What a time to be alive.
Earlier this summer, the Pop Gods answered my prayers with a brand new Britney Spears song called “Make Me…”. Thirty seconds into blasting it (the only way I listen to Brit), I was hit with a mix of confusion and frustration. Why was it so…mellow? This didn’t sound like my Britney. Where was the fast dance beat like “Toxic?” Where was the catchy chorus I could shamelessly sing along to like in “Oops!…I Did It Again?”
But as the song’s harmonious background built, I sank into its low-key, atmospheric sound. My anger faded. I fell in love with the song.
Britney isn’t the only pop star to dial down the tempo in 2016. Hits like Nick Jonas’ “Close” and Rihanna’s “Needed Me” lean more on downtempo R&B vibes and less on the bubblegum pop style that’s dominated their sound in the past.
It’s a pop industry trend that shows a very important mainstream shift toward rap and hip-hop influences. Take The Weeknd for example, who just won big at this year’s Billboard Awards for his album “Beauty Behind The Madness,” which blends pop, R&B and hip hop seamlessly.
Kerry Marshall, who plays guitar for Jason Derulo and Ty Dolla $ign, echoes that sentiment.
“It’s the new hybrid sound,” he told me. “It’s trendy and catchy and gives more of a sexy feel to the music.”
In other words, everyone who wants to stay relevant in today’s industry needs to bend toward slowed-down beats. For musicians like Marshall, “it makes it more fun to play, because you can put more of yourself into the music. You can please with more feel because of the R&B undertones.”
But even today’s teen pop darlings are being forced to grow up. Fast.
When we interviewed up-and-coming DJ Generik, who was discovered by Calvin Harris, he also agreed the slowed down vibe is taking over. He said modern electro artists like Flume and Hayden James are a big part of this shift. “They make these downtempo, sexy house, future trap or whatever you wanna call it and it’s really lovely to listen to. You can listen to it while vacuuming on a Sunday or when you’re pre-gaming.”
It makes sense that artists like Britney, who have been in the industry for years, have no choice but to change and evolve. But even today’s teen pop darlings are being forced to grow up. Fast.
Last year, Selena Gomez destroyed her good girl Disney channel image with the ultra-sultry song “Good For You.” Then there’s Zayn, who parted ways with One Direction and released a contemporary solo album that’s loaded with rebellion—lyrics about sex and drugs over slow, psychedelic beats.
Just like art and literature, music is born from cultural evolution.
Are pop artists simply growing up and embracing their sexuality? It’s not that simple. A Cornell study from 2015 found that music changes along with cultural influences. The study cites three stylistic revolutions in pop around 1964, 1983 and 1991. The era from 1964 coincided with pop rock like the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Disco, New Wave and hard rock came along in the 80s, and the 90s kicked off the hip hop and rap trend.
Just like art and literature, music is born from cultural evolution. Perhaps now that we’re growing up faster with media 24/7 at our disposal, we have more access to different cultures that we’re not necessarily exposed to firsthand.
The truth is, change is inevitable. “The beauty of music is that it’s ever evolving,” Marshall said. “Some may or may not like the direction, but with artists trying to stay current and reinvent themselves this will keep happening.”
For now, I’m just going to chill out to “Make Me…” and enjoy this beautiful era where diverse music, cultures and people coincide to make something so goddamn awesome.