Politics

Pop Music’s Nostalgia Obsession – The Atlantic


The Grammys have at all times been greater than a bit old style. The ceremony sometimes consists of thrilling new artists masking the songs of yesteryear, interspersed with awards going to established acts over those self same thrilling new artists. But although reforms on the Recording Academy, which fingers out the awards, have led to higher illustration in recent times, this previous week’s Grammys renewed debate about whether or not they’re nonetheless too caught prior to now.

Few artists have dominated a yr of music the way in which Olivia Rodrigo did 2021. Her tune “Drivers License” had such a uncommon crossover pop enchantment that Saturday Night Live had an entire sketch about how effectively it had linked with unlikely audiences. Many anticipated this previous week’s Grammys to be a coronation for Rodrigo. And whereas she had just a few key wins, a number of the largest trophies went to extra throwback sounds. Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year went to Silk Sonic and Jon Batiste for soul albums which are magnetic but in addition undeniably retro.

It’s not simply the Grammys although. Modern music as an entire is going via a nostalgic section.

What explains our love of throwback sounds proper now? Are we comfort-listening via onerous occasions? Or is the trade simply lastly capable of see (and monetize) a sort of listening we’ve at all times executed?

Spencer Kornhaber, Shirley Li, and Hannah Giorgis assess the state of pop music following the Grammys on an episode of The Atlantic’s tradition podcast, The Review. Listen to their dialog right here:


The following transcript has been edited for size and readability.

Shirley Li: In case you didn’t see, the sixty fourth Grammys had been this weekend. There had been some shock wins and a few doable snubs, however we wished to examine in on music normally this week on the podcast. Spencer, the final time you and I talked about music on this podcast, we had been speaking about how pop music was in its breakup period.

It was all huge, cathartic feelings. Adele’s newest album had simply dropped, and it was dominating the charts. Taylor Swift was going via her rerecord section. Billie Eilish was Happier Than Ever quite than taking part in the “Bad Guy.” And, in fact, Olivia Rodrigo was the story of 2021 with the ballad “Drivers License” and her subsequent single-spawning album Sour. But the story of the Grammys wasn’t actually about all that catharsis.

There appeared to be a theme to the night that’s run all through current pop music, and that’s nostalgia. The Grammys have at all times been form of old style, however even the massive artists themselves have been in a nostalgic section, and we noticed that over the weekend. Spencer, the place did we see nostalgia on Sunday evening?

Spencer Kornhaber: Right, lots of people anticipated the Grammys can be the night of Olivia Rodrigo, who is nineteen years outdated and principally unknown—apart from viewers of Disney TV programming—previous to her tune blowing up in 2021. Sometimes individuals suppose that music has no future and no new concepts, that we’ve stopped making culture-uniting pop stars.

And Olivia comes alongside and she or he’s like: “What if we had a Disney Channel star who grew up listening to Taylor Swift and emo music, with a really good pop sensibility and who’s really good at social media? What if this is the next sound in pop music?” And everybody was like: “Yes, let’s do that. That sounds great.”

Li: (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: And so this yr’s Grammys had been anticipated to be a form of victory lap for Rodrigo. And they had been, kind of. She received Best New Artist, which is an enormous prize. But she didn’t win Record of the Year, Song of the Year, or Album of the Year. Those prizes went to artists who make nice, throwback, wedding-ready soul music.

And I wish to tread flippantly right here as a result of I don’t wish to come for Bruno Mars or Anderson .Paak of Silk Sonic, who’re very gifted musicians and put out a hilarious single with “Leave the Door Open,” which received Record and Song of the Year. And I don’t wish to come for Jon Batiste, an incredible jazz pianist and bandleader who—apart from additionally being an excellent man and the music director of The Atlanticreceived Album of the Year.

But it was just a little stunning that this sort of very acquainted sound, the sound that you would have heard on the Grammys or actually at any level within the final 50 years, was what received out over arguably extra important and dynamic and progressive artists like Olivia and a number of the different nominees. And that was just a little deflating for some individuals, but in addition: Grammys are going to Grammy. (Laughs.) What did you suppose, Hannah?

Hannah Giorgis: You know, I believed for the primary time shortly, it did truly really feel like music’s largest evening. (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: Really?

