It’s the late 80’s. Whitney just released I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Madonna has shook the world with Like A Virgin. Wham! are at their prime. Freddie Mercury is still alive. So is Prince. Kate Bush is out there doing something too. Pop is good.
It’s the late 90’s. Britney just released …Baby One More Time. The Spice Girls are thriving. No Doubt are still together. Everyone loves Destiny’s Child. Mariah releases the most iconic Christmas song ever. (Maybe). Pop is good.
It’s the late 00’s. Taylor just released Love Story. Rihanna is a musician. Beyonce isn’t Beyonce. She’s Sasha Fierce now. Amy Winehouse is everyone’s favourite drunk cousin. Everyone’s crying to Adele. Pop is good.
It’s the late 10’s. But what do we have to say for it?
Let’s be honest, good ol’ fierce bright singer/producer pop isn’t as popular as it used to be – it’s been forced underground. The 2010’s didn’t see a new pop idol emerge, even with Ariana doing bits and Billie charting, nobody is top dog. But, this hasn’t killed pop music, it’s liberated it.
As I’m writing this, a song called Dance Monkey by Tones & I has topped the charts, and I’m going to be honest, I’ve never heard it before in my life. But, the rest of the charts are a bit of a rollercoaster – there’s generic pop from the likes of Dua Lipa, Maroon 5, Lewis Capaldi, Selena Gomez, but then there’s just as much Travis Scott, Post Malone, Blackbear, Kanye West, J Hus, etc. To make an impression nowadays, you have to bring something different; the pop songs that top the charts this week will be forgotten as quickly as they appears, but the rap, the RnB, and especially the different genres that are being mashed with pop nowadays, that’s what’s staying in people’s minds. The new songs by Ed Sheeran, Niall Horan, Camilla Cabello, Shawn Mendes, they’re not bad, but they all get lost in familiarity. I hate to say it, but their songs are just regurgitated versions of what makes the most money – tame, safe songs that can be played on the radio at tea time.
I’d also like to take a moment to ask those people who are still purchasing and streaming George Ezra’s Shotgun, please stop. It’s been on the charts for 87 weeks. That’s 86 weeks too long. Please. I’m really disappointed in you all.
Anyway, the only pop idols I can say definitely emerged in the 2010’s are Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and Billie Eilish, and even then, calling Billie a pop artist with her edgy fashion, dark lyrics, minimalist instrumentals, might be a tad inaccurate. Indie-pop? Alternative? Even Ariana dabbled with rap this year with 7 Rings, (not to say that she should’ve – Ed.) and Justin hasn’t really released anything of relevance since Purpose in 2015. Plus, I’d love to include Gaga on this list, but she dominated the late 2000’s more than the 10’s, and she’s off being a movie star now. I can respect her for it.
‘So, who is producing good pop?’ I hear you ask. The answer is women, especially queer women.
Since she released I Don’t Care with Icona Pop, Charli XCX has always been prominent on the UK pop scene, yet when she collaborated with artist and producer SOPHIE on her EP Vroom Vroom, the pair took this to another level. Someone on a YouTube comment described SOPHIE as ‘a bubblegum Death Grips’ and I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since – her music sounds like someone took a bunch of electronic samples and rubbed them on a cheese grater, yet for some reason, it works. The uncanniness of the music video for FACESHOPPING, which is like a Rupaul song on acid, is like a good kind of car crash – horrific and absolutely mesmerising – and after only 20 minutes of listening to her music, I was left googling the words ‘Why is SOPHIE so obsessed with water slides?’. She’s as strange and as captivating as she sounds, and I believe she inspired Charli to enter into the crazy avant-garde-electro-pop world she is releasing music from today.
Charli XCX’s latest project (aptly named Charli) includes pop power-houses Lizzo, Christine and the Queens, Sky Ferreria, Kim Petras, Clairo, and Troye Sivan, and if I had the time and word count, I could unpack the sheer originality and talent of every single one of those names. Overall, the album completely embodies this avant-pop genre, mixing scratchy, bubblegum-in-a-paper-shredder production with the light, youthful lyrics of her past albums, If I listen closely enough, I can hear the older members of my family saying “It’s just noise! I thought musicians were supposed to use INSTRUMENTS!!???” (looking at you, Uncle Keith), but I think that’s half of the appeal. We are all immersed in a cyberculture, and from the lyrics to the production, this kind of music is dripping with the synthetic, the commercial, the artificial, just like everything else in Western Culture – only this stuff is self-aware and sonically introspective. A great example of this is MARINA’s Primadonna Girl and Oh No! which are both hyper-egotistical, materialistic, and conceited, but that’s the entire point. Like Madonna’s Material Girl, there’s power in self-obsession and superiority; and there’s something entertaining in pretending you’re a hedonistic, rich, bad bitch Marie Antoinette type of person – it’s Western escapism.
Rina Sawayama captures the cyber-obsessed culture perfectly in her singles Cyber Stockholm Syndrome and Where U Are. Her lyrics explore how we interact with digital and social media, accompanied by glittery, shimmering synthesisers and guitars. But, while I was planning this piece two days ago, Rina dropped a single called STFU! which can only be described as a hard rock / soft metal song about microaggressions, which I did NOT expect in the slightest, but I don’t think it invalidates her as a pop artist. Instead, it shows how pop isn’t one dimensional anymore – it borrows from hundreds of genres and reinvents itself again and again. Plus, the song slaps, so I can’t help but talk about it.
And lastly, I can’t talk about women in pop without talking about the likes of Lorde, Lana Del Rey, and King Princess, the three horsemen of the soft, romantic popapocalypse. Lorde’s been around since she was fifteen, and both of her albums, Pure Heroine and Melodrama, use soft vocals and minimalist instrumentals to present how it feels to be so young but feel so old and directionless. Lana Del Rey has been selling the cherry red, bad bitch, sugar baby, 50’s gal fantasy for almost a decade, and whilst I’ve never been her biggest fan, her latest album Norman Fucking Rockwell! sold me on the whole persona with her beautifully soft vocals and the gorgeous, calm piano melodies that span across the album. As for King Princess, who will soon be supporting Harry Styles on his upcoming UK tour, her hyper-sexual, hopelessly romantic debut album Cheap Queen was doused in melodramatic yearning and emotive raspy vocals with subtle yet effective indie instrumentation.
All in all, there’s been a seismic shift in the charts, and the pop music you find on the charts aren’t making as many decade-defining icons as it used to. So, whether it’s hyperactive, banging-pots-and-pans-together cheese-grater-pop, or sickly sweet, flirtatious soft pop, or some other genre entirely, pop music never died, it’s just disguised itself, and these artists are the ones that will be defining what pop means to the 2010’s, and in the future.
With all this in mind, let’s not forget the CUB Music golden rule: No pop song will ever top Lovefool by the Cardigans. Thank you for listening to my TED Talk.