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 Be — a 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.
Perusing the lists of the decade’s best-selling albums tells a similar story, with usual suspects like Taylor Swift, Adele, Ariana Grande, and Justin Timberlake dominating the proceedings. In 2019, one of the most popular LPs is the very good When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? by the teen phenom Billie Eilish, who at times harkens to the goth-y sonics of Nine Inch Nails but almost never raises her voice above a numb whisper.
What you don’t see on these lists are anti-heroes who make music that’s loud, abrasive, or viewed as completely disreputable by grown-ups. There is nothing here that inspired protests, boycotts, or even angry op-eds. Take the aforementioned Post Malone, whose Hollywood’s Bleeding is 2019’s best-selling album. While Posty looks the part of the outsider agitator, with his multiple face tattoos and depressive demeanor, his music is almost always melodically palatable and, well, soft. In fact, it is impossible to play this music too loud. Even at full volume, it’s all so shockingly … mellow.
At least previous decades had something to balance out the mildness of Top 40 pop. In 1991, Metallica included a few power ballads on its self-titled fifth album, and was rewarded with the decade’s best-selling LP. But they were still Metallica — while “Nothing Else Matters” was a pretty pop tune, James Hetfield made sure to bark and snarl his way through the rest of the record. Compared to Post Malone, Metallica’s so-called “Black Album” might as well be Throbbing Gristle.
The one exception this decade is an artist who feels like a leftover remnant from another time: Eminem. The last great “annoy your parents” superstar, Eminem moved tens of millions of CDs once upon a time thanks to songs in which he literally screamed about killing his girlfriend. But while he’s the third most-streamed artist of all-time on Spotify, Eminem is now an outlier who spotlights how much culture this decade has changed from the aughts, when the artist also known as Marshall Mathers was the era’s most commercially dominant star, along with similarly shout-y acts like Linkin Park and Creed.
At the start of the 2010s, it appeared like Odd Future was about to assume Enimem’s “horrorcore” mantle for disaffected youth seeking the most reprehensible sounds under the sun. On his polarizing 2011 studio album debut Goblin, the collective’s most outspoken member, Tyler The Creator, infamously rapped about wanting to “rape a pregnant woman and call it a threesome” over an unusual, atonal backing track. But in time, Odd Future’s calling card wasn’t provocation, but rather as a clearinghouse for some of the most progressive pop talents of the decade, including Earl Sweatshirt, The Internet, and, most importantly, Frank Ocean, the decade’s most beloved indie star, along with the the similarly sedate Lana Del Rey. Even Tyler backed away from his former bad-boy image, rapping that he’s been “kissing white boys since 2004” on his 2017 album Flower Boy.
Not even XXXtentacion, who was tragically murdered in 2018 amid headlines about alleged domestic abuse and past criminal incidents, was all that dangerous musically. His enormous hit “SAD!,” which has been streamed on Spotify more than 1.1 billion times, is a low-key, mid-tempo, and insinuatingly catchy number with minimal synth flourishes and a flat, mumbly vocal, in which XXXtentacion whines, “I love when you’re around / But I f*cking hate when you leave.” A timeless, quintessential sentiment about young, messed-up love if there ever was one.
Like much of Soundcloud rap, which is as emblematic to teen music this decade as grunge in the ’90s and nu-metal in the ’00s, “SAD!” might sound off-putting to anyone accustomed to only the most hyper-proficient mainstream pop. But otherwise, it frequently verges on easy-listening balladry. It’s certainly not anything a parent raised on Eazy-E and Dimebag Darrell couldn’t handle.
This is the part where I’m required to comment on so-called “woke” culture and how it has made politically incorrect pop stars obsolete. Unquestionably, modern sensitivities have made it almost impossible for a song like “One In A Million” or the Geto Boys’ “Mind Of A Lunatic” or even Eminem’s “Kim” to achieve prominence. The cultural capital once afforded for this sort of transgressive music has all but evaporated.
As noted this week by The New Yorker‘s Emily Witt, the early 2000s were a time when “a new brashness arose that seemed irreverent and funny,” in which comedians like Sarah Silverman and Dave Chappelle and publications like the Gavin McInnes era of Vice gleefully pushed the limits on socially accepted forms of speech as they pertain to gender, race, and sexuality. The same could be said (and often was) about Eminem at the height of his fame.
