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Pop music started off in a new direction this year—and then turned back around

Lucy Hawthorne

Lucy Hawthorne

It was a moment. A symbolic one, for sure, but sometimes those are the kind that matter the most in pop. On June 8, 2019, the three artists at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart—Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish, and Khalid—were 21 years old or younger. And what’s more, they sounded it.

You couldn’t script a more perfect changing of the guard. If anything, the symbolism was too pat. When Lil Nas X hijacked the mainstream with his trap-country pastiche “Old Town Road,” he blocked not just Taylor Swift but a Justin Bieber-abetted Ed Sheeran from the number-one slot. For a minute, you could almost believe that there was still some room within the grinding mechanisms of capitalism for the kind of surprises that make mass culture still worth following.

Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” another hit that Nas held in abeyance, was even more promising, because if the novelty rapper hardly seemed like a career artist, Eilish appeared to be just getting started. (Bieber, looking like a wizened has-been at 25, even had to hop on a “Bad Guy” remix.) As for Khalid, the eldest and most conventional of the trio, I contend that “Talk” may sound tame against a true innovator like Miguel or Frank Ocean, but its wavy Disclosure production and perceptive lyrics make him the sort of three-dimensional figure male R&B hadn’t heard on the radio in a good while.

And 2019 wasn’t yet ready to settle down. Despite a full-court press for the material on her new album, Cuz I Love You, including the relentless commercial licensing of “Juice,” Lizzo seemed incapable of scoring a bona fide hit. Then, the two-year-old “Truth Hurts” became a smash. And on its heels, the even older “Good As Hell” joined it on the charts. At this rate, maybe something from Lizzobangers might be a hit in 2020. For a moment, then, it seemed like anything could happen.

But nothing much did. As the year closes, “Old Town Road” feels like a hundred years ago. I don’t blame Lil Nas X for the sketchiness of his follow up, “Panini,” but I won’t praise him for its cute little whistled hook and rudimentary rap. And the remaining surprises on the current pop charts aren’t good ones.

It is certainly odd, I suppose, that Maroon 5’s “Memories” sounds like a sad teen’s version of a Vampire Weekend song, but hearing it is like when you see a photo of a celebrity’s less attractive sibling. It is even odder that middling talent/lowlife Chris Brown, back on the radio with “No Guidance,” has hung on somehow—and by “somehow” I mean with an unfortunate Drake feature misguidedly lending considerable clout. In this context, Post Malone, whose stoned appeal continues to elude me, seems like a genuine poet when he spikes the dour “Circles” with a line like “You thought that it was special/But it was just the sex, oh.” Look on the bright side: At least he’s not G-Eazy.

Epitomizing the trend toward normalcy is the continued homogenization of Camila Cabello, whose potential to become one of pop’s great weirdos the music industry seems determined to squander, if not thwart. The former Fifth Harmony member can be a disorientingly extravagant singer—she distended “heroin” into “he-ro-ween” with “nicotine” on her song “Never Be the Same.” But her recent, more conventional singles have stalled, while her moderately sexy duet with beau Shawn Mendes, “Señorita” (which rhymes with “hard to leave you”), has soared, though the most interesting thing about it is the line “hooked on your tongue,” which sounds painful. It’s one of two songs this year that plays up Cabello’s Cuban heritage as exotic (the other is Ed Sheeran’s “South of the Border”—what border is that anyway?), suggesting that whoever’s in charge of these things heard breakthrough solo hit “Havana” as less part of a “Latin pop” takeover than as a traditional novelty hit.

Something similar has happened with Selena Gomez. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I’ve always suspected that she wants to be a more idiosyncratic hitmaker than her catalog suggests. So while the critically beloved “Bad Liar” stiffed, she’s had her first number-one with a big, unnecessary ballad, “Lose You to Love Me.” The world wants ballads, and in late 2019 it got them. Bieber even came back, stowing away on Dan + Shay’s innocuously countryish “10,000 Hours,” where he blends in so well he’s redundant.

But the biggest ballad of all comes from a newbie. You may have heard “Someone You Loved” without knowing its title or recognizing the culprit as a young Scot named Lewis Capaldi. Over a piano arpeggio that sounds as though it’s been rooted out of Adele’s trash, the lad groans like Ed Sheeran’s stuck in his throat and he can’t hack him out. And yet, as heartbroken sentiments go, “I was getting kind of used to being someone you loved” is a decent one, and Capaldi has proven himself a gabby, frustratingly hard-to-hate personality.

There’s something blinkered, I know, in scrutinizing the pop charts for some hope that the IP monopolists don’t have a total lock on mass culture, as futile as expecting Democrats to become socialists. But like Lewis says, when you kind of get used to something, it’s hard to change.