Music trends of the decade: The Spotify effect, Lana Del Rey's summertime sadness, Kanye vs Kendrick and genre fluidity

Prahlad Srihari

Dec 31, 2019 12:24:59 IST

Over 10 years ago at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, then 19-year-old Taylor Swift’s first moment of glory was ruined by Kanye West who jumped on stage and grabbed the microphone from her to protest against her victory over Beyoncé. In the decade since, the same three artists have gone on to become the supernovas that defined this musical era. By transforming pop, R&B and hip-hop and almost every genre in their wake, they have had an undeniable and far-reaching cultural impact. They also made a ton of money in the process.

The record labels, which were subjugated by piracy in the 2000s, now lick their wounds in a post-Spotify era where all of the world's music can be legally streamed for a reasonable fee. With Amazon Music and YouTube Music entering the fray, music lovers are sure spoilt for choice. This streaming revolution has coincided with a musical evolution, where artists have started to blur musical boundaries and blend genres to create more fluid, hard-to-categorise sounds. By refusing to be boxed into traditional labels, they have made our jobs — as music journalists and critics — harder but still ultimately satisfying.

To get a better understanding of the decade in music, just like we did with cinema and TV, we study the trends that painted its musical panorama.

 Music trends of the decade: The Spotify effect, Lana Del Reys summertime sadness, Kanye vs Kendrick and genre fluidity

(From L-R): Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey, Jack Antonoff, Kanye West, Robyn and Kelela

The pop music landscape strangely became the platform for some of the decade's most fascinating innovations. Artists became possessed by a pervasive spirit of the avant-garde as they coupled distinct musical forms and mixed codes from multiple soundscapes to reinvent themselves with each album. Following in the footsteps of David Bowie and Björk were artists like St. Vincent, FKA Twigs, Charli XCX, Grimes and SOPHIE, whose experimentation with different musical styles have broadened pop music's ambition and scope. Thus, the underground experimentation, which was previously limited to indie music, has now entered mainstream musical productions.

Women have been the pioneers at the forefront of this phenomenon. Of course, behind some of these successful female artists is a male producer. You might not be familiar with the name Jack Antonoff but his music has sure been stuck in your head more than once in the past decade. He not only produced Taylor Swift's last three albums (1989, Reputation, Lover) but also three of the best pop records of the decade in Lorde's Melodrama, St. Vincent's Masseduction and Lana Del Rey's Norman Fucking Rockwell. The Bleachers frontman has put his auteurial stamp on all their music with his predilection for powerful chorus melodies, piano ballads and synthesisers. It's like the entire musical spectrum of the '80s have been condensed into many of these songs, but they still sound contemporary and reflect modern anxieties. Vulture's Craig Jenkins thus called it the “Antonoff-isation of pop music”.

Along with Antonoff, producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen has similarly embraced '80s synth-pop in his production of Metric's Art of Doubt, Wolf Alice's Visions of a Life and Paramore's After Laughter. Even Carly Rae Jepsen went from being a subject of memes and parodies (due to her song "Call Me Maybe") to critically acclaimed pop queen, after some synth-pop-aided soul-searching and experimentation in Emotion and Dedicated.

On the other end of the spectrum, Lana Del Rey proved that pop music need not always be awash in sugary synths or be life-affirming. Del Rey set the template for melancholic pop with records drenched in a seductive sadness. Lorde (Pure Heroine, Melodrama) and Billie Eilish (When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?) followed suit with angst-ridden balladry of their own. David Bowie even called the former “the future of music”, while Dave Grohl compared the latter's impact to that of Nirvana in the '90s.

(From L-R) Scandipop veterans Sigrid, Lykke Li and Robyn.

(From L-R) Sigrid, Lykke Li and Robyn

The globalisation of pop music saw the US lose its grip on cultural hegemony as K-pop (like BTS and Exo) and reggaeton acts (like Luis Fonsi and J Balvin) began to rise up the charts. But Scandi-pop artists are still the chief purveyors of experimental, cathartic and dance-able earworms. Veterans like Robyn, Röyksopp and The Knife paved the way for emerging artists like Karin Dreijer (Fever Ray), Tove Lo, Lykke Li, MØ and Sigrid.

Alternative RnB gaining mainstream recognition. Photo (from L-R): Kelela, SZA and Lizzo.

(From L-R): Kelela, SZA and Lizzo

Hip-hop also got more and more experimental this decade, starting with Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010. The album saw a maximalist blending of a variety of instruments (tribal drums, violins, pianos) and styles (soul, progressive rock and more) into its sprawling melodies, as West came face-to-face with his inner demons. Following it up with equally masterful albums in Yeezus and Kids See Ghosts (the collaborative effort with Kid Cudi), he sure made the case for the most influential artist of the decade. Of course, the case may be challenged by the Pulitzer Prize-winning efforts of a certain Kendrick Lamar, who delivered three stunning records (Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, To Pimp a Butterfly, DAMN.) of musical and socio-political urgency. Vince Staples (Summertime '06, Big Fish Theory) and Chance the Rapper (Acid Rap, Coloring Book) also produced consistently compelling work. Similarly, a budding group of new artists led by Frank Ocean, Janelle Monáe, Kelela, SZA, Sampha, Lizzo and FKA Twigs pushed the boundaries of R&B and soul. They mixed messages about the black identity and empowerment with unique musical innovations, forcing us to evaluate their artistry in their own right, rather than boxing them into labels like alternative R&B and neo-soul.

Hip-hop of the decade was led by Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar.

Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar

But in a decade which saw a U2 album show up on everyone iTunes library without anyone asking for it, the question on the mind of many a music aficionado was: Is rock dead? The answer is, of course, subjective but we may have given it a death certificate a little prematurely. Rock is very much alive in the burgeoning indie scene, where it coexists with other musical styles. Its presence is more pronounced in the sounds of The National, Vampire Weekend, Sleater-Kinney, Foo Fighters and Dirty Projectors, and less so but even in St. Vincent, Mitski and Angel Olsen. However, the guitar riffs and endless solos do not have the same prominence they did in decades past.

In an interview with Dallas News, The Who's Pete Townshend rightly elaborated on this: “The guitar may be losing ground, but in part, that's because if you spend an hour on Instagram or YouTube, you will quickly discover unknown people playing the guitar the way a great orchestral violinist like Yehudi Menuhin once might have played his instrument. These are virtuosos of the highest order. They can shred like Eddie Van Halen or play jazz like John McLaughlin. They've literally exhausted the possibilities of the guitar. This kind of virtuosity is already happening with beat box-based rap, and with laptop-supported pop. Everything will change again, maybe faster than it did for guitar music - who knows. It is ‘guitar-based rock ’n’ roll’ that is losing ground, not rock itself. Hip-hop is rock to my ears: music for the neighbourhood, the street, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the young, the ignored. That used to be what I focused on. Now, I try to write real operas, and want my stage work to be like art installations - and why not? Kanye West has been doing the same thing.” Rock/guitar-driven music has simply transformed as the music continues to evolve. But one thing is certain: it can't, and shouldn't, be forced into a rebirth with holograms of legendary artists of decades past.

Read more from our 'Decade in Review' series here.

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Updated Date: Jan 01, 2020 00:09:14 IST