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31 Thoughts on 2017, Frank Ocean, Lil Peep, Lorde, and Pop's New Emotionalism

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Last Donut of the Night

Aug 04 2021

17 min read

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  1. In the summer of 2017, my sister-in-law was diagnosed with brain cancer. I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow of what me and my wife's family experienced over the following year, for multiple reasons—but when we first found out that something was wrong, there was a period of 72 hours in which we were waiting to find out what, exactly, was wrong and if the situation was treatable. (Just so you're not on pins and needles about the outcome, which isn't necessarily the point of me bringing up this period of time in my life, it was treatable.)
  2. Those 72 hours were excruciating and, speaking from my own personal experience solely and explicitly, filled with a lot of anxious pain. The morning after my wife and I found out that something was wrong, I was walking to the grocery store and threw on Mew's "Nothingness and No Regrets"—a song I had just recently taken a liking to—because I thought I needed to hear something aesthetically beautiful. The chorus hit and I found myself leaning against a storefront as I started crying. My own perceived vagueness of the song's beauty, I think, provided too blank of an emotional canvas for me to pour paint onto, and it turned out that in the moment I was internally possessing gallons of paint.
  3. I needed to turn to something so familiar that reading into it would be nearly impossible after years of experience—music I could experience a level of emotional remove from—so I headed straight towards the indie rock from my teenage years. Specifically, Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and I Can Feel the Heart Beating As One, Built to Spill's Keep It Like a Secret, and the Magnetic Fields' Charm of the Highway Strip. I listened to these records for months as a salve while everything swirled with uncertainty around us, one line from "When the Open Road Is Closing In" ringing through my head constantly: "Hard times go slowly and the good times never come."
  4. The record that broke this particular spell was Paramore's After Laughter. I can't quite place when I first heard it, but it was shortly after walking home drunk and alone from a Marika Hackman show at Baby's All Right and listening to John Maus and Molly Nilsson's "Hey Moon" on repeat, realizing that I was finally able to listen to something other than Yo La Tengo, Built to Spill, or the Magnetic Fields.
  5. A brief aside: For years before the pandemic began, going to shows was as much a method of alcohol delivery to my body as anything else. At some point, drinking on a weeknight during a concert went from "a novel thing that happens occasionally" to "a reason for me to go see lots of concerts, because, you know, it's my job, haha, right?" This isn't to say I didn't enjoy live music itself; I did, and the last two shows I saw pre-COVID (Tove Lo and Wolf Parade) were excellent without any level of intoxication needed. But I got drunk anyway, because that's what I did at shows, and that was the point, right?
  6. Hopping on guest lists to get drunk and schmooze was a total abuse of my own privilege as someone who's music industry-adjacent and able to get free tickets to shows that most would have to pay top dollar for. It was disrespectful to the artists, and it also made me into the very phony thing that I've always claimed to hate. Developing a new relationship with live music now that I'm in recovery is something I'm both terrified about and looking forward to, but I'm in less of a rush to do so and more interested in just living life at this point.
  7. Anyway, After Laughter broke my brain in how direct it was through communicating emotional language that just happened to make the perfect amount of sense to me at the time. The fact that Paramore had leaned in more towards a pop-rock aesthetic that typically appeals to me played a role, yes, but Hayley Williams was so adept and frank at putting forth how it feels to feel like shit that it became something I reached for constantly. It was probably my favorite record of 2017.
  8. A little more than four years later, so much pop feels like After Laughter—if not in sound (although plenty of it does), then in emotional timbre. I wrote a piece for Vulture in 2018 asking where, exactly, pop was going; as it turns out, the genre was just like all of us, in search of a decent therapist. (Here's where I'd make a joke about affording a decent therapist, but pop stars can afford so much that we simply and so often cannot.)