The idea at the time (as I remember it) was that joking about these things would somehow disarm and minimize them, though in retrospect that clearly didn’t prove to be the case. Reveling in disgusting language didn’t liberate anybody; it just made people feel like they were badasses evading their just circumstances. Looking back at this time with a 2019 perspective, Witt concludes that “nihilism was the mood, or at least my mood.” No, it was definitely the mood.
The trajectory this decade from making tasteless jokes about assaulting a pregnant woman to the same group providing a safe space for queer artists, many of us would agree, represents a necessary and long overdue recalibration of priorities. After all, challenging systemic oppression is braver and more productive than reviving old attacks on ancient taboos that no longer inflame public emotion anyway.
But that still doesn’t explain the musical shift this decade, from a precedent in which rap and metal historically provided a highly popular and commercially successful counterpoint to the dominance of milquetoast pop. That counterpoint didn’t really exist this decade on a scale commiserate with the button-pushers of previous decades. We were pretty much stuck with just the milquetoast stuff.
Around the time that Odd Future was inspiring reams of thinkpieces, Skrillex was at the head of an EDM revolution in pop that was every bit as brash musically as Tyler The Creator was lyrically. Here was music that seemed designed for rock-weaned oldsters to hate. And then something interesting happened: EDM didn’t take over the culture. The culture absorbed EDM.
Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan pinpoints the moment when this happened: “Where Are Ü Now,” the 2015 hit collaboration between Skrillex, Justin Bieber and Diplo in which the “laidback, melodic, and lovelorn” track managed to be “EDM without being EDM.” Soon, the Chainsmokers would replicate this formula — “fewer beats per minute, three or four repeating chords, a backdrop of rave-tent synths,” as Hogan describes it — over and over again, to the tune of hundreds of millions of streams.
A lot has been written about how streaming platforms have transformed pop songwriting in the last several years. The phenomenon known as “lean back listening,” in which listeners allow themselves to be guided to the next song — either via a playlist or an algorithm — rather than choosing it themselves, has fundamentally changed the pop audience. Many people no longer listen to specific artists, they listen to Spotify, just as they tune into Netflix first, and then allow Netflix to show them their options for tonight’s entertainment.
Song lengths have shrunk along with attention spans, and the golden rule of “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” has taken on the stature of scripture. These platforms have also disincentivized provocation, whether it’s lyrical or musical. Now more than ever, we listen to music either via laptop speakers or headphones, which enhances intimate or quiet music and makes it harder to appreciate screaming, power chords, or any other musical gesture intended to be felt as much as heard. And this, in turn, has influenced what people value most from music. Soft or “chill” music, once considered the sound of lame parents, is now a virtue. As one successful pop songwriter put it to Hogan, “It takes a lot of confidence to sing quietly.”
For those of us raised with different pop-music values, this can be a little hard to fathom. In a 2019 column about the popularity of the Youtube channel for Chillhop Music, basically an extremely relaxed form of rap, the critic Amanda Petrusich mused that “the music wasn’t really for liking, in the traditional sense. The music wasn’t for anything. It merely existed to facilitate and sustain a mood, which in turn might enable a task: studying, folding laundry, making spreadsheets, idly browsing the Internet.”
I had a similar reaction in 2018 when I wrote about the insanely popular sorta-rock band Twenty One Pilots, whose 2015 release Blurryface is one of the signature albums of the early streaming era. “This is the sound of pissed-off youth in 2018?” I asked rhetorically. “Really? Where is the screaming? The wanton cursing? The down-tuned guitars, mile-a-minute blast beats, and provocative lyrics that denounce the systemic corruption of the adult world?”
There’s an obvious irony in adults tsk-tsking the youth for not rocking hard enough. Trust me, I can see it. (Please don’t “ok boomer” me just yet.) I get that this is the opioid era. (Our music usually sounds like our drugs.) Not to mention the bottomless debt era and, of course, the Trump era. The rest of the world is already screaming at us. Who wants to music to do it, too?
Nevertheless, I find it strange that I might be the one telling my kids to actually turn their music up.