In nominating CamelPhat’s ‘Cola,’ did the Grammys embrace a song about spiking someone’s drink?
The chorus to “Cola,” the hit dance track by British house producers CamelPhat and vocalist Elderbrook that last month earned a surprise Grammy nod, is sticky enough to become an ear-worm after a single listen. “She sips a Coca-Cola,” Elderbrook sings in beautiful tenor, “She can’t tell the difference yet.”
She can’t tell the difference between the Coca-Cola and what? Is the song’s protagonist, whom the vocalist describes in an earlier verse as someone who “looks for trouble,” a Pepsi woman in a Coke dance club? Is her beverage missing an ingredient? Or worse, has it been tainted, and if so, with what and by who?
“It’s been misinterpreted in a lot of strange ways,” said vocalist and co-writer Alex “Elderbrook” Kotz, who wrote the lyric during a songwriting session earlier this year with CamelPhat producers Dave Whelan and Mike Di Scala.
And while numerous critics and commentators have expressed misgivings about the lyrics, it hasn’t slowed the song’s ascent. Driven by a 122 beats-per-minute rhythm influenced by classic Chicago house — Camelphat recently issued another track on the legendary Chicago imprint Relief — the song earned spins in global party center Ibiza over the summer, and hit No. 1 on the Billboard dance charts in September.
Which is to say, that chorus — “She sips a Coca-Cola — she can’t tell the difference yet” — has propelled dance floors across the world.
Kotz was only in the studio with CamelPhat for three or so hours. As they were starting, they went through a few CamelPhat instrumentals, including the track that became “Cola.”
Kotz’s writing process was pretty basic: “I sat down and wrote all the lyrics on my phone, stood up and then sang all the lyrics in, and then that was it.”
On the track, Elderbrook sings:
That’s what you’re coming for and
They don’t want to let you in and
You drop your bag to the floor and
You ask her what’s happening
It’s getting late now, hey now
Enough of the arguments
She sips a Coca-Cola
She can’t tell the difference yet
Kotz did vocals for two other songs during the session, and a few months later the British house label Defected picked it up for release.
Describing it as “an underground Ibiza dance tune,” Kotz said that “we never in a million years thought that it would take on a mainstream life of its own.”
But what do the lyrics mean, and how should they be interpreted in a post-Cosby, post-Weinstein world? (Read all of them.)
Kotz took an audible breath. He’s explained his train of thought when writing the lines in a few other recent interviews, and he sounds a little tired to have to explicate his lyrics again.
“I guess the story is about somebody that goes on a night out but has maybe enjoyed themselves a bit too much before they actually left the house and then cannot get in to any of the clubs,” Kotz explained.
“They’re having an argument with the bouncer about basically being too under-the-influence to be allowed in the club. And then the bouncer kindly gets her a bottle of Coca-Cola to sober her up, but she thinks it’s Rum & Coke.”
Kotz described the lyric as “strangely specific, if you know what I mean.”
But it may not be specific enough.
“Quite frankly, this is triggering,” wrote Rebecca A. Gowns on the popular music site the Singles Jukebox, noting that the song appears to be about slipping a substance into a woman’s drink.
Asked whether he understood why people might misinterpret the chorus to reference a spiked drink, Kotz said he did.
“Usually in songwriting you would tie it all together with a big old ‘this is what it’s about,’” Kotz said, “but we all thought it worked, just leaving it as it was.”