This week Clean Bandit’s lullaby-cum-club-banger, Rockabye hits number one for the third week in a row. Rockabye marks Clean Bandit’s second ever number one hit, after 2014’s Rather Be, and their first single since violinist Neil Amin-Smith left the group (in fact the single was released just two days after Neil’s departure was announced). Musically, it’s a very catchy track that skilfully incorporates the dancehall stylings of the newly re-popularized Sean Paul, the soulful, smoky vocals of Anne-Marie, and Clean Bandit’s iconic string instrumentals. Having seen this line up in the title, I figured I’d enjoy the track since I’ve been a fan of Clean Bandit’s previous dancehall-inspired endeavours, such as 2014’s Come Over featuring Stylo G, and am a huge proponent of Caribbean music in general.
However, Rockabye suffers from one crucial flaw: the song’s lyrical theme is completely incongruous with the genre it’s written in. Rockabye tells the story of a single mother struggling to provide for her son. The track was written with Norwegian singer-songwriter Ina Wroldsen, who wrote the lyrics about her son, which, according to the band, is “why it rings so true for us [the band] and is so emotional and special”. The problem is that the lyrics don’t ring true at all, as they are performed in this dancehall-house fusion, a genre that is primarily used to sing about partying, romantic relationships and sex.
The effect of this incompatibility of musical and lyrical theme becomes even more jarring when combined with the song’s music video. The video intersperses shots of a “mother” character pole-dancing in what appears to be a seedy bar, shots of her pole-dancing in (admittedly beautiful) natural surroundings, shots of her and her son, and shots of the Clean Bandit’s Grace Chatto and Anne-Marie gleefully dancing and flirtatiously looking in the camera. Overall, it just appears to be a very aesthetically confused project. Are we meant to grind in clubs to a song about the (in Sean Paul’s words) “special bond of creation” that is the maternal bond? Are we meant to quietly reflect on socio-economic conditions that lead to unsupported single mothers over a tropical house beat?
Perhaps this is one topic that is just too lofty for a pop song to handle, or at least too serious to be trivialized by Sean-da-Paul’s repeated interjections of “Bidda-bang-bang”. Just in case the lyrics were actually good and it was just their incongruity with the music that was throwing me off, I listened to a few acoustic covers of Rockabye. However, stripped down, the song loses its entire allure, which comes from the vibrancy of its production.
Rockabye is a track that had huge potential to be a great club banger that I would gladly get down to. Yet its narrative of struggling mother bizarrely paired with dancehall-house music makes for an uncomfortable listen. The track turns single motherhood into a rather clichéd sob story (which it is not in all cases), which is then used to represent “all the single mums out there”; this narrative is then oddly transplants it into a club setting. The only conclusion I can draw from the fact that Rockabye has remained at number one for so long is that people truly don’t care what the lyrics of a track are, as long as it’s got a good beat. Bidda-bang-bang.