DEAN captures social media melancholy with “Instagram”

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Sometimes social media doesn’t feel social and Korean r&b artist DEAN captures that feeling of social media melancholy with “Instagram.” The song and music video both do a great job of encapsulating what it’s like to lay awake at night thumbing through curated feeds of happy people. It’s also a song that gets right what makes r&b great.

DEAN’s “Instagram” is a mellow affair from the start that relies on his vocals to deliver. Luckily, DEAN is a world-class r&b singer and composer and he understands how to build a song around his voice and a few simple chords.

“Instagram” opens with DEAN playing at the strings of his guitar, trying to find the right chord like he’s at an open mic. Crickets chirp in the background as DEAN slips into a rhythm made from easy chords and a vocal line as simple as it is gentle. All of this intentionally simple and restrained music makes the song feel deeply personal and puts the emotion in DEAN’s voice front and center. His vocals mirror the beat, being sorrowful but, at least for the beginning, in an understated way. This isn’t a powerfully mournful Adele-styled affair but an intentionally lo-fi, undramatic, and slight sadness.

By being a bit understated, “Instagram” matches itself up to the feeling of sad social media scrolling. More often than not, social media feeds don’t come with an Earth-shattering sorrow that’s easy to explain. Social media sadness is slight, tender, and almost inexplicable because the images on social media so often showcase happiness. DEAN creates a sadness just like this  – – small, sentimental, and happy on the surface.

The beat is slow and simple but midtempo and for the most part, the tempo only speeds up. That tempo gives “Instagram” a feeling of spectral happiness that works well with social media melancholy where there’s happiness on top but sadness in the layers underneath. The midtempo also prevents the song from sounding miserable as well. With sad songs, it’s all too easy to lean way too hard into the melancholy until it becomes miserable, boring, or gauche.

DEAN avoids the problems of sad slow songs with the tempo but also the composition of the song. “Instagram” never gets complex and rarely has more than four lines of instrumentation to it at once, but it builds very well. The song rises and falls in pronounced ways and uses a lot of interesting effects to mix things up.

Over the first minute and a half DEAN gradually pumps up the tempo of the song until he brings on a full tempo increase that lasts for most of the middle of the song. All of the sounds that gradually chime in feel super crisp and it’s easy to miss how many little parts of the beat come and go.

A smooth and simple bassline enters along with synths and high-pitched whirring noises. Claps and whistles are added to a distant rattling hi-hat. Most of that falls away and leaves just the guitar chord, then comes back with a sharp clap, then turns off again with the sound of a switch flipping. The transitions feel super clean and the sounds enter and leave smoothly as possible. In r&b, smooth is the adjective to live by and DEAN thrives on it.

The composition alone makes “Instagram” an engaging slow song and DEAN’s singing elevates it to a  great one. His vocals hit a perfect emotional note and make a pretty basic harmony feel rich by giving it layers of feeling. The lyrics are nice, too, and blend with the song. They’re simple and straightforward with just a touch of clever wordplay and poeticism so that it doesn’t feel overdone. They come off as bluesy in how they go right at the source of sadness. There’s also a touch of autotune at spots that serves the song well.

The music video is as stunning as the audio. Just like the song, it tracks with social media’s curated imagery, overly happy facade, and the overwhelming feelings underneath it all. The video opens with DEAN looking incredibly trendy while pretending to play guitar on a skateboard. The pretty image only lasts for a minute before Dean throws the skateboard aside and hangs his head. His movements get anxious and restless as an onslaught of black and white images literally flood and rip into his white room.

When the song reaches its climax the video melts into a lava flow of Dean on his knees wailing. All of these images are powerful alone but they mean a lot more because they’re aligned with the music.

“Instagram” is a treat visually and sonically but I wonder if it’s easy to overlook. I wonder if it’s easy to miss the richness of it and not see how hard it is to make something so simple be so meaningful. As a song, it perfectly captures the feeling of social media melancholy but it also nails r&b as a genre. To me, r&b is all about making an individual experience and sentimentality feel universal. It’s like blues but more gentle and smooth. With “Instagram” DEAN shows he knows how to make damn fine r&b.

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