Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Don’t You Forget About me: Alice DeeJay’s “Better Off Alone” (2000)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on December 3, 2007

Talk to me

I got a ticket last night, driving back from Maryland with some friends, listening to Alice DeeJay’s “Better Off Alone.” I kinda hoped that the guy would let me off for being a first timer (although the fact that it took me this long to ever get pulled over is sort of a miracle) but it was a legit ticket–I was going something like 30 MPH over the speed limit, aggressively passing cars, the whole bit. What really annoyed me about getting the ticket, though–arguably even more the financial loss and the indignity suffered–was that it interrupted our listening to “Better Off Alone,” just when we had a real groove going. The car trip never regained the momentum lost.

This is one of the things I miss most about popular music from earlier this decade–hi-NRG pop-trance hits like this were still possible. I mean, sure, we get flukes like Cascade’s “Everytime We Touch” about once a year now, but this was a time when songs like ATC’s “Around the World,” Darude’s “Sandstorm” and DJ Sammy’s “(We’re In) Heaven” were just part of the pop music landscape, without seeming particularly anomolous. Of course at the time, these songs were largely drubbed, roundly derided for being derivative, crass and infuriatingly insiduous. Which naturally is pretty much all true, but I feel like if we knew how little time we’d have left with this style of music, we might not have been so quick to dismiss. Hip-hop isn’t the only kind of dance music in existence, y’know?

This said, I don’t mean to suggest that the only worth of “Better Off Alone” is its cultural relic status. Really, I think there’s something sort of magical about this song–a songcraft that transcends the cheesy connotations of its easily pop-trance formula and goofy, time-stamped sound effects (though sorry, I’ll always love those synth squelches at the end of each phrase). It’s kind of hard to describe, since there’s really not too much to describe in this song–it’s not much more than a synth hook, a one-line chorus and the aforementioned techno flourishes. But I do believe there’s a kind of emotional purity to the song, one even translatable to other genres outside the dance realm, as evidence by Weezer’s demo cover of the song (meant as a joke no doubt, but actually pretty fucking cool). It’s the kind of song few people know the title to or artist behind, but if you sing them a few bars, I feel like most would go “Oh yeah, THAT song! I love that song!”
A lot of it has to do with the feeling of loneliness at the core of the song. And I don’t just say that because of the title, though doubtless a song built around the line “Do you think you’re better off alone?” doesn’t have great odds of being terribly communal. Really, though, the whole song smacks of isolation to me, from the yearning, almost weeping sound of the main hook (which, by the way, is one of the most irresistible ever engineered–say what you will about pop-trance, but what other genre uses the off-beat this well?), to the echoing, cavernous sound of the synth whooshes in the background, and the dark, pulsating bass at the center.

Plus, it’s not just the lyrical content of the one line, it’s the way Judith Anna Pronk (no, Alice DeeJay isn’t the name of the singer, it’s the group) sings it. The huge leap in notes between the two halves of the line is extremely jarring, as is the fact that DeeJay rushes through the words in the first half, but sings the title phrase with huge emphasis on each word. It pierces you, as does the phrase’s ambiguous phrasing–Pronk likely means something along the lines of “why did you break up with me?,” but with no other lyrical content to augment it or provide context for it, the line could just as easily be viewed as a legitimate, purposefully thought-provoking question directed at the listener. Do you honestly think that you’re OK being by yourself? Why aren’t you out trying to find someone new?

To me, the whole thing suggests the feeling of a packed club, where you’re sitting at the corner of the bar, sipping a rum and coke and wondering why everyone else seems to be finding love so much easier than you are–incidentally, the exact feelings I imagine I’d have, if I ever got up the nerve to actually set foot in a club. “Better Off Alone” really speaks to the lonely soul in me, far more than the majority of emo or singer/songwriter or other recordings from traditionally “deep” genres do. It even suggests to a strange kind of community to be found in the song, in a third potential reading of the chorus: Do you think you’re better off alone? Because I did too.

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7 Responses to “Don’t You Forget About me: Alice DeeJay’s “Better Off Alone” (2000)”

  1. Victor said

    Song sucks…

    It takes me back to a brief but terrible period in high school where one of my main friends got really into dance music. Every time I got a ride in his car it was ATB, NYC Underground Dance Party vol. 105, Louie Devito Dance Factory compilations, or the latest from Paul Van Dyke.

    So I guess you guys went to College Park after all.

  2. Mitchell Stirling said

    I also hate this song, takes me back to a time when I was inflicted with other people’s bad taste too often. I think actually have a dislike of every song mentioned in the article.

    Probably why he gave you a ticket to be fair to him.

  3. Joe said

    My brother used to love this stuff, probably still does.

  4. Andrew Unterberger said

    the fuck

  5. Don’t worry Andrew, there are others that love this song. Like me. Spot on take on it, too.

  6. ross said

    ditto ian – i adore this song, both for nostalgia reasons and for the simple fact of it. and i ask myself the title question all the time. (see also: everything but the girl’s “single”)

  7. […] scorching hot, maybe, but I’m glad that someone agrees with me on this one at […]

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