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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Lights" instantly threw me back a decade when I heard it, and I both did and didn't mind that

Sometimes you forget how much you love a song until you hear it for the first time in years. Thanks to autoplay, this is one of those songs.

With my Senior Year Soundtrack now well into its third week, I realized today that I should give a little insight into how I select what song to include and write about for each day.

I tend to write these entries after all my classes are done on weekdays, and in the late afternoon or evening on weekends. That means I sometimes have tracks in my head from throughout the day that can serve as options and reference points. I also tend to have an overall sense of what kind of mood I want to convey in my selection based on how the day felt. On Thursday, for example, I had a pretty good day after a Wednesday that definitely wasn’t, and I heard someone playing some Philly soul as they drove by Sproul Plaza when I was returning to my apartment from classes. Those two inspirations combined to yield Silk Sonic’s “Skate,” which I then used to write about my appreciation for artists who don’t just stick with the “in” sound and do their own thing, even if it’s calling back to an even earlier era.

Today felt less upbeat than Thursday, but I wasn’t feeling down at all. After hearing a decent amount of 2020s pop over the course of the day, I wanted to go back a little further in time, so I utilized yet another tool: other people’s playlists. While I could easily just go through my own lists, I know the ones I’ve created are pretty limited in their scope; I also just find it more interesting to go through someone else’s, whether it’s a friend’s or just some auto-compiled list from Spotify or YouTube. I used YouTube autoplay today, with my jumping-off point being Kygo’s “Firestone,” featuring Conrad Sewell. While I really like that track, I knew I wasn’t wanting to write about it, but I wanted to do something a little dance-like, though not super upbeat. After around 40 minutes, the magic of autoplay and algorithms led me to a track I really enjoy, but hadn’t heard in a long time and wasn’t thinking about up until that point… and something just clicked. I began moving to this song more than any other I’d heard on the playlist, and after replaying it, I remembered why I enjoyed it so much.

The song in question, as made obvious by the post’s title and thumbnail, is “Lights,” by Ellie Goulding. Even though it was released in late 2010, I didn’t hear it for the first time until close to a year later, but I remember instantly loving the track when I did. I remembered becoming attached to Goulding’s ethereal and distinctly English vocals, which were unlike anything I’d heard before in the pop world. While many artists from across the pond end up sounding like Americans because of the generic American “accent”’s neutrality, West Midlands native Goulding keeps her Hereford accent while she sings, and it makes her voice all that more distinctive and memorable.

"Lights" is a prime examples of a 21st-century synth-pop track. When one hears the term "synth-pop," they usually think of the cliché 80s "Take On Me"-esque synthesizer sound. That is absent from "Lights," and while the bass in the chorus sound a bit dated, many more elements sound like they're from 2011 than from 1985. The gentle opening synth is unmistakably contemporary, and it very much sets the mood for the song based on its lyrics and themes. The short chord tones are soft points of light that emerge from a sea of darkness — not sharp or blinding, but rather warm and comforting. It's hard to come up with a better sound to open a track that deals with the singer's fear of the dark.

The more contemporary sound is reinforced as the verse begins, with a bass guitar and dry (very un-80s) electronic drums complementing the opening synth. Above those new instrumental additions, Goulding begins singing, and I'm instantly hooked. There's something about her accent remaining in her singing voice that makes her seem so much more authentic and endearing to me. That feeling is heightened by the lyrical theme, which makes the song sound like a sort of confessional, but one which Goulding is unafraid of sharing with the world. The chorus then brings with it a feeling of further strength and warmth, between the addition of synth strings and other momentary ear candy — including a glockenspiel-like tone and an acoustic guitar — and the lyrics discussing how the lights call her home. In my eyes (and ears), the chorus solidifies another meaning to "Lights" on top of Goulding's stated fear of the dark: fear of the unknown, and the comfort that can be found in family and the familiar. The family side of things is supplemented by the second half of the second verse, in which Goulding sings about how she only felt safe at night when her siblings were with her.

When I hear "Lights," I'm transported back to that more innocent time of when I first heard it. The song fits that part of my life: it's light but danceable; it's honest, authentic in a way a middle-schooler could understand; and it's also a fair bit naïve in its inspiration, though it definitely feels a bit less so when you analyze it a bit more. Even though 2011 and 2012 were far from the best years of my life, I end up pining for that time as I listen to "Lights" because it reminds me of the innocence with which I used to live, an innocence I lost soon thereafter. As I sing and dance along with Ellie Goulding, I do so with a combination of joy in the music and regretful nostalgia for a simpler time.


Brief postscript: Some may be surprised I didn't mention the song's famous remix at all, or include that version on my soundtrack instead. I decided to go with the original version because that's the version I heard first, and thus is the version to which I connect more. I also enjoyed thinking about its production and instrumental elements in ways I'm not sure I could have on the remix. In addition, I wanted to avoid discussing the remixer because of the allegations made against him in the past couple years, multiple of which have been supported by former collaborators.


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