December 17, 2020
Amid the chaos of the pandemic and with the future so uncertain, the pop music that resonated was glittery, danceable and comfortingly familiar
Pop in 2020: an escape into disco, folklore and nostalgia
Pop music has the ability to be more reactive to current events than ever. Advances in technology mean that the famously swift musical responses of rock’s past – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Ohio, in the US Top 20 within weeks of the Kent State massacre that inspired it; the hastily cobbled-together tributes to Elvis Presley and John Lennon that appeared in the charts in the wake of their deaths – should theoretically look tardy. If an artist is so minded and inspired, they could write, record and release a song that reacts to current events overnight.
In 2020, there was a torrent of reactive tracks released in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests: YG’s FTP, Lil’ Baby’s The Bigger Picture, Stevie Wonder’s Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate, HER’s I Can’t Breathe, the two acclaimed double albums released by the mysterious British collective Sault. Even the Killers reworked their 2019 anti-Trump track Land of the Free to reference Floyd’s death. But if anyone was expecting something similar to happen as a result of Covid-19 – a rash of unexpected new releases ruminating on the strangeness and anxieties of life in a pandemic or sternly admonishing politicians for their mishandling of the crisis – 2020 will have proved a crashing disappointment. They didn’t happen in any quantity, unless you count the well-intentioned but musically ghastly burst of charity singles that proliferated during the spring lockdown, or the equally abysmal anti-lockdown tracks released by Van Morrison and Ian Brown, rock’s own tinfoil-hatted Laurel and Hardy. The music that did appear unexpectedly, from artists keen to put the time on their hands to creative use, largely avoided the subject of the pandemic entirely: Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore, Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now, Paul McCartney’s McCartney III.
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