Pop music has the power to be extra reactive to present occasions than ever. Advances in expertise imply that the famously swift musical responses of rock’s previous – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Younger’s Ohio, within the US High 20 inside weeks of the Kent State bloodbath that impressed it; the rapidly cobbled-together tributes to Elvis Presley and John Lennon that appeared within the charts within the wake of their deaths – ought to theoretically look tardy. If an artist is so minded and impressed, they might write, file and launch a track that reacts to present occasions in a single day.
In 2020, there was a torrent of reactive tracks launched within the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests: YG’s FTP, Lil’ Child’s The Larger Image, Stevie Surprise’s Can’t Put It within the Fingers of Destiny, HER’s I Can’t Breathe, the 2 acclaimed double albums launched by the mysterious British collective Sault. Even the Killers reworked their 2019 anti-Trump observe Land of the Free to reference Floyd’s dying. But when anybody was anticipating one thing much like occur because of Covid-19 – a rash of sudden new releases ruminating on the strangeness and anxieties of life in a pandemic or sternly admonishing politicians for his or her mishandling of the disaster – 2020 can have proved a crashing disappointment. They didn’t occur in any amount, until you rely the well-intentioned however musically ghastly burst of charity singles that proliferated throughout the spring lockdown, or the equally abysmal anti-lockdown tracks launched by Van Morrison and Ian Brown, rock’s personal tinfoil-hatted Laurel and Hardy. The music that did seem unexpectedly, from artists eager to place the time on their arms to artistic use, largely prevented the topic of the pandemic solely: Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore, Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now, Paul McCartney’s McCartney III.
If the pandemic impacted on the sound of pop in any respect, it was in a shift away from melancholy introspection. Whereas Lewis Capaldi had 5 of the 40 greatest songs of the 12 months by October regardless of releasing no new music this 12 months, the anticipated post-Capaldi glut of unhappy acoustic troubadours by no means materialised – it was laborious to not surprise if labels planning to launch such acts determined to carry off on the grounds that the general public tolerance for dejected solipsism had dipped – whereas Sam Smith’s forlorn album Love Goes noticeably didn’t repeat the blockbusting gross sales success of its two predecessors. As a substitute, the music that hit large in 2020 prompt an viewers eager to retreat from the current right into a extra snug, escapist area, and a wave of nostalgia manifested in a wide range of methods.
At its most simple, it noticed the UK album chart full of outdated music, to a startling diploma. There are at all times outdated best hits collections within the charts, however this 12 months their presence appeared significantly higher. Christmas singles began charting in mid-November, sooner than ever; by early December, they crammed greater than half the singles chart. It felt remarkably early to be breaking out Band Help and Fairytale of New York, however the twin needs of prepared 2020 to return to an finish and to wallow in reminiscences of simpler festive seasons previous trumped conference.
Nostalgia was a prevalent function in new music, too. Rina Sawayama’s acclaimed debut album fondly repurposed the early 2000s charts the place nu-metal rubbed shoulders with Britney Spears and R&B. What Sawayama supplied wasn’t simple nostalgia – for one factor, there was a pansexual British-Japanese artist on the centre of all of it, one thing noticeably absent from the early 00s charts – however equally, the torrent of reference factors, from Evanescence to Future’s Baby spoke loudly a couple of childhood spent in entrance of MTV. Woman Gaga’s Chromatica and Ariana Grande’s R&B-heavy Positions appeared like retreats to core values – the sounds that in impact made them well-known, however that they subsequently misplaced out of a want to experiment or make extra commercially minded albums. So, in their very own means, had been Taylor Swift’s two albums, each nearer to her Nashville roots than the DayGlo synth overload of 2017’s Status.
The large pop pattern was disco revivalism, which, in numerous hues, touched the whole lot from Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia to Róisín Murphy’s Róisín Machine to Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? to Kylie Minogue’s prosaically titled Disco, at one level the fastest-selling album of 12 months. These had been largely made earlier than Covid hit, but disco revivalism made an ideal form of sense amid the strangeness of 2020. As a style, disco is lavishly escapist, however the perfect of it invariably comes with a curious undertow of melancholy. It’s music that celebrates the transportive hedonism of the dance flooring with out ever solely forgetting that there’s something on the market you’re eager to be transported from.
An analogous mixture of feelings fuelled the Weeknd’s good After Hours. Blinding Lights, a 2019 single that caught at No 1 all through the primary weeks of the UK’s spring lockdown, is, on the floor, a gleeful retreat into 80s pop. There’s a second at the beginning the place it offers each impression it’s about to show into a-ha’s 1985 smash Tackle Me; on YouTube, somebody lower it to footage of Molly Ringwald’s none-more-80s dancing in The Breakfast Membership and it fitted completely. Nevertheless it’s topped with a lyrical unease that appeared virtually eerily prescient as soon as life in 2020 modified: “I’ve been by myself for too lengthy … I’m going via withdrawals … the town’s chilly and empty.”
Likewise, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia was musically euphoric, however occasions compelled a completely sudden tone of wistfulness on to its lyrics. Songs about flying away, hooking up and dancing all night time felt frozen in a second earlier than the chaos and stasis of the pandemic revealed itself, a musical equal of the posters outdoors shuttered cinemas, venues and golf equipment nonetheless promoting occasions that by no means occurred. Moderately than the daring repurposing of the previous Lipa supposed it to symbolise, the album’s title appeared to sum up considered one of 2020’s weirder phenomena: the sensation that stuff that occurred in January and February belonged to a far-off, distant period.
What occurs subsequent is a fair harder query than regular. The same old unreliability of predictions about pop’s future is compounded by the truth that nobody has any actual thought when (or certainly if) issues will return to regular: the gigs and excursions booked for 2021 look speculative to say the least.
It’s telling that for all of the undoubted distress and upheaval attributable to the shutdown of dwell occasions, some pop artists – notably ladies – appeared empowered by being briefly unshackled from the album/promotion/tour cycle. It’s unlikely that Taylor Swift would have made two albums this 12 months had she been required to advertise the primary one dwell. At present within the technique of following up her vastly profitable breakthrough When We All Fall Asleep, The place Do We Go? when she ought to have been touring the world, Billie Eilish just lately mentioned: “As a lot as I wanted that I had been in a position to have the 12 months I used to be planning on having and tour and blah blah blah, we’d by no means have made this album … we’d have made one thing, however it could have been utterly totally different.” Whether or not the music business takes discover of this and alters its method to promotion and touring stays to be seen – both means, a 12 months caught prior to now might have irrevocably modified pop’s future.