Pop Music Essay

By the time she’d conceptualized the ’80s revisionist theme of iconography of Drake and OVO Sound signees Majid Jordan’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” look less delightfully left-field than quietly prescient in this context.) Swift applied her champion ear for melody and the machine-shop precision of her producers Max Martin and Shellback (with a little help from Fun.

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You can hear Taylor get wise to the new rules a minute into Just about every big pop release of the last two years has offered up a variation of what “… ” would end up sounding like, but in most cases they haven’t been the records making the biggest waves.

Ed Sheeran’s fake-dancehall jam “Shape of You” aside, 2017 has been dominated by strange pairings like Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito” remix and the Post Malone and 21 Savage collab “Rockstar,” or else gritty genre exercises like Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” and Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves),” which famously knocked Swift’s bad rap comeback “Look What You Made Me Do” out of the Billboard Hot 100’s top billing. The singers buying studio time with Antonoff, Martin, Shellback, Greg Kurstin, etc.

It’s hard to catalogue these moves while they’re happening sometimes, the same way it’s tricky to notice long-term shifts in the structure of your face because you see it in the mirror every day. In writing about many of the biggest pop records since January, I started to notice similarities across the board that weren’t as pronounced in years past — sounds were shared by artists who didn’t work in the same sphere or even the same country.

This is different from producers having a signature sound, like the standing four-counts and zany key changes of a Pharrell vehicle or the drowsy, gauzy synths and samples favored by Drake’s right-hand man Noah “40” Shebib.

(Indeed, Jack Antonoff has co-produced or co-written enough of the songs mentioned above that synth-pop riffs like the ones in “Beautiful Trauma” and “Out of the Woods” signal his involvement almost as cleanly as a producer tag.) I don’t think it’s his or any in-demand producer’s fault that pop music feels like it’s folding in on itself.

They’re just perfectionists providing a service a little too cleanly.

Pop’s not in crisis per se — most of the aforementioned singles are doing all right for themselves even in the cases where their respective albums might not be — but it is locked in a losing battle to match steps with the infinite, effortless cool of young, savvy rappers, as the Taylor Swift–Cardi B Hot 100 baton pass and the enduring successes of Future, Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, the Migos, and Kendrick Lamar illustrate.

There’s big money in sticking to your guns, as the huge paydays of the most recent Drake and Adele albums and the respectful first week haul of Sam Smith’s soul and gospel-infused I’ve heard a few friends and colleagues rail against what one buddy cleverly referred to as the “Antonoff-ization” of pop music.

Vincent’s “Los Ageless,” Halsey’s “Now or Never,” Kesha’s “Learn to Let Go,” and Nick Jonas and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Bacon.” Really skip around. The snaps and claps in the beat turn to high hats in the same place.

The synths crest at the right time, always offset by some twee melodic touch like a horn or a guitar or a high-pitched warble.


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