Thank god for Britney Spears—the newest wave of pop hitmakers, nostalgic for the sound of the early 00’s, has arrived. In 2018, experimental pop artists argue for the subversive. Their music is catchy with a demented bent. Their music might be unironically upbeat and fun. In short, the genre has become as uncategorizable as these artists are themselves.
Pop has often been harshly misjudged. The genre, its moniker short for “popular music,” often draws snide remarks from critics. Acts like the Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, and, of course, Britney Spears marked the sound of pop in the 00’s. The manufacturing of these boy bands, girl groups, and solo acts gave pop a corporate sheen. Female pop stars also drew criticism for their skimpy outfits and “scandalous” exploits. Critics have often thought of pop as inauthentic and tragically heteronormative. Its stars, they say, were made to hew to the mainstream and to perform a persona.
Now, there are new artists rewriting pop’s limitations. Once fans of Y2K-era artists, they’ve reinterpreted the pop they grew up with. They ask, could pop be a way to embrace a high-femme aesthetic? Could pop be able to argue for one of its largest fanbases, the LGBTQ+ community? Could pop be able to sound at once alien and familiar?
Buzzfeed recently proclaimed 2018 “the year of the queer woman pop star”. Openly-out artists such as Halsey and Kehlani dominate the mainstream. Underground pop artists including Rina Sawayama, SOPHIE, and Dorian Electra all dare to push the envelope even further.
SOPHIE, previously a Los Angeles-based producer, is a trans woman and now the front person of her own project. As she proclaims on her single “Faceshopping”, “my face is the front of shop”. Dorian Electra’s performance frequently draws from drag culture. Their single “Career Boy” isn’t afraid to criticize our culture’s obsession with gender roles and materialism.
LGBTQ-adjacent artists have also contributed to the digital pop landscape. If you’ve heard her song “Boom Clap” or her verse on Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, you know of Charli XCX. Charli XCX, on tour with Taylor Swift, frequently collaborates with these up-and-coming artists.
Undoubtedly, pop’s new sound is the sound of tomorrow. The enigmatic record label PC Music has promulgated a particular sound — the heady, sweet pop of the 2000’s pushed through an electronic cheese grater. Admittedly, it is difficult to listen to at first. Listeners might find ecstasy in what sounds like dial-up meshed with a cloying, sticky chorus or they might forever experience a certain anxiety. Truly, the sound of pop has taken its cues from the culture of the internet, then and now.
Apart from PC Music, Rina Sawayama’s single, “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome”, captures sonically and lyrically our ongoing relationship to the internet. She is the girl captive to the cyber world, but “happiest whenever [she’s] with you online”. The result is a song both euphoric and isolating.
A far cry from the criticism of one-sidedness, these artists lyrics offer no simple explanations. Rather, pop raises more questions than answers. A divine, jarring album, SOPHIE’s “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” explores her ongoing construction of identity. On the track, “Immaterial”, she asks “With no name and with no type of story/ Where do I live?/ Tell me, where do I exist?”
This new pop offers the audience a glimpse into the grisly machine. The construction of personas and star-worthy stories is as much a part of pop as the music is.
The sound, the lyrics, and the artists themselves argue that pop is more of an expansive genre than ever before. In step with our culture, pop has consumed our obsession with the internet and our own identities. A sparkling set of pop stars has arrived to capture our hearts. To dismiss pop is to miss their fascinating conversation.