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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"I'm Not Alone": a self-reckoning on self-destruction

Who knew that a house track could breed such philosophical discussion?

As I was finishing one of my final papers last night in my room, I once again was blown away by the sheer volume coming from the bar a few doors down on street level. Even with their main doors closed, the low frequencies penetrated our walls, and I could even hear them with my headphones on in the moments I wasn't playing music myself.

All the while, I couldn't help thinking about the bar-goers below me: It's the day before finals begin. You're really doing this to yourself? Power to them, I guess, for making the time to drink and dance the night away before the most important few days of the semester. Go Bears, I guess.

Tonight, with the bar closed — as it is every Monday — I'm musically reflecting on last night's soundscape by writing about a song that captures how I felt hearing what I did from my room. Calvin Harris' 2009 smash hit "I'm Not Alone" combines a pounding house beat that's got a heavy low end with lyrics reflecting on the impossibility to sustain a party-heavy lifestyle. You can't hit the nail more on the head than that.

Normally when I talk about dance productions on this blog (and I've done that plenty — check out the Dance / Electronic category to see those), I spend a lot of time focusing on the various aspects of its production, ranging from its beat to its melody and bass lines and how the producer crafts the different loops. With "I'm Not Alone," though, I'm going to mostly stay away from all that, because that isn't what intrigues me the most about the track. Rather, I'm far more interested in how Calvin Harris opens the song: not with a pounding beat or an anthemic synth line, but with a somber passage which Harris himself finds more reminiscent of Snow Patrol than he does electronic acts like Faithless. The delicate opening featuring Harris' vocals, electric guitar, and bass is incredibly contemplative for a house track, and it's extremely unlikely the same effect would have been achieved with the synths and beats used later on.

Even in the most revered electronic tracks, lyrics are often trite, repeating the same tropes on either side of love (reveling in it or falling out of it) or just straight-up dancing and partying. In "I'm Not Alone," however, Harris sings from a unique perspective for the genre, as someone who's getting older and is wondering whether it's worth it to go clubbing like he used to. His first lyric is a rhetorical question for the ages; it's one of my favorite openings not only in the dance world, but in any genre for its depth and the potential to apply it to a host of situations:

"Can you stay up for the weekend

And blame God for looking too old?"

For a clubber like Harris in his youth — and in more recent years as well, considering his continued popularity — the lyric speaks to the wear and tear from partying hard and living the high life, as well as the inevitability of aging. It's a painful truth that as we get older, we lose the energy we had in our adolescence, but it's a truth with which we must grapple. Meanwhile, for someone like me who isn't a club-goer (but still enjoys the music played at many of those venues) and instead stays up to ungodly hours finishing papers on Sunday nights after poorly budgeting my time, I'm only left with myself to blame when I look and feel tired and out of my element. I age myself by not treating my body well, and I can't blame anybody else for how I feel.

"I'm Not Alone" forces the listener to confront the painful truths of the life they live, and how they're self-destructive in repeating damaging behaviors. Yet there's also comfort to be had in both the song and the theme, because, well... the title says it. We aren't alone in feeling this way and doing this to ourselves. Everybody goes through this pattern of behavior in life, and in realizing that we often feel closer to and more alike our friends and peers. It's fitting, then, that after Harris sings the title for the first time is when the house section of the track begins. The switch to the rave-like synths and the classic four-on-the-floor beat that enters soon thereafter strikes me as a moment of acceptance that, even against his and our best interests, Harris and all of us will continue to live the way we do. We're all creatures of habit to the bitter end — we may say, "God, I can't do this anymore" like Harris does, but it's in our nature to revert to familiar behaviors, no matter how much harm they do us. We might as well dance through our struggles, then, even if we directly cause them. At least we'll know, "as many feet walk through the door," that other people are dancing through theirs too.


Postscript — remixes: The (electronic) music lover I am, there are a few remixes of "I'm Not Alone" of which I'm particularly fond, all by acts I expect to cover in my Senior Year Soundtrack at some point. Click the links for each to listen.

  • Legendary house producer deadmau5 remixed the track into a progressive house masterpiece for the initial single release package in 2009.

  • Electronic duo CamelPhat produced two remixes when Harris remastered the original in 2019 for its tenth anniversary. Their first remix merges Harris' original with their tech house leanings, while their "Remix II" is full-on techno.

  • In a real departure from the house side of electronic music, drum and bass / metal outfit Pendulum put their signature spin on Harris' track. They made the remix in 2009, but a clean studio version didn't make it onto the internet until 2018. Personally, I prefer this live version from Glastonbury Festival 2009, which has much more of a live rock and metal flavor.


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