What does it say about our culture, age, and political trajectory that over the years, pop music has gotten increasingly more depressing?
A team of mathematicians at the University of California, Irvine, recently analyzed roughly 500,000 pop songs released between 1985 and 2015 to learn what makes a song successful in the music industry. The paper’s abstract states the researchers sought “to understand the dynamics of success (defined as ‘making it’ into the top charts), correlate success with acoustic features, and explore the predictability of success.”
The researchers uncovered a couple of notable themes. They found “a clear downward trend in ‘happiness’ and ‘brightness’, as well as an upward trend in ‘sadness’.” The songs that were most successful stood out from the emerging, dark homogeneity by being “party-like.” Interestingly, across the board, songs are becoming “less male” and “more female.”
The current musical zeitgeist in the West feels something like the manic nihilism of a college party girl: a regretful and depressive bassline peppered by moments of reckless ecstasy. It’s becoming “Prozac Nation” pop. “Girl, Interrupted” pop. What might have been considered “edgy” female behavior 25 years ago is the new norm. You can see it in Lana Del Rey, Lorde, Halsey, and even Taylor Swift these days, but two artists dominating the charts right now particularly embody the trends that the UC Irvine researchers discovered. These are Ariana Grande, reigning queen of pop, and Billie Eilish, pop’s rising princess.
Feeling Is Perfectly Fleeting
Ariana Grande, 25, just released thank u, next, an album that might best be described as Candyland turned sour. In this iteration, Grande maintains some of the sugary aesthetics of her earlier work, but a newer, darker motif has come to the surface.
Grande’s own personal damage is a theme of every song on the album, no matter the vibe. In “bad idea,” Grande sings about cheating on a lover by calling another person over “to numb the pain.” She croons: “I know we shouldn’t, baby, but we will . . . You should know I’m temporary.” In “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” she sings to a man she’s just met to end his relationship, reiterating an awareness about doing the wrong thing: “I know it ain’t right, but I don’t care.” In “bloodline,” she sings to a man that she “just wants to have a good time” with him, but she’s not looking for love.
In “ghostin,” Grande sings to the poor chump who holds her as she cries over another man: “I love you . . . I’m a girl with a whole lot of baggage . . . I wish he were here instead.” In “thank u, next,” Grande sings about her Rolodex of ex-boyfriends and her gratitude for what each of them “taught” her: “love,” “patience,” and “pain.” The moment of sincerity is alleviated by a flippant chorus. It goes, “Thank you, next. I’m so fucking grateful for ex.”
The disposability of men in Grande’s life is striking, as is the vulgarity of a woman who by her natural voice and appearance is the image of innocence. This is a girl in a lot of pain, and one who makes tacit connections between that pain and the morally degraded personal behavior she elevates.
Negative emotionality and immorality go hand in hand. Though Grande seeks some form of personal redemption or relief from her feelings, she also can’t let go of her broken moral compass. Her suffering, and her desire for that suffering to mean something greater, is palpable, even in the more playfully nihilistic moments.
Quite a Combo: Postsexual and Nihilistic
At just 17, Billie Eilish’s recently released album “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard. Hers is more of a vanguard genre, but by a standard of popularity, she’s pop. Eilish’s aesthetic is stripped of the typical pop frills. It incorporates elements of R&B, rock, Japanese anime, and Tim Burton’s imagination. Eilish dispenses entirely with saccharine girlishness and instead embraces visual motifs similar to those of “Blade Runner 2049” and “The Exorcist.”
Whereas Grande’s aesthetic is hypersexual, Eilish is nearly postsexual, bordering on transhuman. Grande might try to turn clichés on their head, but Eilish lives in total rebellion of the clichés. Grande sings that “God is a woman.” Eilish sings that “all the good girls go to hell.” Eilish’s embrace of satanic nihilism is more complete than Grande’s—or at the very least, less covert.
These trends in the music industry reflect how each generation is reacting to the broken world left for them by the Baby Boomers. Generation X and the Millennials reacted by screaming about it, medicating, and ultimately embracing the degeneracy as they partied through it.
Gen Z—or whatever they end up being called—is different. In “xanny,” Eilish wonders “What is it about [people who party]? They just keep doing nothing, too intoxicated to be scared . . . They’re nothing but unstable.” In “bury a friend,” “bellyache,” and a few other tracks, she sings from the perspective of a monster and a murderer. She creates new realities in her music; every song is its own world. Gen Z’s escapism is in the hyperreal. They are trading in the heartbreak of living in our broken reality for creating a new one. Perhaps it comes more naturally to a generation raised by YouTube. Ariana is transgressive, but Billie deals in the absurd.
Still, they have plenty in common. They have naturally delicate, feminine facial features. In interviews, they dip into a style of speaking that borders on vocal blackface. They have a young audience. They’ve been open about their own precarious mental health issues. Neither capitalizes song titles. Both claim to value “authenticity” more than anything. And for each, the devil-may-care attitude that carries the more popular songs only goes so far to distract from the deep sadness and emotional insecurity that comes out in the rest.
Signs of the Times
Our world destroys innocence and commodifies the loss. Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish are a sign of the times. They each represent, however differently, a culture that has given up on itself—a sex-saturated, intimacy-starved society that failed its young by refusing to transmit Truth while stubbornly insisting on foundational lies.
Women are hardest hit by these lies, which include but are not limited to the notion that happiness and virtue are atomizable issues, that men and women are infinitely interchangeable, that promiscuity is fun, that Xanax makes you feel better, that being a “good girl” is a bad thing.
The history of women in pop music is a history of stages of grief. In 2019, at what stage do women find themselves in the grieving of the loss of their virtue? How are they handling the death of the feminine ideal, sacrificed on the altar of equality by the feminists? Is it denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance?
A decade after the dawn of sexual liberation, Helen Reddy was certainly in denial as she sang about female invincibility with that infamous musical agitprop, “I am woman, hear me roar.” A few years later Joan Jett angrily insisted to naysayers “living in the past” that she didn’t give a damn about her bad reputation. The 1990s brought us the ultimate bargain in Britney Spears, equal parts virgin and whore. Reacting against that imagery in the late 2000s, we got Evanescence, poster children for clinical depression.
Yes, trends in pop music suggest that we’ve been moving toward demoralized darkness for decades. But Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish’s music suggests that we also could be in a period of transition. One foot remains firmly planted in depression, but they dip their toes in something new. These women are approaching self-awareness and acceptance.
They are deeply flawed, and they might not understand completely the reasons why things are the way they are, but unlike their pop princess predecessors, they take ownership of their sadness and even their depravity. They aren’t good “role models” by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s a shame that they transmit such dark themes to such young audiences. But at least they know they’re ill.
It is possible that after gazing too long into the abyss, the nihilist becomes aware of herself, looks up to the light, and finds God. One can hope. But these artists might just represent the ultimate, tragically absurd outcome for a civilization that has lost its way. That song has yet to be sung.
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Photo credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Ariana Grande