020 :: POSSIBLEListen to "020 :: POSSIBLE" on Spreaker.
"Pretty In Possible" by Caroline Polachek, from Desire, I Want To Turn Into You, released by Sony Music in 2023. Listen / Buy direct
You'd never guess it, but this is a song that defies all expectations of what a pop song must be. There's no chorus, or verses really; there's barely any chord changes. But for all that, it's still a bop.
We begin a cappella, nothing more than a thumping kick drum, a twitchy hi-hat, and a shimmering, diaphanous voice. And because there's so little else here, we might easily miss that that voice is all over the place. This is no typical melody it's singing; each phrase is different from the last. Musically, this "verse" is more like a jazz solo, a cadenza of virtuosity and melodic inventiveness. And remarkably, this is how the song welcomes us, throwing us head first into its singular, dizzying world.
And then, just as quickly, we're thrown back into the conventional world of pop music, back into the easy comfort of a singsong melody, back into the doot-doot-doot of it all. But not for long.
For here's yet another variation on our original theme, now adding harmony into the mix. But after a couple of bars that's already enough of that, and we're off to the next variation. For if melody is a series of phrases, which together form the contours of a thought, this melody is a stream of consciousness, jumping from one idea to another, but somehow never losing the conversational thread, and always holding our attention and keeping it rapt.
And here now is the closest the song comes to a refrain. And all it is is a single melismatic syllable, followed by a single enigmatic lyric. This isn't the climax you'd expect from a pop song. Which makes it the perfect climax for a song that is never what you expect it to be.
Yet for all its unconventionality, this song is still eminently listenable. And for all its melodic gymnastics, it's still melodious and catchy and even, at moments, singable. It truly is a song about possibility: about what it is possible for a pop song to be, and the freedom and the wonder and, indeed, the prettiness that lies in that possibility.
I probably wouldn't have thought to do an episode on "Pretty In Possible" if it weren't for this episode of Switched on Pop, which features an extended interview with Polachek, including a deep dive into this song.
For more on Polachek, I'd recommend this New Yorker profile by Jia Tolentino, which includes this wonderful sentenece:
She can resemble a cyborg who has somehow wandered into a Tolkien novel.
I've been a fan of Polachek since her Chairlift days. The Japanese version of "I Belong In Your Arms" remains one of my favourite music videos ever.
There are many other great songs on Desire, I Want To Turn Into You, and plenty that push the boundaries of pop music in other ways. None of them quite fit thematically with what I wanted to talk about here, which is why this episode featured just the one song, but the whole album is worth many repeated listens.
I didn't come across this quote until after I had finished writing this episode, but it's nice to see that Polachek views this song in much the same way as I talk about it:
"Pretty in Possible" finds me at street level, just daydreaming. I wanted to do something with as little structure as possible where you just enter a song vocally and just flow and there's no discernible verses or choruses. It's actually a surprisingly difficult memo to stick to because it’s so easy to get into these little patterns and want to bring them back. I managed to refuse the repetition of stuff—except for, of course, the opening vocals, which are a nod to Suzanne Vega, definitely. It's my favourite song on the album, mostly because I got to be so free inside of it.
And while we're on the topic of Polachek quotes... It may be tempting to compare Polachek to other outré female pop artists, and many have. But Polachek had the perfect response to such comparisons, in a since-deleted tweet:
While I realize it's a huge compliment, I'm endlessly fucking annoyed by being told I'm "this generation’s Kate Bush". SHE is our generation's Kate Bush, she is an active artist who's topping the charts, and is irreplaceable. I, meanwhile, am this generation's Caroline Polachek.