Pop songs are written, and then written again. In the past couple months, I’ve become convinced Brian Wilson wrote Tove Lo’s “Habits” when he wrote “Help Me, Rhonda” in 1965.
When I first heard “Habits” several months ago, the Euro dance beat initially turned me off, but the frankness of the lyrics caught my attention. Before I took time to listen to the song, I thought I was hearing one more song trying to up the ante on how much shock value you can squeeze into a popular dance track. When I gave the song a full review, I was struck by such honesty regarding the dark side of hedonism on a pop station. I’m lucky that I never turned to half the things Ms. Nilsson chronicles in her hit, but I can identify with experiencing a certain level of desperation and desire for distraction after a messy and devastating breakup. Destructive behavior, unfortunately, takes all shapes.
It took several listens in the car for me to associate the track with “Help Me, Rhonda,” but when I was watching the song video with my husband, I remembered the first time I ever listened hard to the Beach Boys song. I was watering some sedum at a plant nursery where I worked the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. At that job, I spent hours listening to music while watering, weeding, and planting and intermittently pondering whether or not I should reenter an unhealthy relationship. When I heard Wilson begging Rhonda to basically stand in as a foxy rebound to “get her out of [his] heart,” I almost dropped the hose.
The song I’d grown up singing along to was so messed up and so relevant to my life that it scared me. I immediately thought of all the boys on the side—notes written on guest checks and slipped under my windshield wipers and the long chains of pointless e-mails, all from guys that would never serve any purpose in my life but to be temporary ego boosts and diversions from mourning the lack of real, healthy love that I so badly wanted. In the end, all of it left me feeling emptier and more pathetic than I would have thought possible.
Both songs’ stories remind audiences of the all-too-familiar tendency of seeking to numb heartache by using people and substances (as in “Habits”). Both songs reached the top of the charts in the United States, but when I think of their stylistic differences, I see two eerie sides to the same issue.
First, the Beach Boys craft a song with their signature surfer boy pep and close harmonies. The girls in the crowd scream, almost answering, “Yeah, we’ll be your Rhonda,” and no one suspects the underlying problem is a lack of self-worth and a completely unhealthy fixation with romantic love. Written only a few months before the group began recording Pet Sounds, I have to wonder if the song was dropping everyone a big hint of the new formula: Wall of Sound wraps haunting confessions so deceptively that the masses actually miss the point. The psychoses filter through almost so imperceptibly that I liken it to finding yourself in Wonderland around a table where tea time never ends.
The construction and the concept nearly mimic the first state of entertaining vicious delusions.
Moving forward almost half a century, we add “Habits” to our regrettable rebounds. The lyrics, being far more explicit, and the downbeat somewhat more sinister, the song communicates that inevitable morning-after phase. You can dance to this track, but it might be a little bit awkward if you know you’re slamming to someone’s pitiful tale of abusing everything in sight to self-inflict amnesia. Unlike “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Habits” may be too honest to ignore the implicit warning that most of the things we turn to first for comfort will only leave us more miserable.
I prefer The Beach Boys to Tove Lo any day, but I’m glad someone out there dares to tell the truth, even though it’s incredibly ugly.