  9. More than any other point in the last twenty years, the many levels of visible artists that make up pop music in 2021 are awash in the language of trauma, pain, and healing. Album cycles arrive accompanied by emotional roadmaps, press rollouts are personal (and, more often than not, personally controlled) and self-eviscerating. Mainstream tabloid culture has become refocused as a result, with an endless supply of emotional minutae detailing hurdles and triumphs pulled out of everything from longform profiles to Instagram captions. The music industry has always been something of a sick business spiritually, but so many of its artists are now sending a single message to their listeners in a multitude of ways: We are not okay, and you probably aren't either.
  10. This cultural shift didn't take place because of After Laughter. As goes with so many cultural shifts over the history of pop music, Black pop is the point of origin here. Not Drake and, by extension, 808s and Heartbreaks-era Kanye West (more on him in a minute), both of which opened doors for diaristic expression but also essentially treated pain as its own gilded chamber inside the loneliest mansion. (Drake's near-total abandonment of his oversharing tendencies in nearly exclusive favor of regal pop trend-chasing—which took hold circa Views and, save for the occasional project-closing track, has become wholly his thing—is only more proof that he remains aloof and removed from this current movement of emotionalism.)
  11. The point of origin for all of this seems to be Frank Ocean's blonde, a truly radical and often hair-raisingly intimate work that is now considered to be one of the, if not the, best records of the entire decade. Already having established himself as an excellent storyteller in his own songwriting, Frank Ocean turned his view inwards on blonde and, while not possessing the linguistic directness of so much that followed, charted rarely-explored-by-post-9/11-pop-music territory in which pleasure collides with pain and emotions overlap in figurative and literal hallucinatory ways.
  12. Several other totems in pop's new emotionalism released that year—Lorde's striking and purple Melodrama, Tyler, the Creator's nostalgic and deceptively cloudy Flower Boy—seemed part of blonde's conversation even as it was probable that they were already in some finished form when blonde itself was released. A$AP Rocky's Testing is another strangely notable example of blonde's influence, in which an ascendant star and once-canny stylist reached inwards to elevate themselves to a higher level and ended up lost in shallow water instead.
  13. It's funny that blonde came out in 2016, because pop's new emotionalism started becoming the rule rather than the exception the following year. Take a look at what came out in 2017: After Laughter, Flower Boy, Melodrama, Charli XCX's futuristic and sad Pop 2, SZA's ruminative and in-the-moment Ctrl, Vince Staples' glowingly depressed Big Fish Theory, Lil Peep's lushly empty major-label debut Come Over When You're Sober, Pt. 1, Jay-Z's 4:44 (a Grammy-bait work of soul-baring that nonetheless fits perfectly into this narrative), Khalid's American Teen (an anonymous-sounding album that impressively but undeniably gave deep-feelings pop the CVS soundtrack treatment).
  14. XXXTentacion—the late rapper and singer whose influence on pop music looms large despite a violent past of abusing women and generally hateful viewpoints—had a commercial breakthrough with 17 that year. Lil Yachty put out an album literally called Teenage Emotions, while one of the biggest hits of the year—Lil Uzi Vert's "XO Tour Llif3"—hinged on the chorus, "Push me to the edge/ All my friends are dead."
  15. A few pop artists holding over from previous, less explicitly emotional eras of pop, faltered slightly during this time. Taylor Swift's Reputation was, of course, a hit, but initial critical judgment deemed it a work of pure ego and self-obsession. (The album has aged much better, and likely will be more fondly remembered than Swift's recent turn towards rustic folk signifiers.) Katy Perry bombed spectacularly with Witness, an actually-not-terrible album of techno-flecked pop that occasionally reached for profundity and felt limited by the length of its own limbs. (Perry's never recovered, which is why she's in the dust-gathering American Idol universe at this point; we're now awash with evidence that she possesses zero room-reading skills whatsoever, why else would she put out an album called Smile where she wears a goddamn clown nose on the cover during a pandemic?)
