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Pop Music’s Nostalgia Obsession – The Atlantic


The Grammys have all the time been greater than a bit old style. The ceremony usually consists of thrilling new artists masking the songs of yesteryear, interspersed with awards going to established acts over those self same thrilling new artists. However although reforms on the Recording Academy, which palms out the awards, have led to higher illustration lately, 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 best way Olivia Rodrigo did 2021. Her tune “Drivers License” had such a uncommon crossover pop enchantment that Saturday Night time Dwell had an entire sketch about how nicely it had related with unlikely audiences. Many anticipated this previous week’s Grammys to be a coronation for Rodrigo. And whereas she had a couple of key wins, among the greatest trophies went to extra throwback sounds. Document of the Yr, Track of the Yr, and Album of the Yr went to Silk Sonic and Jon Batiste for soul albums which are magnetic but additionally undeniably retro.

It’s not simply the Grammys although. Trendy music as an entire is going by means of a nostalgic part.

What explains our love of throwback sounds proper now? Are we comfort-listening by means of exhausting occasions? Or is the business simply lastly capable of see (and monetize) a sort of listening we’ve all the time accomplished?

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 Evaluation. Take heed to their dialog right here:


The next 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 have been some shock wins and a few attainable snubs, however we needed to examine in on music typically 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 by means of her rerecord part. Billie Eilish was Happier Than Ever reasonably than enjoying the “Unhealthy Man.” And, after all, Olivia Rodrigo was the story of 2021 with the ballad “Drivers License” and her subsequent single-spawning album Bitter. However 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 latest pop music, and that’s nostalgia. The Grammys have all the time been form of old style, however even the large artists themselves have been in a nostalgic part, and we noticed that over the weekend. Spencer, the place did we see nostalgia on Sunday evening?

Spencer Kornhaber: Proper, lots of people anticipated the Grammys could be the night of Olivia Rodrigo, who is nineteen years outdated and principally unknown—aside from viewers of Disney TV programming—previous to her tune blowing up in 2021. Typically 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 extremely good pop sensibility and who’s actually good at social media? What if that is the subsequent sound in pop music?” And everybody was like: “Sure, let’s try this. That sounds nice.”

Li: (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: And so this yr’s Grammys had been anticipated to be a form of victory lap for Rodrigo. And so they had been, kind of. She received Finest New Artist, which is a giant prize. However she didn’t win Document of the Yr, Track of the Yr, or Album of the Yr. These prizes went to artists who make nice, throwback, wedding-ready soul music.

And I wish to tread evenly 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 “Go away the Door Open,” which received Document and Track of the Yr. And I don’t wish to come for Jon Batiste, an incredible jazz pianist and bandleader who—moreover additionally being an amazing man and the music director of The Atlanticreceived Album of the Yr.

But it surely was somewhat shocking that this sort of very acquainted sound, the sound that you could possibly 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 revolutionary artists like Olivia and among the different nominees. And that was somewhat deflating for some individuals, but additionally: Grammys are going to Grammy. (Laughs.) What did you suppose, Hannah?

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

Kornhaber: Actually?

Giorgis: Yeah; I imply, nostalgically, sure, within the sense that you just had this huge, sweeping efficiency from Olivia Rodrigo, you had a couple of 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’s actually exhausting to evaluate all of music and package deal an awards present that appeals to everybody. You may have somebody like Lil Nas X take the stage doing “Business Child” and you then’ve bought Woman Gaga doing her Nineteen Forties cosplay. You’re attempting to hit all of the beats, however whenever you have a look at the Grammys as an entire, there was definitely a desire for Silk Sonic. That they had wrapped the earlier yr’s present they usually opened this yr’s present. But when we zoom out from the Grammys, there’s additionally been lots 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 lots of the sounds from her previous. And if we have a look at the opposite pop stars on the scene, they’re equally borrowing from the previous. Dua Lipa, for example, is in the course of a disco revival. And so I wonder if the 2 of you agree that nostalgia is shaping the most important hits of our present period.

Kornhaber: It’s a perennial debate in widespread music, but it surely’s change into somewhat extra pronounced this yr. There’s been a lot of artists on this tremendous express retro part. As an illustration, The Weeknd got here out in January with this impeccable idea album about, principally, dying in a automobile crash in 1984 and dwelling within the radio station of that second. It’s glorious, and it’s utterly pastiche.

And also you’re proper; I used to be simply saying Olivia Rodrigo is so revolutionary, however for those who take heed to her single “Good 4 U,” it’s so near Paramore’s “Distress Enterprise” 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 Inexperienced Day’s “Mind Stew.” Her music is totally this pastiche of issues we’ve heard earlier than, however alternatively, that’s what pop music all the time is!

What’s possibly completely different proper now’s that, because of streaming, we’re very conscious of how a lot persons are listening to what they’ve all the time listened to. Maybe it looks 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: Positively. 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 weight loss program 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 completely different approach of discovering music. I additionally suppose we’re in search of out the acquainted throughout a time once we’re all maybe nonetheless actively in search of consolation.

