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Conan Gray’s ‘Telepath’: why less is more

<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

After much teasing on TikTok this past month, Conan Gray finally released his newest single, “Telepath,” on Oct. 29. The techno/electro-pop track is Gray’s third pre-release single from his sophomore album and an upbeat contrast to his two previous songs, “People Watching” and “Astronomy.”

“Telepath” is an amalgamation of old and new. While the track is nostalgic, reminiscent of ’80s disco music, the lyrics detail the ever-so-relatable experience of a dying relationship. Unlike typical breakup songs, “Telepath” does not detail the heart-aching end of something beautiful — in fact, the song is not sad at all. However, it is not a Taylor Swift “Better Than Revenge” kind of song either. Instead, Gray depicts one of the more subtle emotions of a breakup — annoyance.

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More specifically, Gray describes the frustrations of an on-and-off relationship with someone and expresses how unimpressed he is by them constantly breaking up with him only to come crawling back every time. Unlike his slower ballads, such as “Heather” or “Astronomy,” the lyrics in “Telepath” are neither metaphorical nor complex. Instead, the writing here is direct and literal; it is clear to the listener that this is not the telling of a story — it is a calling out.

Moreover, the lyrics feature popular internet slang that one may describe as very “Gen Z.” For example, rather than painting a refined image of a lover begging for forgiveness, Gray simply says, “You’ll be sendin’ me trash you shoulda left in the drafts” — an experience that is very familiar to all teenagers and young adults alike. The combination of second-person voice and simpler language widely contrasts his last release, “Astronomy,” which uses the motif of space to symbolize the growing distance between two friends. Emotionally, “Telepath” is also much more direct. While “Astronomy” explored the bittersweet nature of desperately keeping a dying friendship from fizzling out, the message of “Telepath” is simple — stop coming back to me. Indeed, “Telepath” does not possess the literary finesse or emotional complexity of Gray’s previous hits — so what does it have going for it?

Easy: simplicity.

It is clear that nowadays, listeners crave authenticity over refinement. With the rise of “relatable” music, it is more popular than ever for artists to sing about everyday problems, including breakups, friendships, and teenage angst. For example, Olivia Rodrigo’s hit debut album, “SOUR,” explores the ups and downs of being a teenage girl. She sings about things that make her life not so perfect, such as insecurities, boy problems, and anxiety, but in doing so, she allows the listener to feel more intimately connected to her music.

While the average person can still enjoy “flex songs” like A$AP Ferg’s “Plain Jane” or Travis Scott’s “SICKO MODE,” much of this music is taken at face value — they make us feel hyped, but that’s about it. It’s undeniable (and arguably unfortunate) that most of us don’t listen to A$AP Ferg say “Hermès link could feed a village in Liberia” and think, “yes, that’s me” in the same way we do when we hear Rodrigo sing, “I only have two real friends.”

This authenticity, however, doesn’t stop at just songwriting — it is also woven into the music production process. Many songs in “SOUR” are quite minimalist. For example, “enough for you” consists of only acoustic guitar and voice, and “1 step forward, 3 steps back” features a simple piano motif. These stripped-down instrumentations create a more intimate setting, where the listener feels like they’re being directly sung to. Even in more musically complex songs like “good 4 u,” the sound is less processed and feels like an ode to Paramore’s more old-school rock genre. Simply put, it’s giving garage band energy in the best way possible.

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Likewise, Gray’s writing also reflects problems that young adults face, whether it’s constantly feeling second place to someone prettier, or having a maniac ex tell everyone you’re “crazy and drive [them] mad.” Gray himself has said that he does not try to “make music that’s necessarily catchy and cool; it’s more about ‘I’ve felt like this, have you felt it too?’”

As listeners, we no longer search for songs that are perfectly written or produced; rather, we long for music that is both easy to understand and makes us feel understood, even if it’s a little rough around the edges. “Telepath” does just that. Content-wise, the song describes an accessible scenario — we all know what it’s like to go through a bad breakup — and its direct writing style allows listeners to understand the meaning of the song without having to decipher it.

Personally, I find that the bridge of the song is where Gray feels most human. Sonically, the music feels like a brief moment of sunshine: the melody modulates and ascends in an arpeggiated style. The sustained bass only changes with the chord, momentarily halting the forward motion of the song, and serves as a delightful contrast to the moto perpetuo bass in the preceding chorus.

Likewise, the lyrics are no longer shady or scolding. Here, Gray expresses an acceptance towards his partner’s selfish behavior, stating, “I bet you’ll return in perfect timing, and I won’t stop you from tryin’” — and yet, as he does so, the music quickly returns to its original darkness. The bittersweet nature of the music perfectly matches the emotional journey portrayed by the lyrics — he is willing to give his partner another chance, knowing that they will return to their toxic cycle. It is here that Gray truly captures the irrational nature of being a young adult in love.

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These days, artists are no longer perfect, unattainable beings that we can only view from the outside in. Likewise, we search less for songs that portray their lives as flamboyant and grand. Instead, we look for our own experiences in their music. “Telepath” provides a very human take on what it means to be stuck in a pattern of breaking up and making up. Through this song, Gray extends his hand, inviting listeners to view his life simply and candidly — and perhaps that’s what makes it so enjoyable.

Kerrie Liang is a Contributing Writer for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at kerrie.liang@princeton.edu, or on Instagram at @kerrie.liang.

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