Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #69. [Daaa-da-dum, da-da-dum, dum-da-da-da]

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 25, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

(I already wrote about this song at length, and I don’t have much to add, so unfortunately I’m just going to be re-running this one from an article I wrote in December of 2007. It’s actually an article I’m fairly proud of, minus perhaps the bit about the ticket, so if you haven’t read it before, please do. I also added a link to an mp3 of that Weezer cover, for whatever that’s worth)

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.

The List So Far:

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone”

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