Struck by Russ Ramsey, Free for CAPC Members
Death’s party-crashing ways are detailed in a new book by Russ Ramsey, titled Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death.
I’ve got nothing to say
I’ve got nothing to say…
…We could drag it out but that’s for other bands to do.
That’s how the Strokes parodied the state of pop music in their 2006 song “Ask Me Anything.” It’s easy to agree with their assessment, which ages well with every passing Chainsmokers’ album. Pop musicians—at least the Top 40 hit producers—focus on lyrical trends which broaden their commercial appeal while eschewing the ability to make significant statements. There are exceptions, of course. But when they do say something meaningful, it is often accidental or ironic.
But before Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, or One Direction, there was a group that exceeded all others in its ability to say nothing. Now long forgotten, their one blip of universal success was as amazing as it was unbelievable. Twenty years ago, the Italian electro-dance-pop trio Eiffel 65 ruled the airwaves with their inexplicable hit “Blue (Da Ba Dee).”
And perhaps that’s what Eiffel 65 is wrestling with—how technology erases the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy.Foreign sounding and driven by heavy synth and piano, “Blue” topped the charts around the world, while bagging the #2 spot on the US Top 40. Most of us will immediately remember the tune, and reference it with other EDM hits of the time (like Darude’s “Sandstorm” or ATC’s “All Around the World”). Less understandable than the musicality of “Blue” was its lyrical composition. It is, of course, a “story about a little blue guy that lives in a blue world” whose every possession is dominated by the color blue. Making no attempt to explicate the verses further, Eiffel 65 front man Jeffrey Jey dives into catchy but meaningless chorus which uses a combination of the word “blue” and the syllables “da,” “ba,” “dee,” and “dye.” It came as no surprise when Rolling Stone named “Blue” the 14th most annoying song of all time, just below “Cotton-Eyed Joe.”
But even with all its flaws, “Blue” and its equally vacuous album Europop should not be consigned to the dustbin of pop music history. The album does carry a certain musical appeal (it went multi-platinum after all). And it actually includes many modern musical tropes before their time (drum machines, excessive synth, autotune, and even a rap solo). But Europop should be remembered more for what it doesn’t say than what it does. For in saying nothing, Eiffel 65 actually says something. Or, to paraphrase music critic Winnie the Pooh, sometimes the best of something comes from nothing. Situated in context, “Blue” and Europop tell the story of a society gone mad with technology, and this story ends in sadness and meaninglessness. Eiffel 65 were prophets of solipsism, and twenty years on, their prophecies have been devastatingly accurate.
Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out
Europop is an album about technology, and “Blue” is a song about what technology does to us. The band would explicitly deny this interpretation. In the recent Vice special commemorating the song’s twentieth anniversary (warning: explicit language), they state that the song is literally about the color blue and were amazed when different cultures began to reinterpret it (Americans thought it was about depression; Germans thought it was about intoxication). But the evidence, particularly the album’s logical organization, appears to contradict directly this assertion.
The album is in fact an exploration of the technological advances in the late ’90s. Europop was released in 1999, on the verge of the second millennium. The Internet was on the rise. Amazon had just begun expanding beyond books, and the Y2K bug was looming. It was a time when technology was just beginning to make things different. And “Blue,” with its computerized riffs, sounded different from virtually all of the major hits of 1999 (think “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” “All Star,” or “No Scrubs”). While EDM is ubiquitous nowadays, electronic music was an oddity back then. The world wasn’t yet saturated by computers.
Europop cashed in on this niche. Of the 12 songs on the album, between a third and half are about tech. The other half are literally about nothing (“everyone is looking for the dub in this life / everybody just keeps on asking why why why?”). Of those which we can assume are about tech, some sound triumphant—“Europop” discusses the coming tide of electronic music—while others, like “Another Race,” are more cautious, presumably warning us that is technology is alienating. At times it is hard to tell where the band comes down on the rise of technology. Perhaps they themselves are unsure. “Silicon World” is a juvenile and effusive celebration of the new horizons the Internet was giving to pornography (“All that I want is a silicon girl”). “Hyperlink” is much the same. But “Living in a Bubble” shows some real lyrical depth. Although not explicitly about technology, it manages to ask questions about what is real and what is illusory:
The bubble is a tricky thing
All full of hype
And it’s not easy to try and see
The way that things are.
