August 1, 2011


Missing Persons

Blink-182's "I Miss You" takes on one of the simplest sentiments in pop music, and does something curious to it. Its title suggests that it's a pretty straightforward mode of address—something along the lines of the similarly popular "I Want You" (whose variants were discussed in this column a couple of months ago). But "I Want You," along with "I Need You" and "I Love You" and all the other I-and-thou titles that serve as pop readymades, implies that the second person is there and listening. "I Miss You" usually implies that the person it's directed to isn't there—that the singer might be talking to the song's object at a distance, or simply imagining his or her presence.

There's always a certain mistiness about an "I Miss You"—an absence in the middle of it that the song tries and fails to fill in. In Blink-182's song, even the nature of that absence is cryptic: it's not even clear where the person they're addressing is, or if she exists, or if so if she can hear them. A couple of lines, especially "we'll live like Jack and Sally," seem to imply that the song is some sort of The Nightmare Before Christmas fantasy, but others suggest that it's addressed to a mental construct rather than a listening person: "where are you and I'm so sorry... don't waste your time on me/you're already the voice inside my head." (Or, as the line actually comes out when Tom DeLonge sings it, "my yed.")

That sort of apology, and admission of frailty, are features of a few other "I Miss You" songs. The first song by that name to hit the American charts was Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' epic eight-and-a-half-minute "I Miss You," written and produced by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, in 1972.

Melvin's spoken sequence partway through the song makes it clear exactly what the scenario is--a phone call to an estranged wife who's got custody of the protagonist's son. The lead vocal, though, melting down with sorrow and guilt, is Teddy Pendergrass: it was his breakthrough recording, made when he was 21 years old, although he sounds like he's got 40 years of hard-won experience behind his delivery. He'd joined the group two years earlier, as their drummer.

Pendergrass, in fact, famously sounded like Marvin Junior, the baritone singer of the Dells, a vocal group that had been together since the mid-'50s, scoring occasional hits, but had reportedly turned down Gamble and Huff's "I Miss You" when it was offered to them. Sure enough, in 1973, the Dells recorded their own "I Miss You," not a cover but an original song, more or less in the mode of Curtis Mayfield's then-current minor-key singles, and had a hit of their own with it.

The next R&B success by that title was one of the biggest pop-soul hits of 1985 (and 1986; it had some serious staying power), Klymaxx's "I Miss You"—a massive if understated power ballad written by the band's keyboardist Lynn Malsby. Like Blink-182's song, it's addressed directly to someone who can't hear it, and is just a voice inside the singer's head: "it was just my mind playing tricks on me."

There was a spate of "I Miss You" songs in the early '90s. The new jack swing group Joe Public got to #8 on the R&B chart in 1992 with "I Miss You," a midtempo number whose main distinguishing feature is the early-'90s loudness of its snare drum. (This one's a phone call too, but to a partner waiting for the singer to come home, presumably from tour.) Haddaway's sappy 1993 "I Miss You" is another direct address, another song of apology: "Saying sorry was a question of my pride." Aaron Hall had a major R&B hit with his "I Miss You" in 1994, a post-breakup slow jam; it was followed to the chart the next year by N II U's "I Miss You," an apostrophe to a dead mother featuring Boyz II Men-inspired harmonies.

Björk's own 1997 variation on "I Miss You" is typically eccentric—she follows up the title with "but I haven't met you yet," which is the premise of the lyric.

In Europe, right now, there's another hit called "I Miss You," by Sarah Engels, who made her name on the German equivalent of American Idol; it's almost hilariously generic, a slowed-down variation on Kelly Rowland's chorus from Nelly's "Dilemma."

What all of those other songs have in common, though, is the way they're sung: in a tone of longing, or regret, or other shades of emotional vulnerability. The genuinely odd thing about Blink-182's performance is that it doesn't have any of those. It's not seductive or apologetic, but declarative. Mark Hoppus sings his verse in a meditative, introspective tone, and Tom DeLonge's section is frustrated and defensive-sounding. The real premise of their song is not that they're trying to persuade someone else that they miss her, but that they're acknowledging their emotions, and figuring out now what to do about them.