POp music has the ability to be more reactive than ever to current events. Advances in technology mean the famous quick musical responses of rock past: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Ohio, in the US Top 20. Just weeks after the Kent State massacre that inspired it; The hastily impromptu tributes to Elvis Presley and John Lennon that hit the charts in the wake of their deaths should theoretically seem belated. If an artist has that mindset and inspiration, they could write, record, and release a song that reacts to current events overnight.
In 2020, there was a torrent of reactive clues released in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter protests: YG’s FTP, Lil ‘Baby’s The Bigger Picture, Stevie Wonder’s Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate, HER’s I Can’t Breathe, the two acclaimed double albums released by the mysterious British collective Sault. Even the Killers reworked their 2019 anti-Trump track Land of the Free to reference Floyd’s death. But if anyone expected something similar to happen as a result of Covid-19, a series of unexpected new releases that reflect on the strangeness and anxieties of life in a pandemic or sternly admonish politicians for their mishandling of the crisis, 2020 will have proven to be a crushing disappointment. They didn’t happen in any quantity, unless you count the burst of well-intentioned but musically gruesome charity singles that proliferated during the spring lockdown, or the equally abysmal anti-lockdown tunes released by Van Morrison and Ian Brown, the tinfoil of rock itself. . they made fun of Laurel and Hardy. Music that popped up unexpectedly, from artists eager to put the time in their hands for creative use, largely avoided the pandemic theme altogether: Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore, Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now, McCartney III by Paul McCartney.
If the pandemic impacted on the sound of pop, it was in a departure from melancholic introspection. Although Lewis Capaldi had five of the 40 biggest songs of the year in October despite not releasing new music this year, the expected glut of sad acoustic troubadours after Capaldi never materialized; It was hard not to wonder whether the labels planning to release such acts decided to wait on the grounds that the public’s tolerance for despondent solipsism had waned, while Sam Smith’s sad album Love Goes notably failed to repeat the best-seller of its two predecessors. Instead, the music that was hugely successful in 2020 suggested an audience eager to retreat from the present to a more comfortable and escapist space, and a wave of nostalgia manifested in a variety of ways.
In its simplest form, it saw the UK album chart crammed with early music, to a surprising degree. There are always old greatest hits collections on the charts, but this year their presence seemed considerably larger. The Christmas singles began to appear in mid-November, earlier than ever; in early December, they filled more than half of the singles chart. It felt too early to release Band Aid and Fairytale of New York, but twin wishes of wanting 2020 to come to an end and diving into memories of less complicated holiday seasons beyond convention.
Nostalgia was also a predominant feature in the new music. Rina Sawayama’s acclaimed debut album fondly reused charts from the early 2000s, where nu-metal rubbed shoulders with Britney Spears and R&B. What Sawayama offered wasn’t simple nostalgia: on the one hand, there was a pansexual British-Japanese artist at the center of it all, something conspicuously absent from the charts of the early 2000s, but equally, the torrent of dots. reference, from Evanescence to Destiny’s. Child spoke out loud about a childhood spent in front of MTV. Lady Gaga’s Chromatica and Ariana Grande’s R & B-heavy Positions sounded like a retreat to core values, the sounds that actually made them famous but were subsequently lost out of a desire to experiment or make more commercially minded albums. . So in their own way, the two Taylor Swift albums, both closer to their Nashville roots than Reputation’s DayGlo synth overload from 2017.
The big pop trend was disco revivalism, which, in various nuances, played everything from Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia to Róisín Murphy’s Róisín Machine and What’s Your Pleasure? From Jessie Ware? to the prosaically titled Kylie Minogue Record, at one time the best-selling album of the year. These were largely done before the success of Covid, yet disco revivalism made perfect sense amid the strangeness of 2020. As a genre, disco is lavishly escapist, but the best invariably comes with a curious hangover of melancholia. It’s music that celebrates the transporting hedonism of the dance floor while never completely forgetting that there is something out there that you are dying to be transported.
A similar mix of emotions fueled Weeknd’s brilliant After Hours. Blinding Lights, a 2019 single that stayed at No. 1 during the first weeks of the UK spring lockout, is, on the surface, a lighthearted retreat into ’80s pop. There’s a moment at the beginning in the which looks like it’s on the verge of becoming a-ha’s 1985 smash hit, Take on Me; On YouTube, someone cut it to pictures of Molly Ringwald’s dance, which was no more than 80s, at The Breakfast Club and it fit the bill perfectly. But it’s crowned by a lyrical unease that seemed almost eerily prophetic once life in 2020 changed: “I’ve been alone for too long … I’m going through retreats … the cold, empty city.”
Likewise, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia was musically euphoric, but events forced a completely unexpected tone of nostalgia into its lyrics. Songs about flying, hooking up and dancing the night away felt frozen in a moment before the pandemic’s chaos and stasis was revealed, a musical equivalent of posters outside closed cinemas, venues and clubs still advertising events. that never happened. Rather than the bold reuse of the past that Lipa was intended to symbolize, the album’s title seemed to sum up one of the strangest phenomena of 2020: the feeling that the things that happened in January and February belonged to a distant and distant era.
What happens next is an even tougher question than usual. The usual unreliability of predictions about the future of pop is compounded by the fact that no one has a real idea when (or if) things will return to normal: the concerts and tours booked for 2021 seem speculative, for say the least.
It is telling that despite all the undoubted misery and turmoil caused by the closure of live events, some pop artists, particularly women, seemed empowered by being temporarily released from the album / promo / tour cycle. It’s unlikely Taylor Swift would have made two albums this year if she had been asked to promote the first one live. Currently in the process of following up on her smash hit When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? when she should have been touring the world, Billie Eilish recently said, “As much as I wish I could have had the year I was planning to have and a tour and blah blah blah we would never have done this album … , but it would have been completely different. ” It remains to be seen if the music industry realizes this and changes its approach to promotion and touring; Either way, a year stuck in the past may have irrevocably changed the future of pop.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.