And perhaps that’s what Eiffel 65 is wrestling with—how technology erases the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy. But if that’s what they are doing, then their solution is jarring. As Europop progresses, it waxes into a fever pitch of fanatical devotion to the Internet. It concludes with the trio of “Europop,” “Silicon World,” and “Hyperlink,” all unfettered celebrations of technology, pornography, and the Internet. This was an age of adolescent optimism about the Internet, and Eiffel 65 takes the lot: “Up, make us gods who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:1). Our consummation with technology is complete.
Or is it? If one fails to pay close attention to Europop (and, given the album’s quality, this is easy to do), one might miss how it actually ends. Bookending the album are two mostly identical mixes of “Blue.” What’s significant about this is how it changes the lyrical bravado. We go from exulting in the glories of the Internet back to the earworm of total blueness. One could easily explain this ending as a result of a poor album leaning to heavily on a chart topper. Other albums do this sort of thing. If so, then Europop is meaningless and chaotic drivel—going from a lecture about the evils of capitalism (“Too Much of Heaven”) to an advertisement for Sony (“My Console”) and then into blue nothingness.
The other option is to read “Blue” with the English idioms that it carries. When one does so, it becomes obvious that the song is about depression. Jey, a Brooklyn native fluent in English, would have known that blue in English, and specifically in America, means to be down and out. To say “I’m blue” is to say “I’m sad.” When Jey states that “blue are the feelings that live inside me,” it’s hard to see that meaning anything other than sadness. And the fact that everything he sees is blue indicates that sadness colors his perception.
If Eiffel 65 teach us anything, it is this: do not drink the draught of technology all the way down.But why is he blue? The first verse provides a simple answer: because he ain’t got nobody to listen. This logic of Europop is belabored but clear. Technology leads to social isolation which leads to sadness and depression. As we become more engrossed with what we can do electronically, we become less and less connected with others, and ultimately less connected to ourselves. Jaded sadness is all that is left. If this is how we are to understand “Blue,” then Europop immediately makes sense. It is no celebration of the Internet, but a forewarning about how gorging on technology isolates, oppresses, and destroys. For in seeking out all of our desires online, we end up broken. And if that’s so, it’s better to say nothing than anything at all. Blue da ba dee da ba dye.
That the album came out in 1999, when the Internet was a nascent thing, is even more remarkable. We now know that Internet usage and depression are intertwined. But to predict that trend decades before the present shows real insight. And to connect technology, depression, and social isolation verges on prophetic. Europop was an unheeded warning about technologically induced solipsism. We did not listen.
Eiffel 65 offer no solution to the dilemma they present, nor could they. Part of the problem with Europop is that it is difficult to take seriously. Does it discuss important matters? Yes. Does it do so using an inexplicably ridiculous music video? Also yes. So transitioning from this into matters of real gravity can feel disingenuous.
But as silly as the album is, the problem it presents is real. There is no lack of awareness about how technology is eroding our social connections, and so there is no end of solutions. Some cry for more therapy; others want us to unplug completely; and a few want to solve the problem through the problem (think the rise of online communities like gaming clans, Internet high schools, or even live-streamed church).
There is another way: the way of localized communities. This is primarily what obsessive technology usage threatens. Fifty years ago, almost every human activity involved spending time with people. Now, with an endless supply of games, information, social media posts, and porn at our fingertips, we are spending less time with others than before. Or we assume that spending time online is spending time with others.
But engaging in real localized communities is the antidote. Not only does it promote our health, but it is also God’s design for our lives. And the main way He has provided for this is continual, embodied local church participation (Hebrews 10:25). Connection with a local body of believers begins to undo the poison we’ve imbibed online. Do we feel lonely? God’s people are there. Do we need meaning, reproof, and instruction? The preached word provides it. Do we need to feel something real? We sing to the Lord. Being physically grounded and forced to make connections with others slowly begins to wake us up from our technology induced dream. And it gives us the Sabbath rest and sense of self we so desperately need.
Of course, church participation won’t immediately solve our isolation, nor is it a cure for clinical depression. But it goes a long way towards re-situating us as created beings in God’s physical world by giving us real and consistent community, not the fake version peddled online. It will be tempting, as technology becomes more and more ubiquitous for even this last bastion to cede ground to the unreal. Part of this will be necessary in order to reach the culture, but the trick will be to avoid giving so much that church becomes a technology showcase rather than a place of embodied worship. And if Eiffel 65 teach us anything, it is this: do not drink the draught of technology all the way down.
 I am thankful to my friend Andrew Barber for this insight.
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