  16. Big-ticket indie found itself in some state of crisis as well. New albums from Grizzly Bear and Arcade Fire—both doing what they've done for years essentially—were critically received with shrugs and in some instances outright derision, their respective vague moodiness and big-picture sloganeering rejected by an emerging, younger generation of listeners. While Fleet Foxes released the inscrutable and volatile Crack-Up to much acclaim, former Fox Father John Misty's Pure Comedy proved his most divisive work to date despite (or, perhaps, because of) possessing a baked-in prescience.
  17. Dave Longstreth came back with a new Dirty Projectors all by himself, chronicling heartbreak through a personal lens with music that felt more emotionally removed than ever before. LCD Soundsystem contentiously returned with American Dream, a record where all the party cuts felt forced and the introspective stuff felt almost unrelatably bleak (not a bad thing, just is), the only kind of perspective that could be held by a wealthy white guy with no more nostalgia to burn through and a wine bar to keep tabs on.
  18. When indie rock's interests cross-sectioned with the emerging years of pop's new emotionalism, it was almost always male-situated and from an elder statesman's perspective, hanging on to the constantly disproven aphorism that age is equivalent to accumulated wisdom. The two most notable examples of this occurring from 2014-2017 involve artists who'd worked in shades of indie for decades before receiving a renewed interest in their work.
  19. There was Sun Kil Moon's Benji, a rambling, at-times devastating, and at-other-times misogynistically profane laundry list of songs from alleged rapist and failed rock star Mark Kozelek; there was also A Crow Looked At Me, Phil Elverum's singular document of his wife succumbing to cancer and the emotional fallout that accompanied it. It might seem unfair to pair these releases together for many reasons, but they are indicative of a similar and identifiable micro-phenomenon that took place just before what we can come to understand now as a gradual shift in the changing critical guard.
  20. I want to get back to "indie" in a second, but first let's talk about how pop's new emotionalism has become pop music now, and how talking about mental health and emotions have become part of the regular conversation when approaching popular music in general. (A wild thing to think about, and I'll try to make this the last aside but I can't promise anything, is when I published my profile on Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos back in 2013 and received a few snarky complaints about how he was only receiving attention due to his own mental health issues, rather than the quality of his music which many assumed to be explicitly corporate and having little to do with real emotions. Listen to the lyrics! Not happy stuff.)
  21. Obviously Lil Peep's influence in pop music has overshadowed blonde itself, from the embrace of pop-punk that we've seen many artists take on recently to the pure lyrical misery business of it all. So much hyperpop, a genre born from so many digitally native concerns including Peep's music and Midwestern emo, is dotted with references to suicidal ideation and inward-searching queries about gender, sexuality, and an overall belonging in a world that's increasingly impossible to belong in. "Head hurts, stomach hurts/ Too many thoughts, my head 'bout to burst," dltzk sings on the intense and glitchy "woodside gardens 16 december 2012"; over the trippy emo guitars of ericdoa and brakence's "thingsudo2me," the latter star-in-the-making practically doubles over in pain on his verse as he spits with a mouthful of sour stuff: "I want self love, can't get over that hurdle/ I'm afraid what to say when I finally feel hurt will make me disgusted/ Won't open up 'cause we already discussed it."
  22. Halsey, who's made a career on confessionalism to the point where even her apology for threatening to blow up the Pitchfork office seemed weirdly touching, offered a searing and iridescent document of pain in her most recent album Manic, leavening Peep's sonorous depressiveness with even more passion and rage; on her last tour, country-pop superstar Kacey Musgraves sold merch reflecting her own lyrics about feeling happy and sad at the same time, underscoring that beneath the easy appeal of her music are feelings that are harder to pinpoint.
  23. Olivia Rodrigo is obviously a thing, noted himbo Machine Gun Kelly has pulled off one of the most fascinating career reinventions in years by going full Peep and embracing pop-punk's musical bluntness as its own artless artifice to express himself. Even Post Malone—that gaseous giant of pop, omnipresent like an oil spill—dives into the margins of depression in deep cuts, betraying the oft-bandied-about critical notion that so much music just sounds like streaming (a lazy assertion that's become a generational stand-in for trying to figure out a more interesting way to simply say "This didn't really grab me").