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

Li: Proper. In the case of tv and movie, corporations are attempting 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 mentioned music “attain[es] individuals at a degree of their lives once they want it most. When a tune or an album is made, it virtually has a radar to seek out the particular person once they want it probably the most.” It’s a profound assertion, and it virtually goes towards what we’re saying about streaming pulling us into our outdated habits. What’s on the market finds us once we want it.

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

Li: (Laughs.) However 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: Effectively, the album peaked at 86 on the Billboard charts and Rolling Stone solely gave it a one-sentence assessment. It wasn’t this momentous factor within the musical discourse. However Batiste is a fixture. He’s on TV each single evening on the Late Present 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 business man. He performs devices. He leads a band. There’s lots of causes for why the final physique of the Recording Academy, which is made up of different individuals within the music business, would possibly see his title on a listing of 10 individuals and say, “I like that man probably 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 decide, however is competing towards Billie Eilish and different Grammys favourite Taylor Swift. And the three of them are going to separate lots of votes as a result of they enchantment to related sensibilities. And whenever you go down the listing, you see a few completely different acts that will cancel one another out.

Somebody 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 towards one another. And so vote-splitting could assist clarify a few of Jon Batiste’s win, too, and there’s no scandal in that. However you find yourself with this barely older-style, probably not in-the-conversation album profitable, which is one thing that’s occurred repeatedly in Grammys historical past. But it surely’s not his fault.

Learn: 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 at present, a supernova like Olivia Rodrigo won’t have the benefit you’d count on subsequent to, say, extra of a north star like Jon Batiste. And that’s not a knock towards him.

Giorgis: Spencer, you referred to as him “one of the vital seen 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 useful in awarding somebody who’s so publicly working and placing the hours into the craft in a approach 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 by means of the air. And that’s completely 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 lots of pop music, but additionally different genres akin to hip-hop, which has all the time struggled on the Grammys. Folks typically 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 Appearing. It may be exhausting to clarify the subtleties that go into an actor’s work. However for those who’re seeing somebody actively plinking on a piano, that’s a show of musicianship that’s completely different than simply stepping as much as a mic. I feel that’s most likely why Justin Bieber, after his efficiency on the Grammys, was crying.

Giorgis: (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: Effectively, he cries loads. Over you. You understand, you possibly can’t see it. You don’t know what. He’s high quality.

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. However that is the Grammys. That’s pop musicians attempting 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 unimaginable as a result of Justin Bieber has had a following for what looks like ceaselessly now, however that’s a TikTok tune! That’s a tune that discovered nearly all of its footing with individuals consuming it on TikTok. And that’s not essentially a knock towards it. There’s loads of music that involves me from TikTok. However there’s a specific dissonance to seeing him sit down with that stage of drama to carry out this little TikTok jingle.

Li: Particularly when TikTok capitalizes in your quick consideration span, and right here he’s extending it so long as attainable. However going off of that, what do you suppose the fame of the Grammys is at present? Has it modified as a result of the Academy did develop its membership?

It was attempting to interrupt the mildew. And, for those who have a look at the outcomes this yr, the large 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 common, which I do know is a reasonably 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 bought to see BTS do that unimaginable, pleasant efficiency!

Li: Sure! The place they took off their fits and used them as air guitars!

Giorgis: Proper! And I’ve bother imagining that occuring in 2017 or 2018. Perhaps that’s me having a bias towards these years from this distance, however they did really feel a bit completely different. It felt somewhat more energizing. The second when Megan Thee Stallion and Dua Lipa had been on the point of introduce the Finest New Artist award and did that “Oh, you’re in the identical outfit as me” factor. I used to be like: “Oh, that is 1998. That is Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. And likewise we’re doing it in Megan and Dua’s younger, boisterous approach.” However I don’t know that I’d say the Grammys as an establishment is form of barreling towards the longer term. Extra of a sluggish crawl.

Kornhaber: The take care of 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 vital and traditionally memorable album of that yr. And this goes approach again. I used to be simply studying Selection 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 Yr. Nirvana’s Nevermind wasn’t even nominated.

Quick-forward to 2008—which was the final time a Black particular person received Album of the Yr—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 vital looking back than Amy Winehouse’s Again to Black. And that’s occurred over and over. And so there’s that observe file that it’s all the time going to be combating towards, which you’ll’t actually say that it shook off this yr.

However the different factor in regards to the Grammys is that it has. It was run for a very long time by the identical group of dudes. And one dude specifically, 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 purpose—all these bizarre Grammy-specific performances that make you ask: “Why am I seeing this as an alternative of, like, truly the tune that outlined this yr?” For me, that was principally from Ken Erlich chasing these Grammy moments. However 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 typically. On 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 bought lots of consideration on-line. He offered information exhibiting that, prior to now two years, listenership for catalog songs, i.e., songs older than 18 months outdated, was outpacing listenership for brand spanking new songs. And that’s a surprising statistic that folks extrapolated loads from. However 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 approach 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 occurring 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 types of arenas, but it surely’s very true in pop music. You may solely iterate a bit on what’s been accomplished 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 actually be on that fringe of outdated and new. However we’re positively in a second the place we’re very conscious that we’ve got these playlists of songs that all of us listened to at summer time camp in 1998 that we’re going to maintain returning to. And that’s being mirrored again to the business and the place they’re attempting to monetize it.



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