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Pop Music’s Nostalgia Obsession – The Atlantic

The Grammys have all the time been greater than a bit old style. The ceremony usually consists of thrilling new artists overlaying the songs of yesteryear, interspersed with awards going to established acts over those self same thrilling new artists. However although reforms on the Recording Academy, which fingers out the awards, have led to raised illustration lately, this previous week’s Grammys renewed debate about whether or not they’re nonetheless too caught previously.

Few artists have dominated a 12 months of music the way in which Olivia Rodrigo did 2021. Her music “Drivers License” had such a uncommon crossover pop attraction that Saturday Night time Dwell had a complete sketch about how effectively it had related with unlikely audiences. Many anticipated this previous week’s Grammys to be a coronation for Rodrigo. And whereas she had a number of key wins, among the largest trophies went to extra throwback sounds. Report of the 12 months, Track of the 12 months, and Album of the 12 months went to Silk Sonic and Jon Batiste for soul albums which are magnetic but additionally undeniably retro.

It’s not simply the Grammys although. Fashionable music as a complete is going by means of a nostalgic section.

What explains our love of throwback sounds proper now? Are we comfort-listening by means of arduous instances? Or is the business simply lastly in a position to see (and monetize) a kind of listening we’ve all the time finished?

Spencer Kornhaber, Shirley Li, and Hannah Giorgis assess the state of pop music following the Grammys on an episode of The Atlantic’s tradition podcast, The Evaluation. Take heed to their dialog right here:

The next transcript has been edited for size and readability.

Shirley Li: In case you didn’t see, the sixty fourth Grammys have been this weekend. There have been some shock wins and a few potential snubs, however we wished to test in on music generally this week on the podcast. Spencer, the final time you and I talked about music on this podcast, we have been speaking about how pop music was in its breakup period.

It was all large, cathartic feelings. Adele’s newest album had simply dropped, and it was dominating the charts. Taylor Swift was going by means of her rerecord section. Billie Eilish was Happier Than Ever somewhat than taking part in the “Dangerous Man.” And, after all, Olivia Rodrigo was the story of 2021 with the ballad “Drivers License” and her subsequent single-spawning album Bitter. However the story of the Grammys wasn’t actually about all that catharsis.

There appeared to be a theme to the night that’s run all through latest pop music, and that’s nostalgia. The Grammys have all the time been type of old style, however even the large artists themselves have been in a nostalgic section, and we noticed that over the weekend. Spencer, the place did we see nostalgia on Sunday evening?

Spencer Kornhaber: Proper, lots of people anticipated the Grammys could be the night of Olivia Rodrigo, who is nineteen years outdated and largely unknown—aside from viewers of Disney TV programming—previous to her music blowing up in 2021. Typically folks suppose that music has no future and no new concepts, that we’ve stopped making culture-uniting pop stars.

And Olivia comes alongside and she or he’s like: “What if we had a Disney Channel star who grew up listening to Taylor Swift and emo music, with a very good pop sensibility and who’s actually good at social media? What if that is the following sound in pop music?” And everybody was like: “Sure, let’s do this. That sounds nice.”

Li: (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: And so this 12 months’s Grammys have been anticipated to be a type of victory lap for Rodrigo. They usually have been, kind of. She received Finest New Artist, which is an enormous prize. However she didn’t win Report of the 12 months, Track of the 12 months, or Album of the 12 months. These prizes went to artists who make nice, throwback, wedding-ready soul music.

And I wish to tread frivolously right here as a result of I don’t wish to come for Bruno Mars or Anderson .Paak of Silk Sonic, who’re very proficient musicians and put out a hilarious single with “Depart the Door Open,” which received Report and Track of the 12 months. And I don’t wish to come for Jon Batiste, an incredible jazz pianist and bandleader who—moreover additionally being a terrific man and the music director of The Atlanticreceived Album of the 12 months.

Nevertheless it was just a little stunning that this sort of very acquainted sound, the sound that you would have heard on the Grammys or actually at any level within the final 50 years, was what received out over arguably extra very important and dynamic and progressive artists like Olivia and among the different nominees. And that was just a little deflating for some folks, but additionally: Grammys are going to Grammy. (Laughs.) What did you suppose, Hannah?

