Musical notes: how is pop music changing during the pandemic?

In our monthly column, our critics ponder how listening tastes are changing – and how pop might adapt to a strange new world

We’re comfort-listening

Alexis Petridis, chief music critic

Last night I found myself listening to the Flaming Lips’ 1999 album The Soft Bulletin, and I wasn’t prepared for how eerily its contents suit life in spring 2020. It opens with a track about scientists racing for an unspecified cure, and the sequence of songs at its centre – Waitin’ for a Superman, Suddenly Everything Has Changed, The Gash and Feeling Yourself Disintegrate – all seemed bizarrely appropriate.

The relationship we have with music might have altered under lockdown. It’s not just that songs seem to have taken on new, apposite resonances given the current situation, but music that you unexpectedly find yourself leaning towards, because you find it chimes with your mood: it’s comforting, elevating or transporting. I speak as someone who recently spent an admittedly tipsy evening listening to what a friend called mumcore: the kind of music parents gravitated toward when I was a kid, somewhere on the cusp of chart pop and easy listening. I can’t profess any great personal passion for Dr Hook’s When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman or Marti Webb’s Take That Look Off Your Face, but at that particular moment it sounded reassuring, a little wallow in nostalgia for a time when I had nothing to worry about.

In fairness, there isn’t much data to suggest that listeners’ habits have changed. The Official Charts company suggest that we got through the first week of lockdown with a combination of gallows humour – surges in popularity for REM’s It’s the End of the World As We Know It and the Police’s Don’t Stand So Close to Me – and inspirational anthems such as Imagine and You’ll Never Walk Alone. However, the UK singles chart is the same as usual: Doja Cat, Dua Lipa, Harry Styles and the Weeknd.

The album charts are filled with the kind of best-of collections that seem to enjoy such permanent residence there you wonder who’s still buying them: how can anyone who wants to hear the greatest hits of Queen, Fleetwood Mac or Elton John not already own them? There’s a vague intimation about the streaming figures on Spotify that parents of a certain age are home more than usual and listening to Wonderwall and Dancing in the Moonlight by Toploader, but there’s nothing in the way of major anomalies, beyond a boost in streams for the late John Prine.

Perhaps this is all evidence that music is fulfilling a keep-calm-and-carry-on function at the moment – normality in a wildly abnormal world – but I think it’s more likely evidence that the charts deal in broad brushstrokes and the kind of response I’m talking about is unique and personal. If, as Zoe Williams recently suggested, lockdown means that, culturally, “we are all basically living out of the store cupboard – all the music and literature and thought-paraphernalia you have carelessly stashed over the past few decades”, then everyone’s stash of memories is bound to be different, particularly the stuff we find ourselves digging deep for, the stuff we find chimes more loudly with us than the standard-issue all-purpose crisis anthems such as Imagine or You’ll Never Walk Alone. So what’s your experience? What music has struck you in a way you didn’t anticipate? And when this is all over, will you want to listen to it again?

We’ll see a return to fantasy

Laura Snapes, deputy music editor

Months before the coronavirus pandemic, pop stars were whispering about pivoting back to escapism. Trauma was wearing out its hold on the charts, especially since a generation of rappers had been wiped out by addiction, depression and gun violence. Feeble lyrics by major pop acts about feeling unpopular and awkward were wearing thin, while musicians venturing personal intimacies largely found them turned into grist for an unforgiving gossip mill.

Frank Ocean performing at Parklife festival, 2017.
Frank Ocean performing at Parklife festival, 2017. Photograph: Visionhaus/Corbis via Getty Images

“The expectation for artists to be vulnerable and truthful is a lot, you know, when it’s no longer a choice,” Frank Ocean told W Magazine. “Like, in order for me to satisfy expectations, there needs to be an outpouring of my heart or my experiences in a very truthful, vulnerable way. I’m more interested in lies than that. Like, give me a full motion-picture fantasy.” And as Dua Lipa was teasing what would turn out to be a pointedly escapist second album, Lady Gaga was threatening a return to the high-concept dance-pop that made her a star.

