Every so often, Jake Kring-Schreifels and Eric Mollo will exchange emails and examine a current Top 40 song in depth. At its best, the conversation will scrupulously examine the dearth of good lyrics over the radio that people so casually sing and memorize. At its worst, our analysis will needlessly scrutinize songs people will likely forget in a few months.
Song 5: “Cheap Thrills” by Sia
Jake Kring-Schreifels: Eric, how are you? It’s been a while. In fact, more than a year since we last attempted to dissect Adam Levine’s sweet tooth. There’s been a lot of pop music we have neglected (to write about, that is) since then, but it ends today.
As Labor Day has just passed, the preeminent question rings loudly. What was this year’s Song of the Summer? There have been some worthy contenders from the past few months, but we’ll stick to the facts. Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” has been the No. 1 song on the Top 40 charts for four consecutive weeks. It took August by the neck and said “Enough of the Panda and 21 Pilots!” It was right to do so. In fact, the definition of “cheap thrills” might as well be the definition of the Song of the Summer: “Doing something that only provides short enjoyment.” In the grand scheme of things, we’ll look back on 2016 and wonder how we managed to memorize such a catchy tune and then forget it so quickly, just like always.
But here’s the catch. Sia’s voice is incredible. It’s got that moany, syrupy something that makes you wonder if Rihanna changed her name and found more soul. This is not a pop star machination given artificial vocals to sound like everything else coming through AT40 radio. Sia swung from a Chandelier and she sang it in a way that made you believe she was singing about personal history. In “Cheap Thrills” she does the same, but it comes off as pandering. “Come on, come on, turn the radio on,” she begins the song, making everyone that’s listening via radio on their commute feel better for doing so. I’ve listened to this song a bunch this summer and every time she starts with that line, my hand subconsciously moves to the volume control and cranks it up. How about you, Eric?
Eric Mollo: It’s been awhile, but very glad Billboard Banter is up and running once again. So, where were we? Ah, yes, “Sugar.” Amazing to think of all we’ve missed since we dissected Maroon 5. Bieber dropped a hot album, Frank Ocean came out with a record, then didn’t for like 20 minutes, then did, and there’s a guy named Fetty Wap. But I love that we’re picking up with Sia.
You’re spot on, her voice is stunning. So is her hair, but I digress. “Pandering”…fair enough. I don’t drive in the city, so I listen to most of my music walking to work or running. And I crank up the volume on my iPhone every time this song comes on.
What I love about this song is Sia highlighting, at least for a moment, on one Friday, and one Saturday night, that she’s satisfied. She doesn’t need the money, she has the dance floor, and presumably a “bae” to join her, and as long as she keeps dancing, she, and apparently Sean Paul, have all they need. Kind of funny to think about. Every time I hear the song, I want to hear more of it. But it’s a song about being happy with what you have, at least in the present moment. I want more, but Sia tells me I have “all I need.” So Jake, my question to you: is that focus on the “here and now” what makes this song such a great Song of the Summer? Or do you think there’s something more to it?
JKS: I’m going to pretend for a minute that you didn’t just use the word “bae” unprompted and try my best to answer your question. Simply, yes. Look, what’s the first thing everyone says once kids start going to back to school and football comes on the television? “Where did the summer go?” To be honest, it didn’t go anywhere. Time moves at the same pace it always has, we just feel like it moves faster because we don’t want to face the grim realities that we wasted the summer months complaining about the heat when we should have been embracing the sweat dripping down our spines and the air conditioner revitalizing our skin cells. Which is to say, summer is a state of mind, a season we only really enjoy in retrospect.
So here comes Sia connecting with her female fans by describing the unenviable tasks of applying makeup, doing up hair, wearing heels. Here comes Sia connecting with those planning a fun night out on the weekend. More importantly, here comes Sia exclaiming that it’s possible to go out and not feel as though your bank account will suffer. Find some music, start dancing. Find your partner, enjoy the moment. She makes me wish I could feel the beat like her.
But Eric, all songs end. Just like all seasons do. The beat eventually stops. Instead of lamenting the music fading down, however, Sia is lecturing us. “Cheap Thrills” is the definition of summer. We need the autumn to remind us that not everything stays permanent. It’s perfect synergy. Unless, of course, you live in Los Angeles, in which every day is summer and nothing is cheap. Us east coasters know that we can’t appreciate the light without the darkness.
EM: Sia’s giving us an opportunity to reflect on those cheap thrills of summer, as you’re saying. That’s what makes this song so…summer. It’s those things you remember the hot months by. The things that went wrong. Those spontaneous, unplanned times, usually spent with people. And years later, when you hear this song that was played over and over again on the radio, or iPhone, or Spotify, or whatever, you remember where you were and what you did.
That was kind of mushy. But anyhow, there’s something about summer songs like these that are so originally unoriginal. As I’ve been thinking about this more, “Cheap Thrills” reminds me of Black Eyed Peas’ “I Got A Feeling.” That song was released in 2010. I’ve heard it maybe twice in the past two years, and every time it’s on the radio, I still say, “they play this song too much.” But it brings you back to those summer moments — when you’re driving home, A/C isn’t working, gotta get that fixed, your seat cover’s ripped and the sunroof’s jammed. And you need an air freshener. And your insurance went up for reasons you’re sort of unsure about.
“I Got A Feeling” also reminds us of the fun, too. It channels summer nostalgia. “Cheap Thrills” functions in pretty much the same way, but it has its own sound. There’s always that one summer song that revs up the nostalgia, and this is it.
And Jake, although Sia doesn’t use “bae” in the song, I think she’s definitely hinting at it. Remember the definition of bae: “Before anyone else” (URBAN DICTIONARY, 1). There’s no timetable. Bae could be the person you’re putting “before anyone else” for a lifetime (marriage) or just for one night (not marriage). Your bae could be your dance partner that day, even if it’s only for that one day only. Urban Dictionary also defines “bae” as “Danish poop,” but I think you get my point.
JKS: Like we’ve disregarded Sean Paul’s rap contributions to this song, I will disregard that last sentence if only to end this on a positive note. And yet, it is impossible not to mention the fact that Sean Paul does indeed rap some lyrics on this tune. He is, like this song, the embodiment of summer. His voice takes you back to the 1990s and early 2000s, and his lyrics are still unidentifiable. You don’t remember what he says, you just remember how you feel, which is the best thing a singer can do (Maya Angelou has a quote about this). I still can’t tell you what he’s rapping in “Cheap Thrills,” but frankly, I don’t care. That’s quite an achievement. Now excuse me, I’ve got to do my hair.