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The energetic, dynamic, and reminiscent sound of pop music in 2020


As pop legend Britney Jean Spears once prophetically sang, “Keep on dancing ‘til the world ends.” Even in the midst of a global pandemic and mass protests against racial injustice, artists continue to provide entertainment. Contrasted with how depressing the world feels, popular music today allows for an upbeat distraction from the ills of society. 
Shashi Arnold
So far in 2020, there have been evident trends across music releases, like the 80s influence pervading today’s top charts. On March 20, Abel Tesfaye—also known as The Weeknd—dropped his latest album, After Hours, named after Martin Scorcese’s iconic 1985 film. Since then, his album has soared to the top of the Billboard charts for four consecutive weeks.

Tesfaye’s record has a nostalgic, evocative sound throughout. For example, on “Blinding Lights,” The Weeknd shifts away from his usual mellowed-out and somber sound, instead incorporating dazzling synthesizers and fast-paced bass, reminiscent of A-ha’s classic “Take On Me.”

The synth-pop anthem, the ninth track on an album of fourteen songs, has taken the nation by storm, topping the Billboard Charts and staying on it for twenty-six straight weeks.

The Weeknd is not the only artist whose latest music hearkens back to trends from three decades ago. Lady Gaga’s long-awaited comeback made waves across social media when she dropped “Stupid Love,” a powerful and booming dance-pop track. Gaga makes a complete turnaround with her 80s-style electronic production in contrast to her previous stripped-down and acoustic projects, like 2016 album Joanne and the soundtrack from 2018 film “A Star is Born,” which Gaga starred in and sang in.

Gaga has always had a distinct 80s influence in her songs, ranging from techno breakdowns in “Judas,” hard rock in “Heavy Metal Lover,” to guitar solos in “You and I,” all songs released in 2011. But Chromatica, Gaga’s most recent album, brings that sound back in an overwhelmingly retro style. Tracks like “Stupid Love,” “Rain On Me,” and “Babylon” all integrate rapid-tempo beats and euphoric synths that leave listeners entranced and jamming at home as if they are at a late 80s nightclub. With listeners unable to dance in nightclubs, Gaga’s music feeds those hungry for a social atmosphere.

But who could forget Dua Lipa and her impact this year? Cementing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the pop music industry, with hits like “Don’t Start Now” peaking at number two and “Break My Heart” at number seven, Lipa does not shy away from the ever-popular 80s aesthetic, embracing it in her album, Future Nostalgia. Even the title hints to her nod to the 1980s, as she simultaneously reinvents it with a futuristic twist.

Her single “Physical” references Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 workout anthem of the same name. The retro influence continues as Lipa channels disco in “Don’t Start Now” with its bumping basslines and strings, along with smooth and layered vocals in tracks such as “Hallucinate.”

Popular music is at a turning point right now. With the backdrop of covid-19 and social unrest, listeners have turned to music as a way to escape the world’s increasingly more prominent issues. The groovy, 80s-inspired music of The Weeknd, Lady Gaga, and Dua Lipa continues to make people dance through turbulent and trying times.

This idea of dancing to forget what’s happening in the world is reflected on TikTok, a video-sharing social networking service that has become incredibly popular over quarantine, as millions of users dance to particular songs. “Blinding Lights” and “Don’t Start Now,” in particular, have inspired dance trends for TikTok users to follow.

Simple hand and body movements are defining characteristics of TikTok dances, allowing trends to spread like wildfire. It won’t be long until we see a plethora of artists catering to the TikTok audience, hoping their music will be the next dance trend.

In fact, we see this exact fan-service with artists like Dua Lipa. In the “Break My Heart” music video, she uses the same easy-to-follow hand and body motions present in TikTok dance videos. Doja Cat, another viral artist, even includes the TikTok choreography for hit song “Say So” in her official music video and features the creator who created the dance, a 17-year-old TikToker from Alabama named Haley Sharpe.

The relationship between TikTok and popular music is continuing to grow. TikTok popularizes songs like “Say So” in addition to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” and most notoriously, K CAMP’s “Lottery (Renegade).” Artists are also intentionally appealing to the TikTok audience to boost their music’s influence. For example, Drake’s April single “Toosie Slide” actually made its first appearance on TikTok and had a popular dance challenge three days before it even dropped. In the next few years, it will be interesting to see just how much of an impact TikTok has left on the music industry, and if this symbiotic relationship between the charts and TikTok popularity will intensify.

2020 has been a highly transformative year, not just in politics and current events, but also in music and entertainment. This year, Billboard saw four Black women occupying the top two spots on the chart for the first time ever: Doja Cat and Nicki Minaj with “Say So Remix” and Megan Thee Stallion and Beyonce with “Savage Remix”—both of which are songs popular on TikTok. Although the world may be in a collective state of struggle and chaos, music is continuing not only to evolve, but also to look back to the past while adapting to and incorporating changing conditions technologically and socially.

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