Giorgis: Yeah; I imply, nostalgically, sure, within the sense that you simply had this huge, sweeping efficiency from Olivia Rodrigo, you had just a few issues gesturing towards pop music of now and of the longer term, however the evening additionally tied in music that’s palatable to individuals throughout a number of generations.

Li: I agree with you each. It is absolutely onerous to evaluate all of music and package deal an awards present that appeals to everybody. You have somebody like Lil Nas X take the stage doing “Industry Baby” and you then’ve obtained Lady Gaga doing her Nineteen Forties cosplay. You’re making an attempt to hit all of the beats, however whenever you take a look at the Grammys as an entire, there was actually a desire for Silk Sonic. They had wrapped the earlier yr’s present and so they opened this yr’s present. But if we zoom out from the Grammys, there’s additionally been a number of nostalgia within the sound that we hear.

It’s attention-grabbing that we will speak about Olivia Rodrigo as a brand new, shiny pop star, however she can also be borrowing a number of the sounds from her previous. And if we take a look at the opposite pop stars on the scene, they’re equally borrowing from the previous. Dua Lipa, as an example, is in the course of a disco revival. And so I ponder whether the 2 of you agree that nostalgia is shaping the largest hits of our present period.

Kornhaber: It’s a perennial debate in widespread music, but it surely’s grow to be just a little extra pronounced this yr. There’s been plenty of artists on this tremendous specific retro section. For occasion, The Weeknd got here out in January with this impeccable idea album about, mainly, dying in a automobile crash in 1984 and dwelling within the radio station of that second. It’s wonderful, and it’s utterly pastiche.

And you’re proper; I used to be simply saying Olivia Rodrigo is so progressive, however for those who take heed to her single “Good 4 U,” it’s so near Paramore’s “Misery Business” that they needed to give the band a writing credit score. I used to be simply listening to it truly and the final seconds of the tune have the very same guitar stabs as Green Day’s “Brain Stew.” Her music is totally this pastiche of issues we’ve heard earlier than, however alternatively, that’s what pop music at all times is!

What’s possibly totally different proper now could be that, on account of streaming, we’re very conscious of how a lot persons are listening to what they’ve at all times listened to. Perhaps it appears like there’s a bit much less of an urge for food for the brand new, although. Are you feeling that in your personal life, Hannah?

Giorgis: Definitely. I additionally don’t drive anymore, so on a regular basis that I’d usually spend organically discovering music by advantage of New York DJs is gone. Radio doesn’t occupy as huge a spot in individuals’s music food plan because it used to. And so, whenever you take heed to Olivia Rodrigo now, [you’re on streaming where you] can instantly take heed to Paramore after and get caught on their albums. It’s a really totally different manner of discovering music. I additionally suppose we’re searching for out the acquainted throughout a time after we’re all maybe nonetheless actively searching for consolation.

Kornhaber: And streaming has executed one thing just like Hollywood, hasn’t it? There’s an urge for food for comfort-viewing and for rehashes.

Li: Right. When it involves tv and movie, corporations try to maintain you of their streaming libraries by showcasing their earlier hits. Audiences have a heat towards one thing they’ve seen earlier than. It’s protected watching.

I wish to point out Jon Batiste’s speech from Sunday evening although, when he stated music “reach[es] people at a point in their lives when they need it most. When a song or an album is made, it almost has a radar to find the person when they need it the most.” It’s a profound assertion, and it virtually goes in opposition to what we’re saying about streaming pulling us into our outdated habits. What’s on the market finds us after we want it.

Kornhaber: Yes, and this March, Steely Dan discovered me.

Li: (Laughs.) But going off of that, I did wish to ask you particularly about Batiste’s win. What did you make of it? Was it the Grammys Grammy-ing once more, or does it seize a second that we’re feeling?

Kornhaber: Well, the album peaked at 86 on the Billboard charts and Rolling Stone solely gave it a one-sentence evaluate. It wasn’t this momentous factor within the musical discourse. But Batiste is a fixture. He’s on TV each single evening on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert, which tons of individuals watch. He did the soundtrack for the Pixar film Soul and received an Oscar for it. He’s a very good trade man. He performs devices. He leads a band. There’s a number of causes for why the final physique of the Recording Academy, which is made up of different individuals within the music trade, would possibly see his title on a listing of 10 individuals and say, “I like that guy the most,” and vote for him.

