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WA Ghostwriter

The student news site of Westford Academy

WA Ghostwriter

The student news site of Westford Academy

WA Ghostwriter

Music in Review: The story of this summer’s pop music

Album cover photos from Wikipedia. Designed by Pravar Mukkala.

I’ve always wondered what pop music is. What defines the genre; or in other words, what are the main characteristics and tells of it? What differentiates between pop and, say, rock, or country? What dictates the type of music that becomes popular and what dictates the type of music that is absolutely not ‘in’?

Well, it’s all arbitrary. We all, as high schoolers, probably have strong opinions on music (perhaps including the celebrity drama aspects of it), but I’ve been thinking—what ultimately made the music we listen to? So sure, that question sounds very philosophical, and if we go way back to answer that question, we would reach the need to define music and discern the reasons for which people create it. But instead of discussing those topics in-depth, I think it’s worth it to pull on past examples. And what’s more recent than a few months ago?

The summer of 2023 was, to say the least, an interesting time for music. The year as a whole had been slated with big releases in pop and indie-pop from the get-go: Lana Del Rey, Gracie Abrams, Taylor Swift, and a much-anticipated sophomore album from Olivia Rodrigo. However, the year also began with the continuation of the somewhat earth-shattering successes of SZA, Beyoncé, Harry Styles, and Swift. So, this meant that 2023 would always be a big year for pop. Until summer rolled around, that is.

Now don’t get me wrong: there were a few great records this summer, Maisie Peters and Niall Horan being two. But then things somehow fizzled out, and there was another “foe,” if you will: country.

Now of course country music isn’t really a foe, nor is it a bad genre; on the contrary, country is a great style that is known for evocative storytelling, a signature set of instruments (banjo, harmonica, guitar, we all know it when we hear it), and general popularity in only a few regions of the country (as it is mostly confined to North America). Due to this and a few other factors, including that it never caught on to streaming services, country music never really charted for long on weekly charts like the Billboard 100. However, this trend was completely upended by Tennessee singer Morgan Wallen’s hit “Last Night“, which spent a whopping 16 weeks at no. 1 on the chart.

Really, the song isn’t traditional country, with Pitchfork describing it as an “acoustic Chainsmokers” song that had pop single characteristics. But it seemed for those 16 weeks, and more (as the song hasn’t departed the top 10, and shows no signs of doing so), country-dom had found something like “a new age” with streaming. With millions of streams, it, along with Luke Combs’s cover of “Fast Car” (originally by Tracy Chapman) topped the charts. There wasn’t any song for a while that came close to the two, except for Swift’s 2019 single, “Cruel Summer“, as its popularity surged due to her Eras Tour (but that’s another story).

And during this time, it really seemed that there wouldn’t be a song, or songs, that defined the summer of 2023. And there really isn’t. Despite high-profile releases in the first half of the year, things were silent during the summer, with the list of popular songs not shifting at all. However, there was a huge phenomenon that has to be discussed when talking about this: Barbie.

The pink-covered movie has its own soundtrack (which I admittedly haven’t heard), sending a few songs into the upper vestiges of the popularity contest. Although the movie’s impact on popular culture (Barbenheimer, for example) is its own rabbit hole, it can be easily said that the general phenomenon of Barbie brought back an emphasis on fun, glittery pop culture, almost single-handedly reviving retro, pink, and campy themes. This translated over to music as well, and without Barbie, I don’t think we’d have seen as much of a resistance from pop on the charts this summer, even though it didn’t dominate.

Ultimately, however, music comes and goes in cycles, like this model, which states that pop music goes through three stages in 10 years: a “pure” phase, an “extremes” phase, and a “doldrums” phase. Although things may not be as rigid as that specific theory, we’re currently in that stage where the charts are in a lull. Remember the early ’10s, where all people played were the electropop songs and you could barely understand or hear the lyrics? We’re not there at all. But we’re also not in the place where pop took a turn in the late 2010s, in which it took many influences from R&B and hip hop. We’re sitting in the space after the liminal space of the pandemic, waiting for real pop (whatever that may mean) to make a strong, permanent comeback. What is popular fluctuates and changes based on many factors. But only time can tell, so join me next month for another piece on September’s music and what I think of the coming autumn and winter for music!

What I think you should listen to that was released this summer:

Noah Kahan – Stick Season (We’ll All Be Here Forever)especially the title track and “Homesick”

Taylor Swift – Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)especially “Electric Touch (ft. Fall Out Boy)” for pop-rock energy

Carly Rae Jepsen – The Loveliest Time

Hozier – Unreal Unearth

But what do you think? Please leave any suggestions or music recommendations in the comments below!

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    MartyOct 8, 2023 at 7:53 pm

    Left out was the 44 CD box set from Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
    How many artists can accomplish something like that. And still tours and records.