Why Was Pop Music So Mild And Inoffensive In The 2010s?

In my teens and early 20s, I would sometimes think ahead to the distant future, when I had children of my own. “How is the pop music that my kids like possibly going to offend me?” I wondered.

It was honest, unanswerable question. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I had been subjected to all manner of filth and obscenity. My earliest musical memories include watching the lascivious video for Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” and catching glimpses of the PMRC hearings on television, in which Tipper Gore railed against the evils of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and W.A.S.P.’s “Animal (F*ck Like A Beast).”

By the end of elementary school, I had heard 2 Live Crew’s semi-pornographic As Nasty As They Wanna Bea neighbor kid had literally dropped a dubbed cassette tape in my garbage can — and Guns N’ Roses’ incendiary “One In A Million,” which included racist and homophobic epithets. In junior high school, there was N.W.A.’s chart-topping Efil4zaggin and the Geto Boys’ notorious self-titled record. And in high school there was the massive Nine Inch Nails’ MTV hit “Closer,” in which Trent Reznor panted that he wanted to “f*ck you like an animal,” an accidental homage to W.A.S.P.’s Blackie Lawless, I’m sure. And, of course, there was Biggie and 2Pac, the kings of the gangsta-rap region of the high-school parking lot, which fought a sonic war against the jean-jacketed kids who blasted Slayer and Pantera.

This music wasn’t just lyrically coarse, but also musically hard-edged. There was screaming and swearing and down-tuned guitars and punishing beats made to maximize muscle-car subwoofers. The very definition of “annoy your parents” music. But it was also, in a sense, pop. While a lot of it never made it to Top 40 radio, it still managed to reach critical mass. It certainly wasn’t considered underground by anyone under the age of 30, nor was it inaccessible. If a kid in the middle of Wisconsin could hear all of this music back in the pre-internet dark ages, I feel safe in assuming that everybody heard it. In most cases, these artists moved millions upon millions of records. They were outlaws and yet also mainstream.

As a person who had heard and memorized “Me So Horny” before he reached puberty, I questioned whether pop music could really push the boundaries any further. I imagined that youth music in the 21st century would have to approximate the sound of a malfunctioning table saw, over which some lunatic would rap-holler a passage from Mein Kampf in a voice that alternated between a really bad Austin Powers impersonation and a really bad Ali G impersonation. Short of that, I couldn’t fathom how any form of pop music would possibly bother me.

Now that I live in the future, of course, I can see how wrong my thinking was. The world has changed in so many ways since I aged out of the prime pop-music demographic. But the development that most interests me is that aggressive “annoy your parents” music no longer exists as a part of pop.

It’s true that you can still hear all manner of noise and filth if you seek it out — hardcore punk, death metal, gritty and foul-mouthed rap, and all the rest. But that kind of music didn’t seem at all prominent or commercial in the 2010s. Like physical media and bands as a relevant concept, the aggravating a-hole court jesters of music were pushed to the cultural margins.

Just take a look at the most streamed songs of all time, which all derive from this decade. The list is inevitably topped by Ed Sheeran (for the inexecrable “Shape Of You”) and Drake (for “One Dance”), who are also the most streamed artists of all time. Then there’s Post Malone, the Chainsmokers, Ed Sheeran again, Drake again, Camila Cabello, and Justin Bieber.