There’s additionally a structural issue. This yr, the Academy expanded the nomination pool to 10 nominees, which is lots of people. And what it means is that you’ve somebody like Olivia Rodrigo, who maybe looks as if the consensus choose, however is competing in opposition to Billie Eilish and different Grammys favourite Taylor Swift. And the three of them are going to separate a number of votes as a result of they enchantment to comparable sensibilities. And whenever you go down the checklist, you see a few totally different acts which will cancel one another out.

Someone would possibly vote for Doja Cat, or possibly they’ll vote for Lil Nas X, however you’re not going to get the plurality as a result of they’re each competing in opposition to one another. And so vote-splitting might assist clarify a few of Jon Batiste’s win, too, and there’s no scandal in that. But you find yourself with this barely older-style, not likely in-the-conversation album successful, which is one thing that’s occurred time and again in Grammys historical past. But it’s not his fault.

Read: Lil Nas X isn’t a fad. He’s the way forward for pop.

Li: That’s so attention-grabbing. So to win a Grammy in the present day, a supernova like Olivia Rodrigo may not have the benefit you’d anticipate subsequent to, say, extra of a north star like Jon Batiste. And that’s not a knock in opposition to him.

Giorgis: Spencer, you referred to as him “one of the most visible working musicians in America.” And it’s not simply that he’s on late evening and that he did the music for Soul: I’m curious if the Academy sees one thing notably precious in awarding somebody who’s so publicly working and placing the hours into the craft in a manner that we don’t essentially see as vividly or as clearly with somebody like Olivia Rodrigo or Billie Eilish.

Kornhaber: Yeah, it’s an old-school concept of musicianship. He actually presses the keys on a piano and creates sounds that transfer via the air. And that’s totally different from Olivia and her producer laying down tracks in a studio. And it speaks to the way it takes time for individuals to regulate their rubric for the work going into a number of pop music, but in addition different genres akin to hip-hop, which has at all times struggled on the Grammys. People usually don’t perceive that the musicians in these genres could be working simply as a lot as John Batiste, who they see on TV each evening sweating it out.

Li: Yeah, it’s a bit like how we honor performing, the place these huge, histrionic performances are typically those that get Oscars as a result of that’s what we predict is capital-A Acting. It could be onerous to clarify the subtleties that go into an actor’s work. But for those who’re seeing somebody actively plinking on a piano, that’s a show of musicianship that’s totally different than simply stepping as much as a mic. I believe that’s in all probability why Justin Bieber, after his efficiency on the Grammys, was crying.

Giorgis: (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: Well, he cries loads. Over you. You know, you possibly can’t see it. You don’t know what. He’s tremendous.

Li: (Laughs.) I used to be simply questioning if possibly he was like: I lastly confirmed them!

Kornhaber: (Laughs.) I imply, that efficiency is hilarious. It’s the tune “Peaches,” which is a intercourse metaphor about consuming peaches. It’s additionally about smoking weed and getting the new lady. It’s this laid-back R&B-inflected tune, however he did it on the piano so slowly, it was like he was singing a Celine Dion tune. But that is the Grammys. That is pop musicians making an attempt to create this aura of respectability in order that they are often seen as conventional working musicians along with these celeb supernovas.

Giorgis: And it’s notably unbelievable as a result of Justin Bieber has had a following for what appears like eternally now, however that’s a TikTok tune! That’s a tune that discovered the vast majority of its footing with individuals consuming it on TikTok. And that’s not essentially a knock in opposition to it. There’s loads of music that involves me from TikTok. But there’s a specific dissonance to seeing him sit down with that degree of drama to carry out this little TikTok jingle.

Li: Especially when TikTok capitalizes in your quick consideration span, and right here he’s extending it so long as doable. But going off of that, what do you suppose the repute of the Grammys is in the present day? Has it modified as a result of the Academy did increase its membership?

It was making an attempt to interrupt the mildew. And, for those who take a look at the outcomes this yr, the massive 4 winners had been individuals of shade and there have been some breakthrough winners and nominees.

