Trite, dull and unremarkable – of course “Chasing Cars” is the song of the century

We love accessible, bland music – easy to process with limited emotional bandwidth.

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Earlier this week it was announced that “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol is the most-played song on UK radio this century. Yes, you heard. This century. No, not “Crazy In Love”, not “Someone Like You”, not “Mr Brightside”, not even – god forbid – “Shape of You”. “Chasing Cars”.

Can you remember how it goes? Doesn’t spring immediately to mind? Allow me to remind you of the intro. “Dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum”. On a guitar, in the alto register? Still nothing? First line of the chorus is “If I lay here…”? See, now you’re getting it. You’ve already got to “just forget the world”, haven’t you? And I bet you’ve miraculously recalled the guitar riff, which will now be in your head all day.

This is the trick of “Chasing Cars”: it is simultaneously superbly unremarkable and infuriatingly catchy. It’s like a supermodel who's outrageously good looking simply because there is nothing at all wrong with their features. It is sentimental, trite, and – I am loathe to say it – very enjoyable. It is the pinnacle of the mid-Noughties period of flat, spongy pop-rock that at a glance seems passé but has somehow produced a few classics.

In 2006, the year of “Chasing Cars”, a few albums were released that broadly define the musical tribes of the era. There was Beyonce's B’Day: not her magnum opus, but which did contain “Irreplaceable” and “Déjà Vu”, covering both ends of the Noughties R&B spectrum and exemplifying Beyonce’s sugary soprano era. There was My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade, marking a mid-point in the days of emo. And there was Arctic Monkeys’ debut: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.

Arctic Monkeys would come to be an influential band in their own right, but they were initially seen as part of a huge indie surge. In this same burst there was Snow Patrol, and a multitude of other groups that have now become relics of that decade, broadly divisible into two categories. The first is the jumpy, noisy, pints-in-the-air-at-Propaganda type: The Fratellis, Kaiser Chiefs, The Hoosiers – the kind of music that makes the mid-Noughties seem like a simpler time. The second is the contemplative, often heartbroken, stadium-filling, and always very-much-inside-the-box type: Razorlight, Keane, Snow Patrol. This kind of music makes you realise that everything is somehow exactly the same.

“Chasing Cars” was the ultimate song in this latter genre. It’s both sad and uplifting, quiet and loud, romantic yet non-specific. But this only goes so far in explaining how it became such a giant of mild melancholy.

To help with that, allow me to introduce Ed Sheeran. Readers, meet Ed. Ed is a scruffy-looking multi-millionaire from East Anglia who writes a lot of catchy songs that objectify women, but in a way mums like (“eyes” not “thighs”). He used to go to Nando’s a lot, his guitar is smaller than average and he is somehow mates with Stormzy. Ed, meet the public. The public would like to hear many, many more of your songs because they enjoy fluffy lyrics which excuse them from addressing their emotions with any subtlety. They like the fact you’ve had the same haircut since 2010 because it inadvertently makes them feel that you’re like them, the plebs, rather than somebody who half-raps about having a “billi” (…on pounds, for those out the loop).

Ed Sheeran’s fizzy style is undeniably distinct from the Razorlight-Keane-Snow-Patrol taxonomy: although it uses largely the same chords, it draws far more on house and R&B and, regrettably, has too much rapping to be musically comparable. But “Chasing Cars” is the most-played song of the century for the same reason Sheeran is the richest pop star in the world. We simply can't resist accessible, bland music that addresses one of life’s most painful topics – love – and then diminishes it, so it might be easily processed by limited emotional bandwidth.

This is why this is the music beloved by dads worldwide. As a teenager, one’s own emotions tend to constitute the most important aspect of one’s life aside from GCSEs. As adults, to contemplate fully the huge sprawling mess of our feelings about other people more than about once a year would be disastrous. We are all simply too busy. And dads have got bills to dispute, conference calls to attend, people in the post office to frown at. So they let the still-present emotions trickle out during four-minute blasts of audio cliché.

“Chasing Cars” combines a number of failsafe characteristics that cement its status as the ultimate in this field. Lyrically, it’s unspecific – “I don’t quite know / how to say / how I feel”. The lines of the verses never exceed four syllables, with a gap of the same length in between each, so we have time to contemplate all of this romantic vagueness. At the chorus, more syllables are crammed in to each line; the pace is ramped up. We have arrived somewhere. Don’t worry, the contemplation was short-lived: Snow Patrol will do it for you now.

Musically, we are immediately seduced by the opening guitar figure. We’ve heard it since – it's almost identical to one that appears in MGMT’s “Time To Pretend” and not dissimilar to the Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition”. It is familiar and comforting. So, too, are the chords: it uses a highly conventional pop sequence with some tension-creating harmonies. Perhaps most significantly, it has an enormous build, starting with a timid tap-on-the-shoulder and ending with a pounding, throbbing outpouring of unnuanced emotion with a full string section in the background.

So yes, we love “Chasing Cars” because we love what we already know. We like familiar boundaries. We like somebody else explaining our emotions for us, and those emotions being the same as everybody else’s. We like this, and so do our mums, managers, landlords and great-uncles. Though it comes from a genre of music that has largely remained in the Noughties, but it appears to be the classic of the period. Screaming “Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby” is sooo 2007, but “those three words” that are “said too much”? Timeless.

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.