With its mass appeal, big budgets, and proclivity for commercial success, pop music has starkly had social consciousness on its radar. But amongst the turbulence and turmoil of contemporary societies, many pop starlights have begun to unshackle themselves from the expectations of the genre and press back against systemic inequalities. Amrit Virdi takes a probe to the evolving pop world.
Pop music has long had the reputation of being a light-hearted genre accessible to all and driven by commercialism. Yet in recent years, many pop releases have revelled in a new-found sense of social and self-awareness. With artists straying away from the control of record labels and seemingly no longer being motivated by top-down corporate profit margins, it is evident that we are entering into a new era of potent pop.
When we think of pop music, our minds automatically recall crooning four-beat melodies on love, lust, partying, and everything in between. From One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful to Justin Bieber’s Baby, these songs are meant to make us feel good – but not too much else. In recent times however, pop artists are veering towards using their wide-reaching platforms to raise awareness of relevant social issues, including corruption and inequality within the music industry.
A prime example of this is Little Mix’s September single Not A Pop Song, which pokes boldly at music tycoon Simon Cowell, the despotic culture of record labels, and their highly commercialised approach to production. The X-Factor winners don’t shy away from the matter at hand in a bawdy chorus that begins: “This ain’t another pop song ‘bout fallin’ in love / Or a party song ‘bout drinks and drugs.”
With the pop genre typically being used for artists to vent about unrequited love, or non-so-subtly flex their astronomic fortunes and party lifestyles, Perrie, Jesy, Jade and Leigh-Anne sharply subvert generic conventions in this catchy, toe-tapping anthem. The song also touches upon the dehumanising tendencies of record labels who have been seen to treat artists as robotic, money-making commodities.
‘Lane Boy’ from genre-bending Ohio band twenty one pilots portrays the battle between artists’ creative freedom and the commercial music machine
The unapologetic foursome call out Simon Cowell directly in a pithy double entendre, exclaiming that they “don’t do what Simon says,” and that the Syco Music contract led to them being controlled like “a puppet on a string.” Yet Little Mix aren’t the first to highlight the draining and infuriating nature of the music industry machine.
Former Disney star Sabrina Carpenter, known for empowering, upbeat anthems such as Sue Me, took a moment to reflect and call-out for help in her rousing 2019 ballad Exhale. In a world where pop’s princesses such as Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato, have been marketed and crafted into perfectly, innocent entities in the public eye, it’s no surprise that they feel trapped and controlled.
In a sombre and emotive pre-chorus, Carpenter dirges “I listen to the labels, listen to the man / Try to keep a sense of knowing who I am” – once again bringing attention to the darker side of a seemingly glamorous industry, as well as the deep-set flaws of fame and fortune.
With the pop genre being distinctly wide-reaching and varied, examples of such social-awareness, resilience and defiance span the likes of pop rock, indie-pop, and alt-pop. The fierce and brutally honest Lane Boy from genre-bending Ohio band twenty one pilots’, for example, portrays the constant battle between artists’ creative freedom and the commercial music machine.
Shawn Mendes and Khalid teamed up on 2018’s Youth to lament on contemporary worldly atrocities
Tyler Joseph raps poignantly, “I’m in constant confrontation with what I want and what is poppin’ / In the industry it seems to me that singles on the radio are currency / My creativity’s only free when I’m playing shows,” before calling out generic radio pop for being “heartless.”
As pop’s most famous artists begin to gain a sense of self-awareness, Joseph’s pleas for meaningful music are seemingly being answered. Shawn Mendes and Khalid teamed up on 2018’s Youth to lament on contemporary worldly atrocities, as well as how young people can make a change. Bea Miller called for female empowerment on the unapologetic banger S.L.U.T., whilst Lizzo and Taylor Swift followed suit with the electrifying Good As Hell and The Man, respectively.
As awareness rises in regards to mental health, many artists have also raised their voices on this topic – namely Logic, Alessia Cara and Khalid on the powerfully moving 2017 track 1-800-273-8255. Titled with the phone number of Samaritans, the song is written from the perspective of someone who is calling the hotline and wants to commit suicide. Provoking and vital, it is a pivotal example of the growing introspectiveness of the genre.
With all of this taken into consideration, it is evident that we are entering a new era of pop. Gone are the days of radio stations crammed solely with vapid love songs and bolshy party anthems; artists are increasingly showing social and self-awareness and tackling real issues, which should be commended as we welcome in the new self-aware pop generation.
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