By Tennessee Woodiel
On the surface, SZA’s single ‘Good Days’ is about letting go of a past relationship, and the lingering feelings of attachment and regret that accompany it. But woven within this narrative of love and loss, SZA has embedded more complex themes which shimmer below the surface of the track and drive its most magical qualities, allowing it to become an immersive and intimate exploration of isolation and hope.
Through its ability to tap into the deeper cravings of its audience, these more spiritual underpinnings of ‘Good Days’ may have been a key contributor to its unprecedented success.
‘Good Days’ recently passed the milestone of one million units sold, making it a certified platinum single just two months after its release on Christmas day. The track has not only been rapidly successful – reaching No. 1 on the US Spotify Streaming Chart by January 5th – but also uniquely successful for SZA, as it’s her first solo record to reach the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100.
This success is no doubt partially a product of her existing following, which has grown significantly and consistently since the release of her debut album Ctrl in 2017. Even so, the success of ‘Good Days’ has exceeded expectations, and its popularity has skyrocketed past ‘Hit Different’, which was released three three months earlier and was SZA’s first release as the sole lead artist since Ctrl. What is it, then, that makes ‘Good Days’ magnetic enough to attract millions of listeners?
Not your average bop: ‘Good Days’ has some bittersweet production
SZA never intended to release ‘Good Days’ as a single, which is pretty unsurprising when considering the track’s subtle, ambient production. Beginning with a delicate looping guitar riff and extra-terrestrial sound-effects, the song’s intro invokes an isolated, space-like atmosphere, before swelling to include a steady beat that grounds the listener and drives the song forward at a relaxed pace. Birds tweeting and children talking are embedded among the many layers of sound, creating a sense of nostalgia and adding to the single’s hazy, dream-like impression. Towards the end of the song, more powerful emotions of joy and hope are cultivated, as synth chords build along with the soaring vocals of Jacob Collier, who helped write and compose the single, and who graces the outro with some beautiful chromatic harmonies.
The production and composition of ‘Good Days’ prompt an emotional experience that is neither exclusively uplifting nor gloomily sentimental – it’s some strange combination of the two. It’s like being reminded of a happy memory with a friend you no longer keep in touch with or leaving the house for the first time after a period of depression. The contrasting layers of the track make you feel hopeful, while also subtly reminding you just how fragile and precious that feeling of hope can be.
Digger deeper: SZA’s lyrics confront isolation
While the song’s production is enough to have you immersed in SZA’s emotional dimension, the narrative of her lyrics solidifies you there. The song begins with SZA struggling to move on from a past relationship: “You be heavy in my mind, can you get the heck out?”. The post-breakup stress of the intro is then immediately contrasted with the almost naively hopeful sentiments of the chorus: “All the while, I’ll await my armoured fate with a smile / I still wanna try, still believe in / Good days, good days, always … Good day living in my mind”.
“Good day living in my mind” seems to refer to one’s ability to find hope simply through faith in the future, yet in the second verse, SZA complicates this simplicity through biblical references:
“Feelin’ like Jericho / Feelin’ like Job when he lost his shit / Gotta hold my own, my cross to bear alone, I”
In referencing the biblical figure Job, who was deprived of his family, health, and property, as well as emphasising her need to bear the cross alone, SZA seems to be highlighting that mental battle is often an isolating experience. She alone occupies the space in her mind where all this conflict takes place.
It could be that this articulation of isolation is part of what makes ‘Good Days’ especially meaningful to its audience – it taps into some of the core experiences of COVID-19, a time when so many are forced to grapple with their hardships alone. Younger generations in particular have disproportionately experienced the mental impacts of the pandemic, and SZA’s audience is likely to connect the song’s exploration of isolation and mental conflict to the many mental effects of quarantine. Perhaps in an effort to solidify this connection, SZA’s third verse states “Gotta get right / Tryna free my mind before the end of the world”, seemingly referring to the pandemic or the many incomprehensible horrors of the past year.
Beyond quarantine: Cultivating hope and spirituality
What makes ‘Good Days’ a truly meaningful listening experience, however, is not just its ability to articulate isolation, but rather its ability to cultivate hope. In the final verse of the track, SZA states “Half of us layin’ waste to our youth, is in the present / Half of us chasin’ fountains of youth and it’s in the present now”, before the song launches into its outro of uplifting synths and backup vocals. It seems that in these closing statements, SZA is providing a tentative conclusion to her exploration of isolation – appreciation of the present moment. It’s not a grand statement or even a solution, it’s simply an observation. Sometimes our darkest thoughts can be partially alleviated by being mindful of what we already have in the present.
This source of happiness provides the more realistic underpinning of the idealistic joy expressed in the chorus; by acknowledging the beauty of the present moment, we can help gear our thoughts towards being hopeful of the future.
This articulation of hope as found in the current moment alludes to spiritual concepts like mindfulness and manifestation, and when paired with the other-worldly atmosphere of the song’s production, SZA’s narrative seems to expand beyond the experience of quarantine toward someething greater. SZA herself has described ‘Good Days’ as a “personal mantra”, adding “I have nothing else but to believe in good days because if not, what? I’m just going to let it spiral out of control? And that’s not an option”. SZA not only acknowledges the spiritual qualities of ‘Good Days’, but also implies that the single serves to continue themes present in her previous album, Ctrl.
More significant than SZA’s personal interpretation, perhaps, is how these spiritual themes connect to her young audience. Studies show that new forms of spirituality have been increasing in popularity for decades, and practices that go beyond religious traditions are particularly popular among younger generations.
Perhaps partly due to the rise of digital spaces like Spiritual TikTok, new ways of exploring and practising spirituality and religion are increasingly shared and normalised among young people online, speeding up these existing cultural trends. Young people are expanding and experimenting with their spiritual selves more than ever before, and ‘Good Days’ speaks directly to those moments of realisation, while maintaining a degree of spiritual ambiguity that allows for personal interpretation and intimate listening.
In conclusion, thank you, SZA
It’s not hard to understand why SZA never intended to release ‘Good Days’ as a single – it’s not an addictive bop, nor an emotional anthem, like so many songs on Ctrl. It’s murky and vague and atmospheric, yet within its many layers, SZA has woven something utterly magical and unique, providing a song, a space, a mantra through which her audience can acknowledge and heal from the troubles of isolation through hope and spiritual realisation. In a time when the bleakness of the world feels inescapable, SZA has offered her audience a brief moment of peace – and we’ve gladly received it.