Hannah Giorgis: , I assumed for the primary time shortly, it did truly really feel like music’s largest evening. (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: Actually?

Giorgis: Yeah; I imply, nostalgically, sure, within the sense that you just had this large, sweeping efficiency from Olivia Rodrigo, you had a number of issues gesturing towards pop music of now and of the longer term, however the evening additionally tied in music that’s palatable to folks throughout a number of generations.

Li: I agree with you each. It’s actually arduous to evaluate all of music and package deal an awards present that appeals to everybody. You may have somebody like Lil Nas X take the stage doing “Business Child” and you then’ve bought Woman Gaga doing her Forties cosplay. You’re attempting to hit all of the beats, however while you take a look at the Grammys as a complete, there was actually a choice for Silk Sonic. That they had wrapped the earlier 12 months’s present and so they opened this 12 months’s present. But when we zoom out from the Grammys, there’s additionally been a whole lot of nostalgia within the sound that we hear.

It’s attention-grabbing that we are able to speak about Olivia Rodrigo as a brand new, shiny pop star, however she can be borrowing a whole lot of the sounds from her previous. And if we take a look at the opposite pop stars on the scene, they’re equally borrowing from the previous. Dua Lipa, as an example, is in the course of a disco revival. And so I ponder whether the 2 of you agree that nostalgia is shaping the largest hits of our present period.

Kornhaber: It’s a perennial debate in widespread music, nevertheless it’s grow to be just a little extra pronounced this 12 months. There’s been numerous artists on this tremendous specific retro section. For example, The Weeknd got here out in January with this impeccable idea album about, principally, dying in a automotive crash in 1984 and dwelling within the radio station of that second. It’s glorious, and it’s fully pastiche.

And also you’re proper; I used to be simply saying Olivia Rodrigo is so progressive, however should you hearken to her single “Good 4 U,” it’s so near Paramore’s “Distress Enterprise” that they needed to give the band a writing credit score. I used to be simply listening to it, truly, and the final seconds of the music have the very same guitar stabs as Inexperienced Day’s “Mind Stew.” Her music is totally this pastiche of issues we’ve heard earlier than, however alternatively, that’s what pop music all the time is!

What’s perhaps totally different proper now could be that, as a result of streaming, we’re very conscious of how a lot persons are listening to what they’ve all the time listened to. Maybe it seems like there’s a bit much less of an urge for food for the brand new, although. Are you feeling that in your individual life, Hannah?

Giorgis: Undoubtedly. I additionally don’t drive anymore, so on a regular basis that I’d usually spend organically discovering music by advantage of New York DJs is gone. Radio doesn’t occupy as large a spot in folks’s music weight loss plan because it used to. And so, while you hearken to Olivia Rodrigo now, [you’re on streaming where you] can instantly hearken to Paramore after and get caught on their albums. It’s a really totally different approach of discovering music. I additionally suppose we’re looking for out the acquainted throughout a time after we’re all maybe nonetheless actively looking for consolation.

Kornhaber: And streaming has finished one thing much like Hollywood, hasn’t it? There’s an urge for food for comfort-viewing and for rehashes.

Li: Proper. In relation to tv and movie, corporations try to maintain you of their streaming libraries by showcasing their earlier hits. Audiences have a heat towards one thing they’ve seen earlier than. It’s secure watching.

I wish to point out Jon Batiste’s speech from Sunday evening although, when he stated music “attain[es] folks at some extent of their lives after they want it most. When a music or an album is made, it virtually has a radar to search out the particular person after they want it probably the most.” It’s a profound assertion, and it virtually goes towards what we’re saying about streaming pulling us into our outdated habits. What’s on the market finds us after we want it.

Kornhaber: Sure, and this March, Steely Dan discovered me.

Li: (Laughs.) However going off of that, I did wish to ask you particularly about Batiste’s win. What did you make of it? Was it the Grammys Grammy-ing once more, or does it seize a second that we’re feeling?

Kornhaber: Effectively, the album peaked at 86 on the Billboard charts and Rolling Stone solely gave it a one-sentence assessment. It wasn’t this momentous factor within the musical discourse. However Batiste is a fixture. He’s on TV each single evening on the Late Present With Stephen Colbert, which tons of individuals watch. He did the soundtrack for the Pixar film Soul and received an Oscar for it. He’s an excellent business man. He performs devices. He leads a band. There’s a whole lot of causes for why the final physique of the Recording Academy, which is made up of different folks within the music business, would possibly see his title on an inventory of 10 folks and say, “I like that man probably the most,” and vote for him.

