Behind the illness, grief, political failure, racist violence, unemployment and myriad other acutely painful moments, 2020’s lesser sin is that it has been chronically boring. With pubs muted, nightclubs shut, festivals cancelled and impulsive sexual hookups outlawed, it has been a year of Januarys, a desert of vibelessness.
We’ve clearly tried to make our own fun at home: some of the biggest pop hits of the year have been extremely danceable, from Imanbek’s remix of Saint Jhn’s Roses to Nathan Dawe and KSI’s Lighter, and Joel Corry and MNEK’s Head & Heart. These cheery bacchanals were like tequila shots, though – we also needed something that would hydrate us, emotionally speaking.
By late May, the UK was out of lockdown, but now being told to “stay alert” for a virus that could only be seen through an electron microscope. Respite was needed more than ever. Enter Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s duet Rain on Me, a song that didn’t just face the heavy weather of 2020, but told it to come and have a go if it thought it was hard enough.
Not since YMCA has text been so throughly trampled by subtext to a disco beat. Rain on Me is technically a breakup song: “At least I showed up, you showed me nothing at all,” Gaga sings in the opening verse, scorning a lover who has fallen short of expectations. But just as YMCA isn’t really about having a nice meal at a community centre, Rain on Me isn’t about that at all – in the minds of anyone who listened to it, it’s about how bad 2020 is. “I’d rather be dry / but at least I’m alive” runs the chorus – being thankful for not being dead was where we reset the bar this year, and it was thrilling to hear someone sing it so honestly.
That lyric also references Gaga’s relaxed approach to going sober: “I can either lash the hell out of myself every day for continuing to drink, or I can just be happy that I’m still alive and keep going,” she said in May. Again there’s a broader subtext: this year of all years, we should try and see the glass as half full, and savour what’s left. That the line was often misheard as “I’d rather be drunk” is rather telling.
Rain is such a rich symbol in pop, stretching from Dylan, stoic in his hard rain, to the liquid assets of dripped-out stars joyfully making it rain. I particularly like songs about the euphoria of getting soaked to the skin, whether romantically in Love Unlimited’s Walking in the Rain, raunchily by East 17 on Let It Rain, or with glorious absurdism in It’s Raining Men. Rain on Me is in this lineage, with Gaga and Grande singing as if saturated – Gaga is earnest, closing her eyes and letting it drench her, while Grande is blithe, as if caught in a downpour on the way home and choosing not to care. The determined invitation to “rain on me” is the opposite of Rihanna’s Umbrella or Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain: instead of trying to shelter from the storm or biblically transform it, Gaga and Grande ask for the worst thing to happen so they can be delivered from it; Grande also calls for the rain to wash away her sins. That sense of transcendence makes it such a potent song in 2020, by acknowledging the rain and dancing through it.
Even the production sounds soaked: a cascade of piano house, disco strings, French Touch bass lines and wind-whipped EQ effects. Drawn to its brain-saturating effect, I’ve reached for Rain on Me over and over again this year, half cut with my headphones on in my living room on another dull Friday night – it takes you outside, into wet streets, into the lives of others.
As the song finishes in a beautiful storm of vocal ad-libs and churning sound, the effect is like being teeth in a mouthwash advert, a baby in a baptismal font, Hugh and Andie at the end of Four Weddings: your mind and spirit are left quenched. Is it raining? I hadn’t noticed.