Harry Styles is not the king of pop. It’s pretty obvious that Rolling Stone only did this to fan the flames of controversy and reignite some interest in their failing magazine, but it’s still a very silly #HotTake. Styles may have the biggest song of 2022 with “As it Was” but how many others does he have to back it up? The bland and flavourless “Watermelon Sugar”? He may very well have a successful career in the future but right now he’s just the moppet of the moment, enjoying the same sort of fervour that surrounds his fellow countrymen The 1975. The only advantage he has over them is that he’s got a few recognizable hits around the beginning of his solo career, while the 1975 are well over a decade in and haven’t had one big single to date.
Oh, did you hear? That genre you like is back in style.
Rock, or at least its barest signifiers, has suddenly become a viable aesthetic for modern pop stars. And though I hate to admit it, this is likely due to Machine Gun Kelly’s flip from hip-hop to pop punk two years ago. Slowly the wheels of change have turned and now more acts are going uptempo. Demi Lovato is suddenly now a rocker. Olivia Rodrigo has become some sort of icon. K-pop stars like j-hope have dived deep into 90s alternative tropes. Basically speaking, guitars are everywhere. How long they’ll stick around is anyone’s guess.
TikTok has now become the new centre of the popular music universe, and with that move come some unsettling changes that only underscore how disposable music has become to zoomers. Equating music with art is an antiquated notion. It’s a plaything, a secondary feature to add like a widget to a website.
GAYLE’s “abcdefu” became a massive online presence in the early days of 2022, thanks in part to the fact that it existed in at least 7 different formats:
Sure, make it any genre, any style, it doesn’t matter at all. As long as it finds an audience in at least one of its iterations. Newcomer Ricky Montgomery went even further:
These are not carefully thought out decisions based on the feel of the song. These are LEGO bricks haphazardly reconfigured to maximize reach.
The structure of a song is also beginning to erode. I’ve long long, long decried the move away from the classically enacted intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus-outro, but now it’s getting ridiculous. Lil Yachty’s meme of a song “Poland” is a little over a minute long. It’s more a soundbite than a piece of music. And acts are going to take cues from its success and follow suit.
In the past I’ve been somewhat of a Taylor Swift apologist, but her relentlessly corporate approach to music has moved me firmly into the hater camp. That folksy image she worked so hard to cultivate for her double albums was quickly disposed of as she hopped into her next phase: the broken introvert making bedroom pop. T-Swizzle is now suddenly a real girl with real flaws, slumming in an apartment with the rest of us. Except she’s not. Just like she wasn’t the cottage dwelling hermit in 2020 or the sassy #girlboss from 2014-2019 or perhaps even the aw-shucks country pop starlet she started out as. She’s not just a genre hopper, she’s a persona hopper. This wouldn’t be a problem of course, if she didn’t pride herself on her authenticity.
There’s also the matter of Jack Antonoff, who despite releasing some fantastic music under his Bleaches moniker is one of the most unlikeable artists in modern music. He’s a snivelling simp, regularly embarrassing himself with his white knight antics. I don’t think I’ve ever liked the music of someone who I dislike so much. Any time anyone even thinks to gently criticize Taylor Swift, Antonoff leaps into the conversation like an angry worker wasp protecting the queen, buzzing angrily and waving his stinger around with furious impotence.
This year Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn – who has many times over earned the right to voice his thoughts on the music industry – dared to say that Swift doesn’t write her own music. Which is partially true of course – when left to her own devices Swift writes incredibly banal, monotonous melodies that often only come to life thanks to collaborators and co-writers. Co-writers such as Jack Antonoff, who painted himself into a corner during one of his protective conniptions. As far back as 2014 he’s been given writing credits on Swift’s work – a fact he conveniently forgot during his Twitter tirade at Albarn.
The truth is that Swift is not a good songwriter. She’s a shrewd businesswoman who has played the game well enough to remain the biggest pop star in the world over 15 years into her career, but she got there with a little help from her friends.
After years of pompous zoomer posturing, Jack Harlow actually scored a hit with “First Class”.
Elton John tried to repeat last year’s successful pairing with Dua Lipa, this time around re-interpreting “Tiny Dancer” with Britney Spears. Britney however is in no mental state to perform any more, and (literally?) phones her part in, warbling a few lines from Mars or wherever her brain is nowadays.
Re-interpretation – also known as pilfering hooks from the past because the industry refuses to invest in songwriting – is an every growing commodity however, so even though Elton and Britney flopped the same can’t be said for David Guetta and Bebe Rexha. The two teamed up to recycle 2000s one hit wonder “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” with some strangely millennial lyrics. Having fun at a club? That’s so 2011.
Millennials got another gift from Guetta as he paired up with 2000s cheeseball act Black Eyed Peas and Latin pop star Shakira in the form of “Don’t You Worry”. Everything about this song is a throwback, from the dance-pop aesthetic to the relentlessly optimistic lyrics. What’s fascinating about this fact is that pop stars by their very nature are constantly in the game of staying relevant. Releasing a brand new track that sounds like it was recorded in 2009 is the opposite of that. This brings us to the conclusion that “Don’t You Worry” was not intended for zoomers. This was a straight up love letter to the iPod generation – a strangely sincere move from will.i.am and the rest of the Peas.
Drake and Beyonce both tried to jump on the house revival bandwagon and hilariously missed the mark, resulting in two completely forgettable albums. Another misfire was Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand” from the Top Gun: Maverick soundtrack. Despite its Fourth of July bombast, the epic ballad flopped hard and was overshadowed by another song from the soundtrack, a breezy pop tune from OneRepublic called “I Ain’t Worried”.
Of course, the biggest song in 2022 was not released in 2022. In fact it wasn’t even released in the past decade. It was 1985’s “Running Up That Hill” from Kate Bush that dominated the music world this year thanks to its appearance in a pivotal scene from Netflix’s Stranger Things.