There’s additionally a structural issue. This 12 months, the Academy expanded the nomination pool to 10 nominees, which is lots of people. And what it means is that you’ve somebody like Olivia Rodrigo, who maybe looks like the consensus decide, however is competing towards Billie Eilish and different Grammys favourite Taylor Swift. And the three of them are going to separate a whole lot of votes as a result of they attraction to comparable sensibilities. And while you go down the record, you see a few totally different acts that will cancel one another out.

Somebody would possibly vote for Doja Cat, or perhaps they’ll vote for Lil Nas X, however you’re not going to get the plurality as a result of they’re each competing towards one another. And so vote-splitting could assist clarify a few of Jon Batiste’s win, too, and there’s no scandal in that. However you find yourself with this barely older-style, not likely in-the-conversation album successful, which is one thing that’s occurred time and again in Grammys historical past. Nevertheless it’s not his fault.

Li: That’s so attention-grabbing. So to win a Grammy in the present day, a supernova like Olivia Rodrigo may not have the benefit you’d count on subsequent to, say, extra of a north star like Jon Batiste. And that’s not a knock towards him.

Giorgis: Spencer, you known as him “one of the vital seen working musicians in America.” And it’s not simply that he’s on late evening and that he did the music for Soul: I’m curious if the Academy sees one thing notably beneficial in awarding somebody who’s so publicly working and placing the hours into the craft in a approach that we don’t essentially see as vividly or as clearly with somebody like Olivia Rodrigo or Billie Eilish.

Kornhaber: Yeah, it’s an old-school thought of musicianship. He actually presses the keys on a piano and creates sounds that transfer by means of the air. And that’s totally different from Olivia and her producer laying down tracks in a studio. And it speaks to the way it takes time for folks to regulate their rubric for the work going into a whole lot of pop music, but additionally different genres equivalent to hip-hop, which has all the time struggled on the Grammys. Folks usually don’t perceive that the musicians in these genres might be working simply as a lot as Jon Batiste, who they see on TV each evening sweating it out.

Li: Yeah, it’s a bit like how we honor performing, the place these large, histrionic performances are typically those that get Oscars as a result of that’s what we predict is capital-A Performing. It may be arduous to elucidate the subtleties that go into an actor’s work. However should you’re seeing somebody actively plinking on a piano, that’s a show of musicianship that’s totally different than simply stepping as much as a mic. I believe that’s most likely why Justin Bieber, after his efficiency on the Grammys, was crying.

Giorgis: (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: Effectively, he cries rather a lot. Over you. , you’ll be able to’t see it. You don’t know what. He’s tremendous.

Li: (Laughs.) I used to be simply questioning if perhaps he was like: I lastly confirmed them!

Kornhaber: (Laughs.) I imply, that efficiency is hilarious. It’s the music “Peaches,” which is a intercourse metaphor about consuming peaches. It’s additionally about smoking weed and getting the new woman. It’s this laid-back R&B-inflected music, however he did it on the piano so slowly, it was like he was singing a Celine Dion music. However that is the Grammys. That’s pop musicians attempting to create this aura of respectability in order that they are often seen as conventional working musicians along with these superstar supernovas.

Giorgis: And it’s notably unbelievable as a result of Justin Bieber has had a following for what seems like eternally now, however that’s a TikTok music! That’s a music that discovered the vast majority of its footing with folks consuming it on TikTok. And that’s not essentially a knock towards it. There’s loads of music that involves me from TikTok. However there’s a specific dissonance to seeing him sit down with that degree of drama to carry out this little TikTok jingle.

Li: Particularly when TikTok capitalizes in your quick consideration span, and right here he’s extending it so long as potential. However going off of that, what do you suppose the popularity of the Grammys is in the present day? Has it modified as a result of the Academy did increase its membership?

It was attempting to interrupt the mildew. And, should you take a look at the outcomes this 12 months, the large 4 winners have been folks of coloration and there have been some breakthrough winners and nominees.