The pandemic won’t slow this shift. Once lockdown is over, after months of fear for everyone and far more grievous circumstances for many, the idea of having to relive this period via a glut of insular, anxious pop music just sounds like prolonging the agony. Although we’ve quickly acclimatised to seeing grainy FaceTime feeds on national TV, lo-fi beat battles through Instagram Live and music videos made on Zoom, those homespun production values will only increase fans’ hunger for the kind of high-end production you can’t easily put together on the fly – especially if, as healthcare experts are suggesting, live music and festivals might not realistically return until late 2021. Transportive fantasias might be all we have.

Perhaps it might shift fans’ attitudes, too. Charli XCX has committed to producing an album, How I’m Feeling Now, from scratch during lockdown, to be released on 15 May. She’s working with producers AG Cook and BJ Burton, so it’s not totally a one-woman show, but presumably the results will demonstrate the limitations of creating at speed. You’d hope it might engender some patience and appreciation for craft from fans inclined to demand ever more music from their faves. Maybe these straitened times will also help pop stars – especially women – refuse inessential elements of the job. In the New York Times profile of Lipa releasing her album in lockdown, she remarked on how doing her own styling for the paper’s socially distanced photoshoot showed “a very unfiltered version of yourself” and let her spend longer in bed. (That Lipa is genetically blessed obviously helps.)

Ultimately, pop will emerge from this period in better shape than less lucrative and exposed forms of music – though it’s still going to be forced into new shapes by club culture. Dozens of clubs will close during this period; tour revenues for DJs will be destroyed. But dance music is the living embodiment of how necessity is the mother of invention. Perhaps more so than any other music community, club culture provides a lifeline for its often marginalised participants, and has a progressive social imperative at its heart: it will find new sounds and spaces and spring back, because it has to. (Plus, parties are far easier to organise at the drop of a hat – or the relaxing of a social distancing order – than a fully fledged festival.) You only have to look at the divide between the thrilling, emergent dance singles and lumpen, complacent pop in 1988 and 1989 to realise that the latter’s contemporary catalysts would be foolish not to pay very close attention.

Rap will become more introverted

Ben Beaumont-Thomas, music editor

So much of the grist for mainstream rap lyricshas been ruined by coronavirus. The club? Closed. Rolls-Royce dealership? Furloughed. Sex with women who you aren’t planning to self-isolate with for more than 45 minutes? Now even more morally dubious. So what do you rap about?

Like a bond market, the most shallow rap lyricism needs constant activity to keep it alive – without an engine of expenditure, or antipathy stoked by confected beef, their subject matter collapses. Once we get past a month of lockdown and jittery boredom sets in, we could get a wave of old grievances aired and rappers “sending” for one another on social media. Also, like a bond market, rap lyrics can deal in money itself rather than anything material or social underpinning it, and as we nose into recession, these tracks may well go from being aspirational or enjoyably dumb to grating.

Existing rap tracks have been tainted by the virus – Future’s Mask Off now sounds like it’s about a reckless approach to PPE rather than emotional availability – and the lexicon of the virus itself will, of course, find its way into rhymes. Tracks will be heralded as catchier than it; women’s legs will depressingly be “spread like coronavirus”; someone, somewhere, has hesitantly entered “ho vid?” into their iPhone notes. One of my favourite tweets over the last month was by @EasyStreetKeys, who wrote: “Drake somewhere in the booth singing, ‘I can’t tell if you’re social distancing or distancing yourself from me socially’” – the joke being that the Canadian rapper is permanently given to brooding on toxic relationships, and a global pandemic isn’t likely to change that.

That mooted Drake lyric also shows how the interiority of the coronavirus experience – where we’re stuck inside our own heads as well as houses – could be creatively stimulating and a boon for rap fans. You can imagine how a rapper given to self-examination like Polo G might already be writing affecting and emotional material; the political material for acts such as Dave or Run the Jewels is also in abundance. But rappers previously given to extroversion – because that was what they felt the culture demanded of them – could also find a new side to their artistry. There are rappers addressing the crisis head on, like Psychs’ UK drill track Spreadin or Lady Leshurr’s fitfully amusing Quarantine Speech, but this all feels a bit on the nose. It’ll be the ones who have finally found time to work out who they are that will be most worth listening to.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Alexis Petridis and Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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