaks in enough witty moments in the verses, such as “We’ve got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand,” to create a playful tone. The two moments that are trying to be humorous in “Love it If We Made it” fall flat because of how disconnected and poorly placed they are. The second verse opens with Matt Healy saying “Poison me, daddy.” In an interview, he called this “their best line” because it references a caption from a photo of their band manager smoking a cigarette in a graveyard. It’s too much of an inside joke that just feels very cringey if you don’t know that context. The other attempt at humor is the couplet “Fossil fueling / masturbation” in the bridge, and if the song had any sense of fun or zaniness to it, than this bizarre juxtaposition that gives sexual undertones to our use of precious resources could work. But nothing in the music or content conveys that same absurdist tone, and there’s not a trace of irony or satire in the repetitive hook that would drive home that tone in the way it does for R.E.M. and Neil Young.
You could also squeeze out the humorous, subversive intent from these lines if it were not for the delivery. Since these songs are trying to go as broad as possible, they have to be delivered with earnesty, empathy, or something that taps into an understandable sentiment that crosses all boundaries. “It’s the End of the World” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” go for an exasperated tone that resolves in resigned acceptance and resolute defiance, and “Rockin’ in the Free World” is very solemn and underplayed. Unfortunately, “Love It If We Made It” features Matt Healy belting out every line like he’s got his hand glued to a hot stove. You could argue it’s going for the same exasperated feel of R.E.M. and Billy Joel, but it doesn’t convey resignation or weariness in the same way. The only moment he sounds any different is on the horrible aforementioned “daddy line,” which only further adds to the cringe. It just sounds too performative and further makes the song seem like a cynical cash-in on our current climate nihilistic and youthful unrest rather than something the band actually feels themselves.
Now, many would argue that “Eve of Destruction” is similarly one-note and irritatingly whiny, but here’s where the framing saves that song and utterly dooms The 1975. Framing refers to the details in terms of the lyrics and delivery that tell you the perspective of the person singing it and how the entire song should be digested. In “Eve of Destruction,” it’s clear that McGuire is trying to convince someone of the world’s imminent doom because he says, “But you tell me over and over and over again my friend / Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.” It’s clear he understands someone else disagrees with him, and it’s that careful self-awareness that is absent from the inferior follow-up “Child of Our Times” that just tells you what to think rather than try to persuade you. The framing implies a level of exasperation and empathy that makes up for the whining.
On the other hand, the framing of “Love It If We Made It” is immediately muddled by the opening lines: “We’re fucking in a car, shooting heroin / Saying controversial things, just for the hell of it.” It immediately paints the protagonist as callous and nihilistic in a really unflattering way, especially with how the first line envisions an escape from the contemporary world only for the next one to imply they are firmly implanted within it. The worst thing you can do in a song with such an anthemic, all-encompassing tone that addresses heavy topics like racial profiling and the refugee crisis is to undercut your sincerity so blatantly. It’s equivalent to when Arcade Fire sang “I’m a liar / don’t doubt my sincerity” on “Creature Comfort.” Maybe the point is to be an unreliable narrator, but the Panglossian chorus has no subversion or irony to match it. Furthermore, if we look at the song in context of the album, it’s followed two songs later by the band denouncing postmodern irony and “the self-referential way that stops you having to be human” on “Sincerity is Scary,” even despite them saying that their favorite line on “Love It If We Made It” was because it was a reference.
It is very much a song of our time, where it’s hard to tell irony and trolling from fact, where the bullshit just seems to pile on and on forever, and you get sucked into a spiral of further nihilism and fatalism. However, it is precisely because it is a song of our time that we should be skeptical and questioning of it, because it’s easy to mirror our contemporary world and yet ultimately conform to it without fighting against it, commenting on it, or even having any fun with it. On “Sincerity is Scary,” the band asks, “Why would you believe you could control how you’re perceived?” To some extent this is true, and plenty of people have perceived “Love It If We Made It” in a very positive light. If it gives you comfort and hope, I am not going to take that away from you. However, I am not making very complicated criticisms here. If the song is trying to be sweeping and grand, it’s too slow, flattening events of different severities to the same level without making distinction between liberal kitsch and people protesting Kaepernick, or Lil Peep’s death and the refugee crisis. If the song is trying to be ironic, the chorus is too sincere and the band criticizes said irony two songs later. And if it’s trying to be heartfelt, than it should not have planted doubt in our minds two lines in.