Giorgis: I imply, they managed to really feel much less irrelevant than traditional, which I do know is a reasonably tepid endorsement. It’s true that we didn’t see Olivia Rodrigo win awards folks thought that she was going to win, nevertheless it’s additionally a present that lastly honored Jazmine Sullivan, the place we bought to see BTS do that unbelievable, pleasant efficiency!

Li: Sure! The place they took off their fits and used them as air guitars!

Giorgis: Proper! And I’ve hassle imagining that taking place in 2017 or 2018. Perhaps that’s me having a bias towards these years from this distance, however they did really feel a bit totally different. It felt just a little more energizing. The second when Megan Thee Stallion and Dua Lipa have been on the point of introduce the Finest New Artist award and did that “Oh, you’re in the identical outfit as me” factor. I used to be like: “Oh, that is 1998. That is Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. And in addition we’re doing it in Megan and Dua’s younger, boisterous approach.” However I don’t know that I’d say the Grammys as an establishment is type of barreling towards the longer term. Extra of a gradual crawl.

Kornhaber: The take care of the Grammys is that they’re this notoriously hated establishment as a result of they’ve, time and again, simply fully missed the ball on awarding what was probably the most vital and traditionally memorable album of that 12 months. And this goes approach again. I used to be simply studying Selection asking “Was 1992 the Worst Grammys Ever?” as a result of that was the 12 months that Natalie Cole’s album [of 40-year-old songs written by her father, Nat King Cole] received Album of the 12 months. Nirvana’s Nevermind wasn’t even nominated.

Quick-forward to 2008—which was the final time a Black particular person received Album of the 12 months—and that was Herbie Hancock’s album of Joni Mitchell covers. I’m positive it was musically luminous, nevertheless it appears rather a lot much less vital on reflection than Amy Winehouse’s Again to Black. And that’s occurred time and again. And so there’s that monitor document that it’s all the time going to be combating towards, which you’ll’t actually say that it shook off this 12 months.

However the different factor in regards to the Grammys is that it has. It was run for a very long time by the identical group of dudes. And one dude specifically, Ken Ehrlich, had produced the present since 1980 till two years in the past. All these years of ceremonies with weird mashups of artists, of younger musicians overlaying 50-year-old songs, of Elton John performing with Eminem or J.Lo doing the Motown tribute for some cause—all these bizarre Grammy-specific performances that make you ask: “Why am I seeing this as an alternative of, like, truly the music that outlined this 12 months?” For me, that was largely from Ken Erlich chasing these Grammy moments. However actually, we’re in a totally new period now.

Li: The Grammys have been criticized through the years for being nostalgic, as has pop music generally. On this very publication, our colleague James Parker wrote a chunk in 2011 saying: “Our obsession with musical nostalgia is strangling pop.” And in January, we additionally had a chunk from Ted Gioia that requested: Is outdated music killing new music?

Kornhaber: Yeah, that piece bought a whole lot of consideration on-line. He offered knowledge displaying that, previously two years, listenership for catalog songs, i.e., songs older than 18 months outdated, was outpacing listenership for brand spanking new songs. And that’s a surprising statistic that individuals extrapolated rather a lot from. However one factor it represents is that streaming is permitting us to quantify the issues that we have been listening to already.

And so, for instance, once I hearken to Steely Dan’s Gaucho, that goes on the ledger in a approach that it wouldn’t have gone on 10 years in the past once I was simply listening to it on CD or vinyl or no matter. There’s additionally this very noticeable pattern of reissues, remixes, sampling—very overt interpolation of outdated hits occurring within the charts.

It’s a tricky factor to speak about as a result of the one issues that ever reach pop music are a mix of novelty and familiarity. That’s the case in all kinds of arenas, nevertheless it’s very true in pop music. You’ll be able to solely iterate a bit on what’s been finished earlier than with out going into the realm of being too experimental, too far off the curve or too indie to catch the ears of audiences. I imply, while you get obsessive about a brand new music, it’s not as a result of that music confused you.

So it has to actually be on that fringe of outdated and new. However we’re undoubtedly in a second the place we’re very conscious that now we have these playlists of songs that all of us listened to at summer season camp in 1998 that we’re going to maintain returning to. And that’s being mirrored again to the business and the place they’re attempting to monetize it.

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