  24. And indie is similarly situated deep within pop's new emotionalism as well, playing catch-up but with some of its star players (Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers specifically) having their own breakthroughs in, you guessed it, 2017. The biggest and brightest example of this is Mitski, a truly singular songwriting and performing talent whose recent work has driven fans and critics (and, let's be real, with no other artist does the line between the two really seem as blurry as it does with her) to the type of Stanning tendencies that can only be defined as purely parasocial.
  25. With critics, this has been downright embarrassing to witness; with fans, it's slightly more understandable and an outgrowth of how fan coalitions define themselves in this age of existence. In both instances, it's clearly terrified the shit out of Mitski, who's off social media indefinitely and probably permanently as a result. I'm sure she'll make another proper album at some point, but as with Bridgers—whose own cult of parasocial fans-and-critics are rivaling Mitski's at this point—it's likely going to be a very long time until we receive one.
  26. I think there are a lot of upsides to pop's new emotionalism, even when the resulting music (I'm thinking James Blake's work over the last few years) turns out to be terrible. There's been a lot of recent cultural focus on the late '90s and most of the 2000s in terms of reckoning with the total misogyny and sexual violence that they encouraged, and having lived through that period of time myself I sometimes think about what it would be like to have been raised during an era in which popular music was more open about feelings, less explicitly masculine, and with a more open perspective towards gender and sexuality in general.
  27. As someone in your thirties or older, it's really easy to roll your eyes at a pop star on IG Live talking about self-care or what have you—a reflexive reaction that reminds me of being told as a kid that kids themselves can't feel stress. But what if you are a kid? Surely having a famous, successful artist you look up to talk about mental health and taking care of yourself might have a positive impact? I'm not sure, although I know that kids today know a lot more about being a better person than I did when I was their age, and I envy them to a degree even as I would never wish to be a kid again.
  28. The only real downside that we can also watch playing out in real time in 2021 is that we now have the potential to fully disappear through the looking glass when it comes to what pop music gives us emotionally—to the point where it's about what we expect. I'm thinking specifically about Lorde here, in the run-up to her new album Solar Power. Both singles that have been released so far have arguably whiffed, purely on a sonic level; lightly ripping "Freedom! '90" or immersing yourself in Chemtrails Over the Country Club-esque aesthetics don't really make for interesting music right now, unless you are George Michael (may he rest in peace) or Lana Del Rey.
  29. I don't like either of Lorde's new songs for that reason, but also because the vibe doesn't quite line up. I'm taking this as a "me" thing, the same way that I found Reputation a tad too garish at the time (although I am in no way saying that Solar Power, an album few if any of us have heard at all right now, is any way like Reputation, just to be clear). But it seems like a bit of an "everyone" thing too, a collective reaction that can only be described as turning one's back on the contemplative contentment the songs reflect. People (really stupid people, mind you) even fight online about whether it's okay to turn one's back for that reason, as if Lorde herself will cut a check for the most correct opinion offered.
  30. Melodrama (a record I really like but never quite took to on a classic level for a variety of reasons) predates The Cult of Mitski in terms of parasocial relationships to art and the artists that made it; just read, like, the wide variety of writing on Melodrama that exists. And I want to note that I'm not using "parasocial" sneeringly here, and that there are many ways to write criticism and that some are really effective at writing it from a personal point of view. But Melodrama perhaps became the moment when most criticism took on the guise of Living For It Versus Not Having It, more often than not using one's own emotional state of being as a rubric of judgment.
  31. So here we are five years later with a new Lorde era, and the verdict so far is Not Having It, which could change when the album drops (hey, "Green Light" had its early haters too). But it also raises new critical questions in the context of pop's new emotionalism: Are we judging the art based on what it is, or are we appraising it according to our own expectations on how it lines up with our own emotional roadmaps? I don't have the answer here, but it'll be both interesting and maddening to watch critics twist in the wind for the next month or so as they continue to try and figure it out.

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