Passing Vapes and Saying It in a Tweet: Do Contemporary References Ruin Pop Music?


It’s 2 a.m. on a Thursday. Lights in nearby apartments have long been switched off, their inhabitants in a deep sleep, preparing their minds for another day’s work tomorrow. This is the last thing on your mind as you and your friends skip by these apartment’s exteriors. You’re singing—no—screaming the lyrics to Beyoncé’s 2003 hit ‘Crazy in Love’; the empty street your stadium, your friends the backup dancers. You’ve just left the club on Smith Street where the song was playing to a crowd of 2000s-music-loving 19-year-olds. It’s a freezing April night, but you can’t feel it as you croon “Got me looking so crazy right now / Got me hoping you’ll page me right now”. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never used, let alone seen, a pager; Beyoncé’s words are your anthem tonight. 


It was this moment, or rather, the reflection on the moment the following afternoon (after several missed tutorials) that I wondered why I could so passionately sing about pagers. It’s a lyric that places ‘Crazy in Love’ firmly in 2003, but it doesn’t stop 2023 me from loving it.


When listening to Lana Del Rey’s most recent album release, Did You Know That There's a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd (March 24th, 2023), I noticed the same use of time-specific references. The ‘Taco Truck x VB’ lyrics, “Pass me my vape, I'm feeling sick, I need to take a puff” were the subject of mocking between my friends and I, as we laughed at the stark contrast between her soulful, deep, and thought-provoking lyrics alongside a request for a vape. The direct mention of a concretely 2023 activity, vaping, is jarring alongside the lilting “Caribbean blue in sweater weather”. It halts the timelessness of the song, one that ‘Venice Bitch’ proved to carry in being replicated from 2014 to 2023.


It is difficult to get lost in the music, as was Del Rey’s desire when originally writing ‘Venice Bitch’. In an interview with Zane Low for Beats 1, the singer expressed her desire for the song to be a track for driving around at the end of summer. The music video echoes this, with grainy, vintage footage reminiscent of endless summers spent on Venice Beach. In ‘Taco Truck x VB’, the 2023 revival of the 2014 song, as Del Rey opens with a request for her vape, listeners are at a crossroads. A crossroads that sits between nostalgic summer drives and a blueberry-flavoured nicotine addiction. 


As Rice Thresher said in their review, the song becomes a “soundtrack to your unhealthy relationships and nicotine addiction.” In saying this, Did You Know That There's a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd has been widely praised for its “raw emotion" and introspection. NME called Del Rey “a documentation capturing angles that aren't just bright and beautiful.” Known for her sultry “sad girl music”, Del Rey’s most recent album is complete with all the eeriness and angst consistent with her style.


Sonically, the song ‘Taco Truck x VB’ is a masterpiece and a perfect display of Del Rey’s constant theme of the conflation of love and violence. She sings, “I'm fallin' into you / Although it seems I've gotten better / I can be violent too” and “Blood on my feet on the street / I'm dancin' crazy”. This theme is perhaps most evident in the lyrics that echo throughout ‘Venice Bitch’: “bang bang, kiss kiss”. Del Rey sings of her internal battle between being in love and craving destruction or self-sabotage. This deeply emotional lyric content, coupled with the call back to the vintage-inspired ‘Venice Bitch’ music video, suggests a song that could be carried through generations. 


However, Del Rey’s use of contemporary items and phenomena remains very jarring—a superficial, relevant-for-maybe-two-years reference against beautifully timeless ideas. This isn’t a new phenomenon with Del Rey’s music. She’s sung about iPhone 11s, cryptocurrency, and testing positive for COVID-19. 


It is perhaps unfair to say mentioning a vape in a song prevents it from being enjoyed for years to come. As previously mentioned, Beyoncé mentioned pagers and emails in the 90s and early 2000s in songs that continue to be pop anthems today. It could be said this even adds to the charisma of the song. Yet something suggests we won’t be looking back nostalgically on vape addictions in 20 years’ time. Aside from the literal health concerns they bring, electronic vapes just aren’t as romantic as their cigar or cigarette predecessor. The images conjured of lazily smoking a Chesterfield outside of a Parisian café or New York newsroom just aren’t quite the same if replaced with a peach ice puff bar in hand. 


To further look at how much modern terms affect the timelessness of modern songs, I have to turn to the iconic Taylor Swift. The New York Tomes's Jon Caramanica famously said about 1989, “by making pop with almost no contemporary references, Ms. Swift is aiming somewhere even higher, a mode of timelessness that few true pop stars even bother aspiring to.”


Racking up 1.287 million copies sold in its first week, 1989 was, and still is, undoubtedly a huge success. The success suggests listeners aren’t looking for time-specific relatability in their music, and instead are searching for songs they can return to time and time again. It’s part of the magic of Swift’s music, how it can be applied to many situations, people, and places. When performing on her Eras tour, the singer said, “my hope is that my songs will be songs that you think are about your lives”, rather than about her own life. (via @swift.3ditor on TikTok).  


Yet Swift’s album Lover, released five years later, is sprawling with contemporary references. ‘You Need to Calm Down’ features the lyric, “Say it in the street, that's a knock-out – / But you say it in a Tweet, that's a cop-out”, as Swift diverges from the “mode of timelessness” of 1989. However, in its first week, Lover became the top-selling album of 2019. Similarly, Swift’s ‘willow’ (2021) includes the very 2021 phrase, “I come back stronger than a 90s trend”. The lead single debuted atop the Billboard Top 100, suggesting timeless lyrics aren’t everything. 


Whilst it is impossible to measure if these songs stand the test of time, their current success implies we don’t hate contemporary references. Or at least, they don’t stop us from listening.


This brings me to ask, what constitutes a classic song? No one has discovered the perfect formula to create a song that continues to be played in venues 20 years after it was released. If some of the most successful songs of our time include time-specific references, is leaving them out necessary to creating timeless work? Though I cannot relate to waiting for someone to page me, there are other aspects of ‘Crazy in Love’ that make it a tried-and-true club anthem. Maybe these contemporary references are a way for us to reflect on the stresses, the joy, the pain, and the excitement of generations past. Who knows? Maybe in 20 years, my kids will be singing along to ‘Taco Truck x VB’ and smiling at the sweet nostalgia and vintage charm of hitting a vape. 


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