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You’ve changed your tune! Reviewing the pop soundtrack of 2020

2020 has been a year of drastic change. As social distancing, face masks and breakout rooms have become staples of our everyday lives, we have all had to readjust. If there’s one thing we can take from the pandemic, it’s the knowledge that human beings are remarkably adaptable. It is in our nature to evolve. Sometimes slowly, a millennia-long process of microscopic alterations; but sometimes remarkably fast, instinctively sanitising our hands at every possible occasion. Undoubtedly, these kinds of changes make us stronger. And though 2020 might have drawn our attention to them more than ever before, the music industry has been advocating evolution for decades.

Of course, Harry Styles, Taylor Swift, and The 1975 are not the first artists to embark on a new mid-career era. Figures like Bowie took the concept of evolution to new extremes, pushing for a new look, or even a new character, with each album. Yet even if these 2020 artists aren’t doing anything novel, they have all broken the internet with their creative transformations. Might this be because 2020 has forced us all to embrace change, rather than clinging to a 2007 b-side track from ‘before they were famous’? More likely, it’s the rise of TikTok, but the fact remains regardless that these evolving artists have become icons of this bizarre year.

Indeed, the slow-paced tracks of Taylor Swift’s surprise albums ‘folklore’ (2020) and ‘evermore’ (2020) sum up this year’s atmosphere. The cosy ‘cottagecore’ aesthetic is fondly reminiscent of our botched lockdown crafts, whilst moody guitar anthems like ‘cardigan’ remind one to wrap up warm for that chilly Tier 3 meet-up. However, Swift hasn’t stooped to the level of a purely pandemic-themed album. Whilst songs like ‘illicit affairs’ and ‘champagne problems’ take marriage as a central theme, even more youthful tracks like ‘Betty’ and ‘Dorothea’ are sepia-tinted with nostalgia for a long-gone past. The pastel-pink glow of 2019’s ‘Lover’ is nowhere to be seen, and the rebellion of 2017’s ‘reputation’, which still lingers in ‘folklore’ and ‘evermore’, has been channelled into something more mysterious and subtle. This new era, defined as it is by forests, wool coats and the countryside, shows Swift not only evolving but growing up, too. Its success is rooted in the fact that Swift has embraced adulthood just as her teenage fans of the early 2010s have become adults themselves. Though it seems impossible that she could ever write a bridge more appropriate to belt out post-break-up as 2012’s ‘All Too Well’, this evolution is a thrilling step into unknown territory for Swift.

Similarly crisis-inducing for pop fans across the globe is the new face of gender-blurring fashion, Harry Styles. Though his first solo album (‘Harry Styles’, 2017) felt something of a blind jump from boyband fame to solo career, the leap was made successfully. ‘Fine Line’ (2019) saw Styles newly defined by his androgynous outfits and affiliation with popular haute couture designer Gucci. Though Styles is, of course, not the first pop star to embrace the world of high fashion, his new look seems miles from the boy-next-door One Direction star. Styles’ advocation for experimentation with gender culminated in a 2020 Vogue cover, featuring Styles in a pale blue Gucci dress. The success of this evolution lies not only in perfectly styled hair, but in the artist’s condemnation of ‘gender norms’, a common topic in youth discussion today. Whether Styles will choose to remain in this role or do something entirely different for a new era, remains unanswered. But as proven by Styles’ ironic Instagram caption in response to Candice Owens’ comment ‘bring back manly men’, this evolution is political as well as aesthetic – and it isn’t over yet.

In contrast, indie-pop group The 1975 have taken a different approach to musical evolution. Their 2020 release, ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’, was about as pretentious as a mainstream pop band can get, moving away from that alternative edginess forever associated with 2014. This is done with varying success; this album is too much of a mixed bag to be as easily applauded as previous works. Whilst singles ‘Me and You Together Song’ and ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’ provide excellent coming-of-age stadium anthems, other endless synth tracks sully their genius. This album seems to use evolution as an excuse for creative laziness. However, a few genuinely brilliant lyrics provide hope for the band’s next album, which will allegedly be under their previous name, ‘Drive Like I Do’. Perhaps more of a throwback to the past, but given the last attempt at futuristic, this might be one of the wiser moves of the band’s career. After all, 2020 has been a year of nostalgia, too. Who doesn’t miss the world we knew before?

And so for now, we will carry on wearing masks, sanitising our hands, and working online. After all, we’ve got pretty good at it by now. Personally, however, I’m rather looking forward to leaving this particular era behind – and let’s hope that by this time next year, the globe will have changed its tune for the better.

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