Giorgis: I imply, they managed to really feel much less irrelevant than typical, which I do know is a fairly tepid endorsement. It’s true that we didn’t see Olivia Rodrigo win awards individuals thought that she was going to win, but it surely’s additionally a present that lastly honored Jazmine Sullivan, the place we obtained to see BTS do that unbelievable, pleasant efficiency!

Li: Yes! Where they took off their fits and used them as air guitars!

Giorgis: Right! And I’ve hassle imagining that occuring in 2017 or 2018. Maybe that’s me having a bias in opposition to these years from this distance, however they did really feel a bit totally different. It felt just a little more energizing. The second when Megan Thee Stallion and Dua Lipa had been on the brink of introduce the Best New Artist award and did that “Oh, you’re in the same outfit as me” factor. I used to be like: “Oh, this is 1998. This is Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. And also we’re doing it in Megan and Dua’s young, boisterous way.” But I don’t know that I’d say the Grammys as an establishment is form of barreling towards the longer term. More of a gradual crawl.

Kornhaber: The cope with the Grammys is that they’re this notoriously hated establishment as a result of they’ve, over and over, simply utterly missed the ball on awarding what was probably the most important and traditionally memorable album of that yr. And this goes manner again. I used to be simply studying Variety asking “Was 1992 the Worst Grammys Ever?” as a result of that was the yr that Natalie Cole’s album [of 40-year-old songs written by her father, Nat King Cole] received Album of the Year. Nirvana’s Nevermind wasn’t even nominated.

Fast-forward to 2008—which was the final time a Black individual received Album of the Year—and that was Herbie Hancock’s album of Joni Mitchell covers. I’m positive it was musically luminous, but it surely appears loads much less important looking back than Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. And that’s occurred over and over. And so there’s that observe file that it’s at all times going to be preventing in opposition to, which you’ll be able to’t actually say that it shook off this yr.

But the opposite factor concerning the Grammys is that it has. It was run for a very long time by the identical group of dudes. And one dude particularly, Ken Ehrlich, had produced the present since 1980 till two years in the past. All these years of ceremonies with weird mashups of artists, of younger musicians masking 50-year-old songs, of Elton John performing with Eminem or J.Lo doing the Motown tribute for some motive—all these bizarre Grammy-specific performances that make you ask: “Why am I seeing this instead of, like, actually the song that defined this year?” For me, that was principally from Ken Erlich chasing these Grammy moments. But actually, we’re in a totally new period now.

Li: The Grammys have been criticized through the years for being nostalgic, as has pop music normally. In this very publication, our colleague James Parker wrote a chunk in 2011 saying: “Our obsession with musical nostalgia is strangling pop.” And in January, we additionally had a chunk from Ted Gioia that requested: Is outdated music killing new music?

Kornhaber: Yeah, that piece obtained a number of consideration on-line. He introduced knowledge displaying that, prior to now two years, listenership for catalog songs, i.e., songs older than 18 months outdated, was outpacing listenership for brand new songs. And that’s a stunning statistic that individuals extrapolated loads from. But one factor it represents is that streaming is permitting us to quantify the issues that we had been listening to already.

And so, for instance, once I take heed to Steely Dan’s Gaucho, that goes on the ledger in a manner that it wouldn’t have gone on 10 years in the past once I was simply listening to it on CD or vinyl or no matter. There’s additionally this very noticeable development of reissues, remixes, sampling—very overt interpolation of outdated hits happening within the charts.

It’s a tricky factor to speak about as a result of the one issues that ever reach pop music are a mix of novelty and familiarity. That’s the case in all kinds of arenas, but it surely’s very true in pop music. You can solely iterate a bit on what’s been executed earlier than with out going into the realm of being too experimental, too far off the curve or too indie to catch the ears of audiences. I imply, whenever you get obsessive about a brand new tune, it’s not as a result of that tune confused you.

So it has to essentially be on that fringe of outdated and new. But we’re positively in a second the place we’re very conscious that we now have these playlists of songs that all of us listened to at summer season camp in 1998 that we’re going to maintain returning to. And that’s being mirrored again to the trade and the place they’re making an attempt to monetize it.




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