An Essay by
As featured on Rollingstone.com
There have been a lot of big cultural changes since the 1960s, and no one has covered them like Rolling Stone. But some changes escape the eyes of even the most perceptive observers. We recognize them only in retrospect, and once we do we suddenly realize that artists--especially musicians--were not merely seeing the revolution, but also expressing them from the very start. Often, we were even singing along!
My new book, Going Solo, tells the story of the biggest modern social change that we’ve yet to identify: the extraordinary rise of living alone.
Until the middle of the 20th century, no society in human history had sustained large numbers of singletons. In 1950, for instance, only 4 million Americans lived alone, and they accounted for less than 10 percent of all households. Today, more than 32 million Americans are going solo. They represent 28 percent of all households at the national level; more than 40 percent in cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Denver, and Minneapolis; and nearly 50 percent in Washington D.C. and Manhattan, the twin capitals of the solo nation.
The numbers are even higher in Europe and Japan. And they’re growing fastest in places with rapidly developing economies, from China and India to Brazil.
I put together a playlist of some of the greatest songs for going solo, and an extended set of many others. Got your own favorites? Share them! After all, no one can get it all right on their own.
Billy Idol, “Dancing with Myself”
Sometimes you really don’t need a partner, and this is among the brightest songs about the pleasure of being alone. Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” is a remix of a single that was originally performed by the group Generation X. What better way to get in the mood for going solo?
Rolling Stones, “Get Off of My Cloud”
”Got Off of My Cloud” was the "follow up" to the Rolling Stones’ mega-hit "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," which attracted more attention than anyone anticipated. The band’s discomfort with their sudden popularity blares out through their admonition: "Don't hang around 'cause two's a crowd/ On my cloud." Nothing like being at the center of everything makes you need some time to yourself.
Beyonce, “All the Single Ladies”
Beyonce can care less what you think, she don’t need no permission, and she’s still a little bitter about the ring thing. But “All The Single Ladies” brilliantly embodies the feminine swagger and bravado made in the 1960s by groups like The Chiffons and The Supremes. Don’t just be content with being single. Celebrate it. Get your hands up, up in the club.
Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive”
If you’ve ever been to any party with a dance floor, you know how much this song means to people. Some call it the Gay anthem, but it’s also the theme song for countless women who’ve endured a tough separation, because Gaynor soulfully captures that exact moment after a break up when the attitude shifts from fear and despair to strength and independence.
Rufus Wainwright, “One Man Guy”
Growing up in a family of great musicians, Rufus Wainwright developed a total mastery of his instruments, and the lyrical ability to shed light on topics that are hard to discuss. Rufus’s father, Loudon Wainwright III, wrote “One Man Guy” and performed it for his 1986 album of the same name. Rufus’s adaptation is a visceral account of solitude: "I’m gonna bathe and shave/And dress myself and eat solo every night/Unplug the phone, sleep alone/Stay away and out of sight,” he sings. “These three cubic feet of bone and blood and meat are all I love and know/I'm a one man guy is me."
Jay Z, “99 Problems”
After Blue Ivy was born, Jay Z settled down into fatherhood and allegedly swore off ever using the B-word again. But before his Beyonce days, Jigga made one thing absolutely clear: He had a ton of things to deal with—getting pulled over, music critics slamming him, and radio stations not playing his songs. But girlfriends? Not among them.
Tom Waits, “Better Off Without a Wife”
Tom Waits has been married for 32 years now, but in the great 1975 album Nighthawks at the Diner, he toasted “to the bachelors and the Bowery Bums/And those who feel that they’re the only ones/Who are better off without a wife.” It’s a great testament to the urban underworld,and to Tom’s wild years.
Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry”
Plenty of musicians have assured us that everything’s gonna be all right. But leave it to the one with the Jamaican attitude to really make us believe it. Marley applies his home country’s “No worries” philosophy to being alone and the result is one of the best feel-good songs ever.
Wilco, “Born Alone”
Jeff Tweedy may be a married father, but he’s one of our the great iconoclasts and individualists of our time, always doing his own thing his own way. In “Born Alone,” Tweedy pulled random words from Emily Dickinson’s poetry and set them next to writing from Whittier and other poets from the 1800s. He’s said that final lyric, “born alone, born to die alone” is dire, defiant, and triumphant, and that the song ends with a series of repeating chords that ascend and descend to give the sound “like it’s endlessly going deeper and deeper into the abyss.” Solo or not, we’ve all been there.
Patty Labelle and Michael McDonald, “On My Own”
The #1 hit from LaBelle’s 1986 platinum album, “Winner in You,” this is a song about being alone, together. In the video, LaBelle and McDonald appear on separate coasts, in a split screen, and testify to the sweet sorrow of being solo after love ends. “I’ve got to find out what was mine again/My heart is saying that it’s my time again/And I have faith that I will shine again/I have faith in me/On my own.”
Morrissey, “I'm OK By Myself”
Where would a list about being alone be without Morrissey? But “I’m OK By Myself” is much less on the sad-sap end of Morrissey’s discography and far more proudly independent. He wants the person who left him to know this: He doesn’t need you. And he hopes that fact makes you throw up in your bed.
Jamie O’Neal, “All by Myself”
Possibly the most famous song to listen to while staring out a rainy window with a single tear drop on your cheek. Many musicians have tried but none of captured the true pain of isolation like O’Neal.
Jimi Hendrix, "Stone Free"
In the tradition of wandering bluesmen and free spirits everywhere, Hendrix celebrates his independence and warns women against even trying to tie him down. “Listen to me baby, you can’t hold me down…Stone free, do what I please/Stone free to ride the breeze/Stone free I can’t stay/Got to got to got to get away.” Has anyone else so perfectly captured the sentiments of men who won’t commit?
Jason DeRulo, “Ridin' Solo”
The companion piece to Beyonce’s All the Single Ladies, DeRulo says he’s sorry things didn’t work out, but he’s ready to move on because the pain is gone. “Better days are gonna get better,” he sings. “I’m feelin’ like a star, you can’t stop my shine/I’m lovin’ cloud nine, my head’s in the sky/I’m solo, I’m ridin’ solo.”
--Eric Klinenberg (With contributions from Jennifer Lena, Dan Ozzi, and Ed Russ (DJ Jah Karma)
Used by permission of Rollingstone.com